by Susan J. Letham
Novice writers tend to feel awed by the concept of “voice.” Once you understand what writers mean by voice, it becomes easier to grasp.
You wouldn’t mistake Goldie Hawn’s voice for Liz Taylor’s, even if you couldn’t see their faces, would you? And if I were to give you a text to read, you wouldn’t confuse a ghetto gangster with that a Washington lawyer. Not only do they sound different, they also use different kinds of language: words, tone, sentences, forms of address.
Here are three voice examples:
Example 1: I love the heady cruelty of spring. The cloud shows in the first weeks of the season are wonderfully adolescent: “I’m happy!” “I’m mad, I’m brooding.” “I’m happy–now I’m going to cry …” The skies and the weather toy with us, refusing to let us settle back down into the steady sleepy days and nights of winter.
Example 2: I believe I have some idea of how the refugee feels, or the immigrant. Once, I was thus, or nearly so. … And all the while I carried around inside me an elsewhere, a place of which I could not speak because no one would know what I was talking about. I was a displaced person, of a kind, in the jargon of the day. And displaced persons are displaced not just in space but in time; they have been cut off from their own pasts. … If you cannot revisit your own origins–reach out and touch them from time to time–you are forever in some crucial sense untethered.
Example 3: Privacy in the workplace is one of the more troubling personal and professional issues of our time. But privacy cannot be adequately addressed without considering a basic foundation of ethics. We cannot reach a meaningful normative conclusion about workplace privacy rights and obligations without a fundamental and common understanding of the ethical basis of justice and a thorough understanding of individual and organizational concerns and motivations.
Different backgrounds and distinguishable voices
Do you think the examples were written by the same person? Of course not. Anne Lamotte (example 1) is a contemporary US Writer and diarist. Penelope Lively (example 2,) a British author who spent her childhood in Cairo in the 1940s. Laura Hartman (example 3) is an academic who writes about ethics and technology. They are people with different backgrounds and distinguishable voices.
Voice is the way your words “sound” on the page
In writing, voice is the way your writing ‘sounds’ on the page. It has to do with the way you write, the tone you take–friendly, formal, chatty, distant–the words you choose–everyday words or high-brow language–the pattern of your sentences, and the way these things fit in–or not–with the personality of the narrator character and the style of your story.
The voice I’m using to write this is friendly, familiar, and direct, at least I hope it is. I’m writing more or less the way I would speak if we were chatting face-to-face. When I write poetry, fiction, or social policy articles, my voice is quite different. I don’t talk straight to my reader as I’m doing to you, I move back a step, become more distant, choose other words and different sentence structures.
You might be surprised to know how many beginning writers write out of character, that is, they choose the wrong voice and tone for the purpose they have in mind. Your New England preppie won’t chew on her words like someone with a Texas drawl or talk sexy, like a Detroit hooker. A Hickville street sweeper is unlikely to speak like a Harvard graduate, at least not unless he really is a Harvard graduate… but that would be story, not voice.
Voice is a reflection of experience
Voice is a reflection of how your character experiences the world of your story. Invest time in developing your figures and getting to know their background. When you’ve done that, tell your story out loud, as if the characters in your story were speaking. Let your characters tell you the story, listen carefully to how they do it, then start writing your story down. If you can ‘hear’ your characters, it’s likely that you’ll get the voice of your story right.
How to develop your voice
Write as much as possible. Keep a journal. Imagine you are writing your journal for a friend, perhaps in letter style. Write about your day, the things you see and experience, the thoughts that go through your head. Watch the news or read a newspaper and write your thoughts on current events. Writing about your views is good voice practice, because it forces you to think of new things to say and new ways to say them.
We don’t stop to think too much as we write letters, we don’t weight up every word–we tell the story. That’s exactly what you need to do when you write your drafts. When you start to worry about the way you’re going to sound, you quickly lose your voice.
Ask friends to describe your style
Once you have a stock of personal writing, ask a friend to read it and tell you how you come across on the page.
- Is your personal writing literary? funny? romantic? poetic? factual? upbeat? depressing? straightforward? flowery? How do you sound?
- Do you write your mind? Express opinions? Or are your words over-polite and politically correct? Writers get to call intimate interpersonal relations ‘sex’ and digging implements ‘spades.’
- Is it stilted? Does it flow? Do you sound like YOU?
- Does your writing have a rhythm?
- Do all your sentences sound the same? Are they varied?
- Do you have ‘favorite’ words and phrases that you repeat often? If so, which ones? Can you find alternatives?
We have to go deep inside to find our real voices, the ones that hide beneath the social veneer, and that means finding out who we are and what we think about the world. It’s important that you get to know your natural voice so you can stay in style, and so you can adapt to fit your characters in the right way.
A long, long letter to your reader
When you move from your journal into your story, think of your manuscript as a long, long letter to your reader, and remember that we rarely have problems writing letters and journals.
It takes time and a lot of writing to develop a voice, and impatient writers love to skip that part of the process. But writing before you’re ready won’t cut it in most cases. You run the danger of having no real voice to speak of (or with.) The tips in this article will set you on the right path to finding your voice and, through that, authentic voices for your characters and stories.
© 2002 Susan J. Letham