Musing about “Voice”

One of the courses I attended at the residency last week was on the Craft of Fiction. This is pretty much exactly what it sounds like — a lot of directed reading and discussion on the major aspects of writing — stuff like plot, grammar, world building, character development, and something called “voice”.

Voice was actually the thing we talked about first, and as I briefly mentioned in my post last week, I took a fairly divisive stance on the topic. To be fair, it’s what I’d been taught to do: in the first post-grad class I took (long ago), I was dinged repeatedly on my papers, until the instructor wrote a note in the margin that said “Perfect presentation, zero content. Have an opinion!”

So I wrote my next paper on my proof that Lord Byron desperately wanted someone to come along and turn him into a vampire while he was still young and pretty. I got an A.

The Proto Emo-Goth.

Fast forward to the Craft of Fiction class, where I wrote:

Voice may be one of the most examined and least understood aspects of the craft of writing, because at its root it is not a matter of craft at all.

It’s fair to say I was being deliberately provocative, though that doesn’t mean I was doing it to be troll — 90% of the value in anything like that residency comes out of the discussion, not the syllabus. Putting something like that out there was meant to get discussion started, and that’s exactly what it did, with about half of us on one side of the fence, half on the other, and half on the other-other. (Writers are a bit odd when it comes to picking sides. Also math.)

Aside from that, I honestly believe what I said.

… but I don’t know if I’m right, so I figured I’d talk it over some more.

So what’s this “Voice” thing really?

The first problem with talking about Voice in fiction is figuring out or just agreeing what it is you’re actually talking about, because there are at least two common uses for the term.

(Incidentally, the simple fact that you have to spend time just figuring out what you’re talking about when you talk about Voice was the first red flag for me: how can we teach something we can’t even point at with any kind of authority? No one sits around trying to figure out whether something is or is not grammar, for example, but that happens all the time with Voice.)

SO, first off, let’s say voice refers to the way in which a writer “speaks” on paper. By that, I mean their word choice, syntax, sentence structure, and even cadence. (Yes, I know that some of this sounds more like grammar — like I said, voice is a shifty, unreliable term that likes to piggyback on other things — it’s the bluejay of writing.) Now, all of that can be altered by the style/genre of the story you’re writing and any particular tone you adopt to achieve a given affect (the same way you’d sing Empty Tables differently than If I Had $1,000,000), but at the core of any written work there is an essence that remains uniquely that of a particular writer — their voice — and that’s what I’m talking about here. In other words, if you take six books by an author, even if they’re in wildly different settings/genres/whatever, I believe you can ‘solve’ those stories for some lowest common denominator that comprises the author’s unavoidable voice. Maybe that’s not always true — maybe there’s someone out there whose writing is so chameleon-like that there is no commonality from one story to the next — but I’ve never encountered that, and I don’t personally think that’s a bad thing, any more than it’s bad that we can recognize a singer from one song to the next.

Voice also gets used as a shorthand term for the gestalt presentation of a character in the story, since a great deal of that presentation relies on the character’s vocabulary, word choice, or disposition, especially when any of that stuff is different from the author’s defaults. This is one of those bluejay uses of the term, though: it’s really part of character development, and it’s just sloppy to use the term for two different things, so forget this one.

In fact, if you can think of any other uses for the term “voice” that aren’t the way in the writer “speaks” on paper, just forget them for now — they aren’t what I’m talking about.

So now, we have this term — voice — that’s part of writing.

How do we teach it to someone? People ask that a lot.

Well, no: what writers ask is “how do I find my voice?” which sounds a lot like “how do I find myself?” and is just about as easy to teach.

Which doesn’t mean people don’t try. A quick google search digs up all kinds of advice on finding your voice.

  • Pretend that you’re speaking. Or,
  • Write as if you’re just talking to a friend.

Which I personally think is ridiculous. Have you ever tried to actually write exactly the way we talk to each other? It’s unreadable.

  • Really “get into it” and “do” all the voices.

First: direct contradiction to the first two suggestions. Second, if you’re trying to find your voice, don’t do it by copying someone else, even a fictional someone. Third, this is probably really meant to be advice for ‘character voice’.

  • Write honestly.

This contradicts the previous point (again), and is more about what you’re writing than how.

  • Don’t try to write in a certain style, or use “fancy” words and phrases…
  • … unless you really talk that way.

Oh… yeah. That’s… really helpful.

The list goes on, but out of all of it, the only suggestion that seems to ring somewhat true to me is:

  • Keep writing.

That, right there, is good advice. You can certainly teach grammar, or the key checklists of world- or character-building, or tricks of plotting, or the things that make a story a story instead of a pointless anecdote — but voice? Voice you improve by writing, the same way (and for the same reason) as singing: because it makes your voice stronger and clearer.

The problem with “keep writing” is that it sounds like “Just do the work, over and over, and eventually your voice will simply… happen.” Anyone who has gone through puberty and been told their body will eventually “sort itself out” will find this advice depressingly familiar.

But it’s true.

Plot, grammar, world building, character development — they’ve all got distinct do’s and don’ts, or detailed sets of rules — criteria by which an author can be objectively judged to have failed: ways they can be wrong. Those rules can be taught, then adopted, then maybe even screwed with as you gain mastery.

Voice, on the other hand, can be weak. Underused. Obscured by your attempt to imitate someone else.

But I don’t think it can’t be wrong.

Certainly, it can be trained, like a muscle, but taught? I don’t know. I suspect not. It’s not style. It’s not technique. It is not a decision to write in first or third person. It’s more primal than that, like your actual voice, or your face.


Maybe, but I like “accepted.”

5 Replies to “Musing about “Voice””

  1. Agree that the voice of the author is threaded the same through various books. In fact, it is easy to tell when it is another author writing the first author’s place. Usually verbalized by “their writing has changed and I don’t like it.”

    As for that other, unteachable voice, I would add that voice is obtained also by reading. You internalize the writing of voice by reading widely, slowly coming into something that makes your writing yours. At first you imitate, then modify then come in to your own as you write. Authors who do not reach always have a wooden quality that makes them sound forced and unbelievable in their stories.

  2. I think the key thing here is what you touch on at the very end: your written voice is like your spoken voice — something that comes from use. We all know people who have intentionally assumed verbal mannerisms from others, for reasons good and bad. It’s when someone outgrows those that we say they’ve found their voice, whether written or spoken.

    Also, now I’ve discovered that it’s appallingly easy to map the lyrics of “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables” to “If I Had A Million Dollars” (and vice versa). Thanks. Thanks a lot. That goes right alongside all of Emily Dickinson being singable to “The Yellow Rose of Texas” as a literary earworm …

  3. Voice for a writer is like style for a guitarist – you first have to practice until you have the mechanics (craft) down. Then the way you express yourself will carry your personality.

    Another way to think about it – a writer cannot express her own voice until she has sanded away the artificial style forced on her through primary education.

    I don’t know if any of that helps.

  4. It is interesting that you wrote this. I have been thinking a LOT about voice because someone constantly hammered on mine last semester, and by the end of the workshop I felt, well, mute. If my voice was so “wrong” and I was made to feel that it was wrong for my genre, I simply couldn’t speak at all. I couldn’t write.

    At this past residency Bonnie quoted Johnny Cash, “Your weakness is your gift.” Love it or hate it, my writing is mine. I am determined to rediscover my voice and stick with it.

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