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Writing Wednesdays: Have You Found Your Voice?

By 02/02/2011January 30th, 2019Uncategorized, writing, writing practice

writing voiceFor all the writers out there, one of the criticisms that often comes back from an agent or an editor is a lack of voice, or a voice that is not strong enough: “You need to find your voice,” they say.It is just one of those things, quite abstract. Infinitely more difficult to fix than “passivity” or “run-on sentences”, for instance.

So what is a “voice”, exactly, and where/how do you find it?Here are two opening passages from two different novels:

 “It was the middle of a bright, tropical afternoon that made good our escape from the bay. The vessel we sought lay with her main-topsail aback about a league from the land and was the only object that broke the broad expanse of the ocean.”
“Call me Ishamel. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.”
The second one of course, is immediately recognisable. That is how Herman Melville begins Moby Dick. But the first is by Melville too.
It is from his first novel Oomo.When you read the two, the second one is stronger, more interesting, demanding of the reader’s attention. And that is the difference a strong voice can make. It is the way a writer speaks, whether through the narrator, or through the characters. It is a certain authority, not intrusive, but certainly not indiscernible.
From these examples, you could draw a conclusion that the second voice is more mature because the author has matured over time, and through his work. You would be right. A seasoned writer does have a more authoritative voice than a beginner–has also probably mastered the craft, and learnt to give different voices to all the different characters.
But for those beginner writers who would like to have a strong voice from the word go, all is not lost.
Here are a few do’s and don’ts to help you on your way to find your voice:
-read writers with brilliant voices and emulate them to create your own. A little writing exercise in the voice of a write you admire is ok, an entire story or novel is not.
-try to impose style on your writing, so that you artificially generate tension, create a strong voice, but are unable to sustain it throughout your work.
-make the narrator’s voice so individual and distinctive that it overwhelms your story and characters, unless that is the idea behind your work.
-write as much as you possibly can. The more you write, the easier it is to find your voice.
-be honest to who you are, write (as much as possible) what you know, draw from your own experiences in life.
-read writers with brilliant voices and analyse why the voices work.
-read some of your own work, written a month or two ago, so you can be objective. When you read your work, underline the bits that impress you. Read them aloud. These are the parts that give you the best idea what your voice is like at the moment. Now, take a different colored pen and underline the bits you do not like. Read these parts aloud and figure out why they seem worse than the parts you liked. Is it abstraction? Is it too much “tell” and very little “show”? Is it because the characters are not well fleshed out by your writing? Take these faults one by one and address them.
By doing the underlining and reading exercise, you would be mechanically feeding your unconscious, training it to be the most honest part of you, to be sensitive to your own natural voice.
Always remember that a voice is the expression of who you are as a person and an artist. The more you write, the stronger it will be. And in the meanwhile, you can always help it along using the tips given here.
Published authors, do weigh in with further tips in the comments. And to everyone on the quest, lots of good luck with finding your voice! Here’s a post by Emily R King on how to hone your voice.
Damyanti Biswas

Damyanti Biswas is the author of You Beneath Your Skin and numerous short stories that have been published in magazines and anthologies in the US, the UK, and Asia. She has been shortlisted for Best Small Fictions and Bath Novel Awards and is co-editor of the Forge Literary Magazine. Her literary crime thriller series, the Blue Mumbai, is represented by Lucienne Diver from The Knight Agency. Both The Blue Bar and The Blue Monsoon were published in 2023.

I appreciate comments, and I always visit back. If you're having trouble commenting, let me know via the contact form, or tweet me up @damyantig !

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  • Indira says:

    Editing your own work is a good idea. Beautiful article.

  • shoreacres says:

    A tiny story, related to the comment that a "voice is the expression of who you are as a person and an artist".

    I was standing at a Starbuck's one Saturday night a few months ago and began talking to another customer. He looked at me and asked, "Are you a poet?" Now, that's a left-field question for sure, and it shocked me. I said, "Well, I do write some poetry, but not much. I like the essay form better." "Humph," he said. "You sound like a poet."

    Now, what was it he heard? I haven't a clue – we were talking about bluegrass music. But something in the two years of writing I'd done at that point had influenced me, and my "voice" as a person. I'm sure of it.

    It's a way to judge what's happening with our writing, I think. We may try to develop a voice in our writing, but all the while our writing is developing our voice in our person. It's a reciprocal relationship that's worth nurturing in both directions.

  • Madeleine says:

    Yes Voice is quite hard to define. I think it also changes depending on the style of the narrative. I immediately recognised the Moby Dick passage and I was going to say that the reason why it stood out more than the first one was because it was written in the 1st person, which is always more immediate, but then I see that the first passage was also written in 1st person, so i am also left wondering whether it has also to do with the first line hook which draws you in more effectively in the second passage than the first. Very thought provoking post. :O)

  • Interesting conversation. I tend to think that voice is like personality. Some people have strong ones, and some have subtle ones, and some have none to speak of. If you try to put one on, it's going to seem fake.

    I worry more about mechanics when I write, and on telling the best story I can. When I read other writers, I see how far they've gone with their voices, and when they go very far, I use that as permission to expand my own voice.

  • Great advice on a writer's voice.

  • Arlee Bird says:

    Some excellent tips here. Nothing like being one's own unique self and being good at it.

    Tossing It Out and the Blogging From A to Z April Challenge 2011

  • "Voice" is something that escaped me for years of writing, until one day I really allowed myself to write what I loved and the voice came naturally. Reading, reading, reading is definitely a big help. And even better? Reading out loud. There is no better way to here what is effective, engaging writing and what is not.

    Great post.