Voice, Quickly and Brilliantly

I get a lot of emails and questions about voice. What is it? How do you recognize it? How do you find yours? Is “voice” the same thing as wit or sarcasm?

For most writers who are starting out in their careers and learning about the writing craft, my advice is not to worry about voice. It’s a very higher order skill and usually comes after the writer has already laid a craft and mechanics foundation. Get the basics down, then start developing the more advanced stuff.

But I don’t want to leave readers hanging. I’ve thought about it a lot and distilled my thoughts on voice to one rather clunky sentence.

Voice, quickly: The words you say and how you say them, which gives the reader insight into your character, too.

If that’s not enough for you, San Francisco agent Nathan Bransford (He has a blog, too…maybe you’ve heard of him? Ha! I kid! Everybody’s heard of him!) has recently written a fantastic study of what components make up a voice. For those who are still confused about voice, this might not snap you out of your confusion, but it will give you interesting things to think about.

So here, from Nathan Bransford, is voice, brilliantly.

I know it’s frustrating to keep hearing, “You’ll know it when you read it” or, “One day, you’ll just wake up and know,” but that’s really, really true. Keep hacking away at your writing and getting those words on the page and your grasp on voice will keep tightening, I promise.

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  1. shelley’s avatar

    I read nathan’s post. In fact I printed it out. I think I could read everything on voice, and still just have to hope I’m reaching it. Hooray for Sushi!

  2. Candyland’s avatar

    We all want a voice:)

  3. Kate B.’s avatar

    Thanks Mary!

    I’m struggling with this now because I’m switching from a first person narrative, where I’m much more comfortable with voice, to a third person narrative. For some reason voice is so much harder for me in the third person.

    Also, voice seems to be harder for me when I’m trying to be serious. I’m not sure why.

  4. write-brained’s avatar

    I also switched to third this time (like Kate B.) and somehow I found my mojo (or my MC did). So I’m glad I tried it and now I’ve got my fingers crossed! Thanks Mary!

  5. Krista V.’s avatar

    Donald Maass has a great chapter about voice in his latest book, THE FIRE IN FICTION. At first, I wondered how he was going to pull it off, because, as Mary points out, voice is just one of those things that happens, that develops, over time. But the chapter is actually about developing your characters’ voices, which, in my opinion, is even tougher – and, happily, something that can be learned more easily.

  6. Cat Woods’s avatar

    I love books with voice, and you’re right: we’ll know it when we read it.

    Writing it, however, is a bit like capturing the wind. When you put it in a jar, it loses all its power. It’s elusive and magical and very powerful.

    Thanks for the post and the links~ cat

  7. Olleymae’s avatar

    I love this! It’s just like in art–you learn the technique and then you start to evolve a style of your own, pretty much unconsciously.

  8. Chersti’s avatar

    I loved Nathan’s post! Voice is such a hard thing to get right, but I think the more you read and see it in other people’s writing, the more you are able to see what voice actually is and then define your own.

    Cat: I loved your analogy that writing is like the wind! That is so beautiful, and very true.

    Krista V: Thanks for the book recommendation. I’m going to have to check that one out!

  9. Merry Monteleone’s avatar

    That was a great post. The thing about learning voice is that you don’t really get what you were doing wrong until you’ve gotten there. Once you have it, you can look back and see it more clearly – but while you’re in it, it’s rough…

    I love Maass’ books and articles on craft, and I think, too, that it’s trickier to get into the character’s voice and stay there without author intrusion for the whole novel…

  10. Suzie F.’s avatar

    Voice is what separates good books from great books imho. Being able to connect with characters, get inside their heads, care about them (or not, even) depends on voice. I loved Nathan’s post on voice and will check out Donald Maass’ book (thanks for the recommendation, Krista V.)

    Sometimes I feel like I get so close to creating a strong voice with my characters and it’s amazing. Other times I struggle to hear them , to write how they would react, what they would say and how would they say it. That’s when the writing sounds forced and doesn’t flow. The more I read books with great voice the more I appreciate the talent and skill of those authors who make it look so easy.

    Hope Sushi is continuing to feel better!

  11. Jamie Harrington’s avatar

    Every time someone says something about voice, I think about Ursula the sea witch from the Little Mermaid.

    “It won’t cost much. Just your voice.”

    Even Ariel didn’t know how important her voice was to the story until she didn’t have it!

  12. Joan’s avatar

    There’s another helpful book on voice called “Finding Your Voice” by Les Edgerton. There are some great examples and exercises in his book.

    Voice is so difficult to understand. The more I read about it, the more I learn to recognize it and hopefully develop my own.

  13. creepyquerygirl’s avatar

    For me, voice is like a comfortable sweater you slip into when you write. You’ve had to knit it from scratch- learn the basics and concentrate on each stitch until you really get going- finishing line after line until the sweater takes form. Finally you sew off the hems and can just slip it on- get warm and comfy and start writing.

  14. Lisa Gibson’s avatar

    Ahh yes, the elusive voice. I can ‘get’ it in novels that I read but have a tougher time when it comes to spotting my own.

  15. Judy’s avatar

    Thanks for the great post. I’ve been a lurker on the blog for a while and thought I would leave a comment and say hi. I really enjoy your posts and your insigh!

  16. Marybk’s avatar

    Loved Nathan’s blog post yesterday.

    PS: LMAO at the bidder comments on your full critique auction. Seriously. Funny.

    If only I had a spare grand…

  17. Natalie Aguirre’s avatar

    Thanks for the post. I’ll have to read Nathan’s too because I struggle with this.

  18. Chantal Kirkland’s avatar

    Voice?! What’s that? Oh, that thing that gets you in the character’s head…right. Now if I only knew how to write a complete sentence, I’d be set!

    Just kidding.

    Great post, by the way. Can’t wait for the big news tomorrow.

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