Developing Voice in Writing

Successful developing voice in writing is the goal of every writer. (What is voice in writing, you ask? I answer in the linked post.) However, voice is often the last thing to come to the surface when you’ve spent many, many hours on the page. (If you want to learn how to create a story, all you need to do is write a million bad words. Easy, right?) There are two essential tenets to writing great voice, and I bullet point them here for you.

developing voice in writing
The key is to have fun. Have fun reading great writing, and have fun reading your own writing aloud. Are you having as much fun as this lady?

Developing Voice in Writing Via Reading

In my previous post about expanding your writing vocabulary, I urged all aspiring writers to read more. Read more of their favorite authors, read more writers across all categories, to read more. Reading for writers is an essential part of developing our craft.

I’m harping on this again. Maybe because I’m, ahem ahem, a bit of a nag (just ask my husband). Maybe because I’m making it my personal mission to read more myself this year. (When you read for a living, it’s hard to make room to read in your off hours.) Maybe because there is just so much damn good writing in the world, and reading is great for developing voice in writing.

I firmly and roundly reject the idea that writers will pollute their own voices and novels by reading the work of others. Um, no. Not at all. Everyone has to learn their craft somehow, and shelves are swimming with amazing examples of voice and writing.

Would you go a surgeon who didn’t want to pollute her creative genius by watching other surgeons at work? Didn’t think so. Luckily, in creative writing, we don’t have to spend all that time in medical school. So we’ve saved ourselves many years and many thousands of dollars. What should we do with all that bounty? Read. It’s cheap and easy and pleasurable. Reading for writers is our medical school to find your writing voice.

Speaking of successfully developing voice in writing, I’m reading Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala right now.  (Thanks for the recommendation, Ali!) It’s about a woman who lost her entire family in the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. This is a woman shattered, shattered by grief. It shows in the voice. The voice is unflinching. It’s quite a difficult read, but a haunting one. With my recent steeping in grief, I recognize the fractured bursts of thought and insight. The experience is that of a brain twisting and turning and trying to find purchase on anything. It’s an amazing read.

If I was trying to write a novel in fractured sentenced, with choppy pacing, I would definitely want to know Sonali’s work. Even if I was writing something peaceful and rhythmic, I’d check it out, to see how the other half lives. The point is, you cannot know what other writing is like without experiencing it truly.

To neglect the work of your (ideally) future peers, is to shut the door on the best opportunity to better yourself and your craft. I listen to writers tell me that they don’t read all the time, and it blows my mind, every time. I will never agree with this idea. If that’s what you’ve been doing, I urge you to reconsider.

Developing Voice in Writing Via Reading Aloud

The second piece of advice is also very simple, and it involves only you, your voicebox, and your manuscript. This is a different kind of reading for writers. Hopefully you have understanding partners (or pets) at home, and hard-of-hearing colleagues at work. I’m asking you to demonstrate your great writing voice by reading your work aloud.

I tell this to everyone. At a writers conference. In editorial notes. On the street. Read your writing aloud. Don’t just think about it, actually do it. Maybe one out of ten people actually try this. Even fewer make it a habit whenever they write something new.

I always read my writing aloud. I print off a draft and pace around my house and read the longest story ever to my dogs. When I was writing my book, I went hoarse after a few days of reading. So what? This helps me find areas where voice isn’t flowing smoothly, identify points I’m not making correctly, and generally see if what I’ve written pleases me and makes sense.

It is a miracle for developing voice in writing. I’m serious.

Read your writing aloud. Better yet, especially if you have poetry or a short piece (helloooooo children’s picture book people), have someone read it aloud to you. I guarantee that, at least once, you will be shocked. It gives a whole new life to something you think you know well.

How many of my readers will do this? Not many. How many will do it more than once? Even fewer. But before we had the written word, we had spoken story. Everything we’ve put down on paper now used to be passed verbally around the campfire.

When we write on a page or a screen, we are entirely in our heads. Reading aloud puts some of our creative energy in our bodies. You will be very surprised at what you can discover that way. Try it. Seriously. Go.

Still struggling with developing voice in writing? Let me help as your developmental editor. An experienced set of eyes on your work will put rocket boosters on your progress.

18 Replies to “Developing Voice in Writing”

  1. Melissa Koosmann says:

    Okay. I’ll read my work aloud to myself today. I do it sometimes but probably not enough. Thanks for the nudge.

  2. I will and do always read my work out loud ( 5 YA novels and one more in the works) and find it very helpful. I’m looking for a really special fantasy-type voice for a future book and have to read a lot to get ideas.
    One of my favorite voices is Henry Standing Bear in the Longmire Series. He has a distinctive voice by never using contractions.

  3. Pam Johnson says:

    My dad wrote and published (through Amazon) a book. I did some proofing and editing for him. I could tell that he didn’t read much. I encouraged, nagged and cajoled him to, please oh please, READ some fiction in his genre.
    He told me he didn’t have time.
    The story was ok. It could’ve been excellent, had he read.
    I am an avid reader! I read many genres and have found it helps me to be a better writer.
    I also read my words out loud. Boy do I find some glaring goofs!
    Thanks for enforcing these two pieces of fabulous advice.

  4. As a multi-genre author, I’ve always been connected to a critique group that reads aloud. I need their input!

  5. Gwen Olsen says:

    Hi Mary, I’m at a good time to put my work aside for awhile and read what’s good out there. Can you refer me to a children’s picture book reading list?

  6. Great post.

    I especially related to this sentence: “The experience is that of a brain twisting and turning and trying to find purchase on anything.” Totally agree! No matter what I’m writing, I can always take away something from my current reading – no matter the genre.

    Great reminder.

  7. This is the second time in just over a week that I’ve been told to read your work out loud. The first was with Scholastic editor Natalia Remis in a live workshop through SCBWI. While I’ve only read my work out loud on occasion, it will be my new must do for all my stories. Thanks for this helpful information!

  8. I read my work aloud often. At first I felt silly doing it so I pretended I was reading to my cat. Now I do it without shame. It’s amazing how many flaws, gaps, leaps in logic, or just plain stupid writing I find. Plus it’s great practice for author appearances if you ever get to have any.

  9. I agree with you about reading across genres for voice and every aspect of writing, really. But I absolutely limit certain reading when I’m writing to find my character’s voice. There are simply some book experiences that are so overwhelmingly beautiful, funny, sarcastic, or idiosyncratic they’d interfere with my work, hear *my* character’s voice. I carry the characters and rhythm of a good book in my head all through the reading experience until after the book is finished—I mean, that’s a mark of good fiction, that it sticks with me. I have to limit books like this at certain times while I’m writing. On the flip side, I’ve found that rereading certain authors or books while I discover my character’s voice strengthens my writing process.

    1. That should say, “they’d interfere with hearing *my* character’s voice.”

  10. Great post and excellent advice. Reading a manuscript out loud is a must. It helps writers listen for word flow, get a feel for the balance of description and dialogue, and develop the voice of the story.

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