A Writer’s “Voice”

A couple months ago I asked some of my clients if there are terms they hear in writing and publishing that they wish someone would clearly and conclusively define. One said this: “Professionals say, ‘Find your voice,’ ‘Trust your voice,’ ‘Embrace your voice.’ I can recognize another writer’s voice, but I can’t for the life of me describe mine. Is ‘your voice’ something someone else has to describe because it’s too hard to be objective about our own writing?”

Heck, I dunno.

See, that’s my voice. Coming through. Right there on your screen. You’re welcome.

Okay, okay, I’ll try to be more helpful than that. But it won’t be easy. Because “voice” is much misunderstood in writing circles. A writer once objected to my coaching, saying, “That’s my voice! That’s how I write!” I did my best to explain that, no, voice is not cluelessness, laziness, or lack of skill. I was a little gentler than that, of course. Probably too gentle because I don’t think he caught on.

“Voice” isn’t style or technique (or the lack of such things). It’s not how you punctuate or don’t punctuate. It has little to do with spelling or the rules of grammar.

It’s you. It’s your personality, your passions, your sense of humor, your modus operandi all rolled into one. It’s how you think, feel, and see the world coming through in writing. It’s what happens when you feel most at home in your own skin, free to express what’s in your heart, mind, and soul. It’s when you stop posturing, performing, or imitating, and the “youness” that is you comes through on a page.

Still not clear? Wondering how in the world you’re supposed to “find your voice” when you’re already you? Shouldn’t it just happen?

Well, no. But there are a few ways I can think of to help you “find” or “free” your voice:

  • Relax.

Stop trying. Don’t try to write like “a writer.” Don’t force yourself to sound a certain way. As the philosopher Dave Mason once sang, “Let it go, let it go, let it flow like a river; Let it go, let it go, let it flow through you.” (You may be too young to hear the tune, so look it up if you need to).

  • Write a lot.

Finding or freeing your “voice” involves—for most people—overcoming the writing habits of grade school or grad school, of the pulpit or the prison. For example, in my experience, academics have a really tough time finding their voice because they were required for so long to suppress their own voices in writing theses and dissertations, all of which has to be unlearned before they can “write like themselves” again. The more you write—as you, not someone else—the more that’s likely to happen.  

  • Master the elements of good writing.

Finding your voice doesn’t mean you can ignore the rules of good writing or eschew critique and editing. In fact, as you improve in those areas, you’ll find your voice because you’ll become freer to be yourself in words, sentences, and pages.

  • Review and reflect.

As you’re writing and when you finish a piece of writing (an article, say, or a chapter), take some time to review and reflect on what you’ve written. Did you feel “at home in your own skin” as you wrote? Did you feel like yourself? Read it aloud; does it sound like you (not necessarily how you talk, but your personality, passions, perspectives—and even words that don’t alliterate)? Or does it sound like someone else? Were you putting on airs? Posturing? Preaching? Performing? Imitating? Ask someone who knows you well to read it and answer those questions. Lather, rinse, repeat.

  • Keep writing. A lot.

Your voice can’t be forced. It’s found and freed as you write, the more you write … and write and write and write. As you become not only better but more “you” as a writer, your voice will emerge. And it will feel suhweet.

26 Responses to A Writer’s “Voice”

  1. Avatar
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser October 28, 2020 at 4:36 am #

    An author’s voice is kinda like
    a word-whorl fingerprint,
    but writer, for the love of Mike,
    don’t write what your voice isn’t.
    You may be fond of Shakespeare,
    but do not ape the Bard,
    though outwardly it may appear
    that you’re woking really hard.
    And likewise do not be Nick Sparks
    nor winsome Bev’rly Lewis,
    nor Peter Benchley with his sharks;
    be you, though you be clueless.
    Just write your heart, and understand
    you’re not next Jacqueline Susann.

    • Avatar
      Shirlee Abbott October 28, 2020 at 6:33 am #

      Well done, Andrew . . . in your own unique and poetic voice!

    • Avatar
      Diana Derringer October 28, 2020 at 7:39 am #

      Thank you, Andrew and Bob, for teaching about voice in your unique voices.

    • Avatar
      Susan Sage October 28, 2020 at 8:15 am #

      I love this, Andrew. There’s no doubt, you write in your voice, not like anyone else. Without seeing your name, I could read something you’ve written and know it’s yours. You do you very well.

    • Avatar
      Jean October 28, 2020 at 11:09 am #

      I like this article a lot. Retweeted it from Steve Laube email. Thank you so much! Your section “Write a lot” about habits describes what many writers grapple with, or against. Still learning and aiming to change style as needed. Aiming for scary drama with lots of personality, a high personal bar.

  2. Avatar
    Kathy Gibson October 28, 2020 at 7:16 am #

    My first thought about voice is e e cummings. And Carl Sandburg. And many more, those especially in our local poetry group. Poets have very discernable voices. My voice is my own. I can hear it from my writing as early as my old 6th grade novel. Has my voice matured? My novel characters today are telling their stories and their voices are two different parts of me.

  3. Avatar
    Jay Payleitner October 28, 2020 at 7:32 am #

    Last year, the PR consultant I hired challenged me to focus my “brand” by coming up with a “tagline.” Which, now that you brought it up, all emanates from the writer’s “voice.”

    For better or worse, I came up with “Never boring. Possibly life changing.” Alas, sales and book offers have not subsequently skyrocketed.

    • Avatar
      Jean October 28, 2020 at 11:16 am #

      Jay, I don’t think about tagine before doing a really good, brief synopsis/overview, aka elevator pitch. This I learned about recently, wrote (over multiple attempts) and the desired effect for my novel emerged. That’s part of voice, and your voice deserves specifically-chosen and appealing descriptive words. I know well the disappointment you express. Trust your own research and don’t pay anyone. LOL. Best wishes!

  4. Avatar
    Abby Martin October 28, 2020 at 7:35 am #

    So true, Bob! Apparently, according to my creative writing teachers I had in high school, I have always had a unique voice in my writing. I find that it mostly comes through when I am writing poetry and non-fiction. I have never had my writing looked at by anyone but my mom (last week) and my creative writing teachers in high-school (2 years ago). So, the question is: do I have a mature voice in what I write? Maybe. 🙂

    • Avatar
      Susan Sage October 28, 2020 at 8:17 am #

      If you ever decide you would like to have someone look at your writing, I would be first in line to volunteer. Love you, Abby.

      • Avatar
        Abby Martin October 28, 2020 at 9:14 am #

        Hey! Love you too! I’ll discuss this with my mom parents and I’ll get back to you if they agree. <3

  5. Avatar
    Deena Adams October 28, 2020 at 7:37 am #

    Thanks so much, Bob. As I continue to write…and write…and write, I pray my voice will come through, but more than that, I pray God’s voice speaks through my words and others find hope in Him!

  6. Avatar
    Susan Sage October 28, 2020 at 8:22 am #

    I really love this, Bob. I’ve been told I should engage with a greater vocabulary filled with words like hyperbole and amplification. But to me, they are just a cacophony or gregarious or idiosyncratic. Or as I would say in my own voice, exaggeration to prove I’m something other than I am. : )
    So, I’ll be precise and simple because that is who I am.

  7. Avatar
    Beverly October 28, 2020 at 8:31 am #

    Well done

  8. Avatar
    Ellen Engbers October 28, 2020 at 9:07 am #

    I like this a lot. Thanks!!

  9. Avatar
    Karen Ingle October 28, 2020 at 9:38 am #

    Write. A lot. There’s the key. Yet there’s the struggle–and the exciting challenge, too. I get wrapped up in writing with my freelance clients’ voices. Then I dive back into my own novel and immerse myself in my characters’ voices. Do any of you other writers experience this split focus in your own careers?

  10. Avatar
    Laura L. Smith October 28, 2020 at 10:17 am #

    This post is beautiful, because yes! When we write in our own voices we become more alive, more the people Jesus always intended us to be!
    Plus, your voice is always a hoot, Bob.

  11. Avatar
    Kristen Joy Wilks October 28, 2020 at 1:54 pm #

    Voice is such an interesting subject and really, one of the reasons that we all love to read! Easing into a new story by a familiar author feels so comforting, like talking with a good friend over tea, because the voice is familiar. It’s only been through years and years of writing that I’ve begun to become familiar with my own voice. But they are not wasted years. Practice makes better!

  12. Avatar
    Brennan S. McPherson October 28, 2020 at 4:24 pm #

    I always think of this Spongebob clip when I read “putting on airs”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_90-zNuPHog
    What a good article on voice!

  13. Avatar
    OLUSOLA SOPHIA ANYANWU October 29, 2020 at 12:22 pm #

    I hope I am right! I have always assumed that the writer assumes many voices through the characters that they create but express their point of view through the protagonist hero. I feel free in my writing portraying different characters in the different personalities that I wish to reveal. Is that not me multitasking my voice? So whose voice are our characters speaking in? I would like to know! Thanks for the post and God bless you.

  14. Avatar
    Judy Wallace October 31, 2020 at 8:49 am #

    I loved how you explained what a writers voice is and how it’s expressed. I’ve discovered my voice flows best when I don’t over think it and just let the words come naturally.

  15. Avatar
    Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D. November 1, 2020 at 4:22 pm #

    Hi Bob: You are right about academics. I run into grad students all the time who seem incapable of giving me their own opinion, having spent four years or more telling the teacher what he or she wanted to hear. I am looking for my own voice, having been stuck in college for 14 years, and only recently realizing that my voice was stifled by my situation. I’m grateful for the education and am now trying to overcome it. 🙂

  16. Avatar
    Roberta Sarver November 2, 2020 at 3:08 pm #

    It’s been a bit humorous to see the results of submissions when I queried several pastors about writing for a compilation. It’s a book for pastors, written in a conversational style. They all said the same thing: they struggled with writing in a conversational style. And they all apologized for their submissions, even though some were outstanding.

    I think they wrote too many papers for their degrees.

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