What is Writing "Voice"

Voice flowers from the heart.

Voice blooms from the heart.

All agents want one and all writers want to know what the heck it is. If it was easy to define, then we wouldn’t have countless articles, books and classes to demystify “voice.” Today, I will put in my two cents and see if it can help the light bulb go off.

Voice is, in its essence, that uniqueness that we as artists bring to the story. Remember, humans relied on an oral tradition for tens of thousands of years. We are a story people and “voice,” in my opinion, is a holdover from that oral tradition.

Ah, but the original storytellers were not only the precursors of the modern writer, they were also the precursor to the modern ACTOR. I can imagine the one dude in the cave who used the most dramatic gestures and movements and the best inflection at just the right time AS he told the story probably had the best audiences.

Writers are Also Composers/Directors

TIMING, is a HUGE part of being a good storyteller, thus it is naturally a large component of “voice.” Writers must have a natural sense of when things should be tense, versus the times we need to let the audience have a breather. Writing a novel is very akin to writing a symphony.

If everything is crescendo, then nothing is. If every page is mind-numbing tension, then nothing is. Conversely, if our writing is just a character thinking, then thinking some more, then thinking some more, then that is not a story, it’s a diary. It’s the elevator music of story.


As writers, we are also directors. We need to take charge of the setting, the lighting, the mood and then tell the characters what to do (give stage direction). Our words are what give the pauses between the push. We must choose the right words at the right time to always control the pace, the push and pull of conflict.

We not only must make sure the plot arc is progressing accordingly, but the characters must arc as well. All of this must be balanced until the grand finale, the Big Boss Battle that every chapter has let up to. How we balance all of this is known as “voice.”

Writers Have a Lot in Common with Actors

Just like actors have to get in the head of a character they must portray on stage or in film, we, too, must learn to “get in the head” of our characters…ALL of them. An actor must play a singular part, but we must, to a degree, play ALL of the parts. It isn’t enough to be in the head of our protagonist. If we cannot also learn to empathize with the antagonist and even the supportive characters, our writing will be flat and will lack dimension.

New writers lack confidence and skill, so often what will happen is they parrot a popular author. They become a bad copy instead of an awesome original. But, the bigger mistake I see is voice often comes with preparation, and new writers often fail to prepare. New writers fail to understand the characters before they start writing. They get a flash of a scene in their head and then start typing. This is like an actor not taking any time to study the part before he begins reciting lines.

Not that this way is wrong, but it can make the difference between a Saturday Night Live skit performance versus a performance that brings home an Oscar.

I’ve read many a new writer whose characters all sounded like the same person. They hadn’t taken time to understand the characters–all of them–and really think about GCM (Goal, Conflict, Motivation via Debra Dixon). Thus, either all the characters sounded alike and the dialogue sounded like a bad third-grade play, or the protagonist was the only character with depth (because he was based off the writer) and all the other characters are talking heads or bad knock-offs off the protagonist.

Voice Can Affect Our Career

First of all, voice can affect our career because if we don’t have a solid voice, we won’t connect with readers. Agents love a strong writing voice because they love finding works readers will love. We can have the best plot ever written, but if all the characters are talking heads, it doesn’t matter. We can have the most interesting characters, but if we cannot put them in an interesting and compelling story, we still have a problem (though, granted, an easier one to fix than the former).

But voice can affect more than whether we get an agent. Voice can affect how well we write. Do we have the right genre for our natural voice? This is why we should never write for the market. We shouldn’t write romance because it’s a hot market. We should just ignore trends and write the best story for us to write.

How Does Genre Affect Voice?

Let’s extend this idea of actors being related to writers. Let’s say I have a role to cast. I want a male actor to play a cowboy. I have three different actors. I have Clint Eastwood, Jack Black, and Robert Deniro. Same story, different actors. Can you see how the choice of actor–the choice of the voice–becomes essential to how the story will play out? If I cast the wrong actor for the story I as a director want to tell, I can have a disaster, even though ALL THREE ACTORS are highly skilled and talented.

If I want a Old School Western? Clint Eastwood. But if I want a comedy? Clint might not be the right actor, unless Clint wants to branch out and do some intensive study in the area of comedy. With a lot of work and training, Clint could pull it off. But does he really want to? Does the director want to mess with it when it is simply easier to cast Jack Black?

This is why we must really understand our voice and develop it accordingly. I LOVE thrillers, but I’m naturally a humor author. I find that I might love reading thrillers, but had a tough time writing them. I would get far too sidetracked with comedy that wasn’t appropriate for the character. Traditional “serious thrillers” are not a natural fit with my writing voice, which is why the novel I’m finishing has shifted to more of a Janet Evanovich style.

I made a mistake of believing that because I loved to read thrillers, that I should then write them. Yeah…um, no.

It took writing three “serious” thrillers that I was less than thrilled about (bada bump *snare*) to see what my true writing voice really was. My NF has been a success because I am true to my voice, whereas my fiction was good, it’s won contests, but it never felt…right. It didn’t have that connection that my NF did.

Yet, it is only because I wrote a lot that I figured this out. I experimented and I also gained CONFIDENCE to admit where I really needed to be writing. I was less prone to listen to what other people thought and decided to take my path. Take a thriller and then add in a sympathetic, funny character.

This is why writing and writing A LOT will reveal our true voice. We get time to try the genres we like and if they are a fit? Perfect! If not? We’ll see it sooner.

Voice and Empathy

I feel a HUGE part of voice is the ability to truly develop the ability to empathize. The more we study the human condition, the easier we can get in the head of a character. This is why reading fiction is so vital. By reading good fiction, we are essentially studying people through stories. This is why I can spot writers who don’t read.

Writers who read a lot of fiction are better writers. Ah, but want to get even BETTER?

Broaden the Palette

Read NF, particularly psychology and sociology books. The more we study people, the easier it is to empathize and it will also ring as authentic. Read body language books. Read history. Read as much as you can. Then get out of your comfort zone and live life. Take risks. I jumped out of an airplane (a few times), but, in retrospect, I could have probably taken a pottery class and been fine. LIVE, then bring that to your craft. Get out among people. Listen to them. Study them. Take part in the human condition.

If our voice is our art, then how many colors, shades, textures and tools do you want to bring to the table? Sure, we are free to finger-paint with three primary colors, but it will limit our art.

So, do you guys feel that you finally understand what voice is? Do you have questions? What are your thoughts? Your suggestions? Do you think people are born with their natural voice? Or do you feel life experience shapes voice? If we don’t have a voice can we develop one? Do you believe there are “tone deaf” writers who will never improve no matter how much teaching?

Share! I love hearing from you!

I LOVE hearing from you!


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  1. Great insight into ‘voice.’ This is a little unrelated, but you keep mentioning contests–that’s something I’ve wanted to try, but have been too overwhelmed to really get a feel for what I’m in for. Could you in teh future maybe do a post about the basic ins and outs of the contest scene? Or do you know another blogger who has a handle on this?

  2. “we should never write for the market” I keep trying to tell my hubby this, but he still doesn’t believe me. Maybe now he will?

  3. Reblogged this on roehilldotnet.

  4. This is another great post from a guru. Love your advice to read psychology and body language. Keep your advice coming. I tore up 100pages of my novel because you told me to…..whatever next?

  5. Thanks for all of this. I wonder what your thoughts are on voice for people who write non-fiction. There are some writers whose voices I love, like Anne Lamott – you read her words and you know it’s her. I write a personal blog and I’ve struggled with this a lot. I feel that I don’t write the way I sound in real life; once I start typing everything comes out more formally than I want it to, no matter how hard I try. I don’t know if it’s fear of really letting my personality out or a left over style from my college/grad school paper writing days. I do read a lot plus I have a bit of life experience (a significant part of which involved keeping my voice down for many years so maybe that’s it…). Thanks in advance!

  6. Loved this post. Lots of great advice and something that I never fully considered before.

  7. Reblogged this on Healing by Writing and commented:
    Kristen’s explanation of writing “voice” is informative. Take time to read it.

  8. Excellent questions about… are we born with our voice? Is it shaped by experience? Can it be developed? I think “yes” to all of these, even if it seems contradictory. I find what I read will influence my voice. I read a lot of YA so my voice has gotten snarkier over time. If I free write my original voice will get stronger. I think there are exercises that will bring out voice even in a tone deaf writer.

  9. Brilliant analogy with Clint, Jack, and Bob!

  10. Really clear definition of voice. I particularly like your likening of writing to acting. I was watching Inside the Actors Studio on Bravo a few weeks ago and had the same thought.

  11. I think everyone has a voice. I don’t know if every voice would be reader friendly. I do think every writer has to learn how to use your voice. I think it is much like your approach to marketing. It’s putting your personality or your own personal touches into your writing. It’s makes sense then that it would have to do with confidence. A writer needs to be confident to let their voice shine through and that can only come with practice. For me it was horror stories. I had spent many years reading horror novels and always thought that’s what I would write. But, I couldn’t finish one. When I switched to fantasy, I didn’t have that problem.

  12. Once we find our true voice, Does that make it easier or harder to write in a different voice? Should we even try to write in a different voice?

  13. You’ve got to have a voice for each story. I hear mine, inside my head as I write. It’s kinda like sitting in a dark, cool bar on a Saturday afternoon on a 95 degree August day. A guy sits on the stool next to you. You chat about weather, sports etc., and then he leans in and says “I want to tell you a story”. That’s where it takes off and the plot, characters and Big Bada$$ villain go to work. I just hang on until “And they lived happily ever after, maybe.”

  14. Oh, I so remember mimicking other authors, or getting some idea into my head and springing to a paper to write the whole scene out, then getting frustrated because it didn’t fit. I think all of that had a place for training me to be a writer, though, and I’m glad I did it. I’m just learning now, though, the necessity of planning. Also, doing what I have to do to get to know my characters. The hardest part is coming to terms with how much work it takes me, but in the end I think it’s totally worth it. Thanks Kristen!

  15. As you point out, finding voice comes from practice, practice, practice and patience. But, oddly, my favorite part of this blog is the picture. Growing perfect roses takes practice and patience. Good for me to remember.

    1. I love how they formed a heart.

  16. Loved the comparison of writers to actors! Much easier to understand when you put it that way.


  17. Great topic, Kristen.

    I, for one, love when you let your scamp loose to run amok on the pages. You’ve got killer timing. No. I’m not sucking up. Unless I missed a post in which you offered cash for compliments.

    IMHO, there is a unique nature in the way each author strings words together, the situations each author finds interesting to explore with his/her characters.

    The next layer is the challenge of blending that author’s unique style (voice) through the eyes, words, soul of the POV character. My H/H don’t use the same pace and phrasing. Each has a unique style, yet I can’t wander too far from my own “voice” or the writing becomes stilted.

    It’s a balance of macro (author voice), micro (character unique), and craft (pacing, turning points, MRUs, building tension, killing little darlings, ad infinitum).

    There is one romance author I followed compulsively for years. She branched out, chose a different path for recent novels. I missed her voice in those wanderings. In one novel, I’m willing to bet $3.47 that much of it was ghost written by another author. I recall getting to a spot in the book when the author’s voice appeared on the pages and I thought, “Well, helloooooo [name intentionally withheld]!” Sadly, that voice disappeared again after a few chapters. Same characters. Same pace. Same plot. But, the words didn’t pop my kettle corn the way hers do.

    I’ve found the same with some well-known, must-buy authors who co-author. The author’s unique voice gets a bit muddled. Of course, that’s artistic privilege. Established authors keep their brand alive. New and talented authors get a leg up.

    One readers opinion, FWIW.

  18. I think some people are able to naturally find their voice, whereas others struggle. My husband is hilarious with his own brand of humor and is also quite the conversationalist. But when it comes to putting thoughts on paper, he just falls apart.

    For me, I think my voice is a mix of outside influence (good books, television shows, even my own past writing projects), my characters’ personalities and the little talking munchkin that lives inside my head.

  19. I’ve written for so many years now, voice comes naturally. I’m trying to learn now to write deep POV where my voice is overwritten by the characters’ voices.

  20. For me, matching the rhythm of the language to the tone of the story is a big part of what makes an author’s voice compelling. Just as a film director will use lengthy shots to build tension and rapid cuts for action sequences, authors need to vary the flow of the prose to match the mood.

  21. interesting point about learning what our voice is not, as well as what it is…..perhaps I haven’t branched out to know what I’m not great at (I’m guessing thrillers won’t be for me either), but it’s good to have on the radar! thanks!

  22. I love that you said to get inside the head of all the characters. I haven’t gotten that until recently–thanks to you and also Les Edgerton’s book Hooked. It’s starting to sink in now. Thanks!

  23. It really helped me understand writing voice, when you likened it to actors getting ‘inside their characters heads.’ I need to learn to do that better:). Also I liked what you said about learning more about the human condition to understand writing and characters better. Great post…thanks!

  24. This is such a timely topic for me right now… Thank you for posting this!

  25. I learn so much from this blog…thanks again! When I write…I stay away from reading fiction. I don’t read other authors because I feel like I’ll start picking up their voice and it’ll bleed into mine. You make a great point though in the end…we need to broaden our palette. There is no insignificant curiosity.

  26. I’ve read books where a character’s thoughts go on for pages and pages and pages. It’s the elevator ride to and from hell where you can’t get out and you can hear all the thoughts around you. And all those thoughts are whining about trivial matters. Similar “action” in a movie? It’d be an hour of the camera focused on someone sitting in a chair and doing—nothing.

    1. Excellent point.

      1. Thank you.

  27. Well, I had a little lightbulb moment there: maybe voice is why I struggled getting the tone of my modern Greek tragedy right – my voice kept wanting to play for laughs.
    Sometimes it can be worth training yourself to be able to produce different kinds of work, but at the end of the day, if you walk like a duck….

  28. Thank, Kristin. I guess if you search all your life for your voice, and wriggled around and never quite find it, you have at least gotten closer to who you are. And that is priceless.

  29. Thanks for another helpful post Kristin. I especially like the part about writers having a lot in common with actors; it makes a lot of sense.

  30. I love your posts, Kristin. This one was filled with great advice and I learned much. I don’t want to be “Debbie Downer” but…lol…an author can have a great voice, and have it taken away by an editor. My voice is what was unique about my writing/novel, much of it is still there, but not all.

  31. another topic ably covered in your inimitable style. You have hit the basics voice…and still it remains all but impossible to explain. A reader who reads a lot (another reason writers need to read) comes to a point where they can pick out a writer’s voice (or tell if they haven’t found theirs yet) and yet often even when we can ‘hear’ another writer’s voice, we remain unable to identify what makes our own unique.
    That one, I hope you will unravel further for us someday. What steps allow us to begin to decipher our own unique writing voice.

    Another fine post. Thanks. So glad you have found your niche.

  32. Clint can do comedy! Remember Every Which way but Loose with the orangutan? (oh and there’s that ‘hilarious’ bit he did with the chair at the repub convention.) But I digress…your point is well taken. Jack Black in either situation would have made them very different. Some good advice in here. I tend to focus on the protag and the antag a lot. Now I’m going back to my WIP and look at the other characters.

  33. Reblogged this on Sophia Kimble.

  34. Excellent way to describe something I’ve never been able to define or explain to others. And great tip on the NF thing and finding the right genre for your voice. I am a terrible comedic writer. All of my attempts at writing anything funny comes across as cheesy. I wrote 3 short books with numerous “funny” situations going on before I realized how much I hated my own writing. I took one of them and removed the funny and made it a dark serious adventure and it blew my mind. Someday I’ll go back and finish that one. Serious situations and drama are where I need to stay at. I need to avoid romance too, I am one of the most unromantic people I know, despite what my wife says. Not that I can’t add a few moments of romance to a couple scenes, but not a whole book. It’s good to know your limits. My grandfather, a published writer, once told me that we should write what we know, so study everything. All those years of reading psychology, history, physics, and architecture are paying off in my writing.

    • frank fusco on August 25, 2013 at 1:03 pm
    • Reply

    I think “narative” voice is different than “dialog” voice. A narative voice is external while a dialog voice is internal. Look at your own writing. Read your dialog as coming from the inside. In real life, people most often don’t say what they mean. Capturing sub text in dialog fiction takes time to develop. Simplify, don’t amplify. In writing screenplay dialog, keep a character’s dialog to three sentences or less. The exception woud be speeches.

    When I open a novel at a book store, I flip through it looking for the dialog. If I find some, I read it in hopes of finding the author’s voice. Is there conflict? Does one character want something from another character? Push/Pull dialog moves the story forward. If I find the author’s voice and like what I have read, I just might buy the book.

    I have flipped through novels that have page after page of narative. Not for me. I want to meet the characters.I don’t like rummaging through “wordy” weeds to find the protagonist/antagonist.

    By the way, I love everything by Anne Rice. Her distinctive voice jumps from the page.

  35. Hi Kristen. I recently came across a new author for me, Bob Mayer. One thing led to another and I made a post. Anna at emaginette commented and mentioned you. So I googled you (saw your pics and laughed) and one thing let to another…….Anyhoo, I was browsing your blog and you now have a new follower. ^_^

    If you would like to come and sing the Green Beret song with us, visit me at : http://www.fundinmental.com/?p=8041

    Have a great day and I’ll be back. ^_^

    1. Bob is a fabulous writer and teacher. You got a real find there. Thrilled to have you here!

  36. I’ve always thought of writing and pacing to be very much like composing music – it was one of those lightbulb moments years ago. Glad to see others think so too! 🙂 Great post!

  37. But Clint did comedy. The very first time I ever saw him, it was a Western with comedy in it. How soon we forget. The film was “Two Mules for Sister Sara” .

    I watched it twice the year it was released. Once at the theater and once at the Drive In.

    I was expecting that same actor in his other films. He wasn’t the same. Maybe that’s why I never liked Clint. People who don’t like Clint seem to really like him in the Sister Sara film.

    1. Clint hasn’t done comedy in a very long time, and I think most of us (in a modern audience) equate him with being the “Make my day” guy. He doesn’t naturally pop to mind as a comedic actor like Jack Black or Will Ferrell. Again, it can be done, but that goes to “voice.” The director would still have to make sure the script supported Clint’s “type” of comedic talent and not expect him to act like Jim Carrey.

      1. It’s like cultural capital. We have to keep that also in mind when we write. Jim Carrey means nothing to me because he is locked into a certain set of cultural capital which I am vaguely familiar with. Jack Black? No blanking clue. Will Ferrell? British examples I might get. I may be American but I watch mainly British TV and movies.

        Thanks you just inadvertently answered a question I was wondering about in my writing about using things that involve a certain amount of cultural capital to understand..

  38. So happy I took the time to go back and read this post!! What fabulous advice. You really made me pause for a moment and consider if I was being true to the other characters in my novel. And I discovered, to my horror, that I wasn’t. *sigh* Back to the drawing board- a happily we will go! Thanks!!

  39. Reblogged this on tossingdaisies and commented:
    Fabulous read w/great advice in finding your voice! Take a peek. Have a great week!

  40. Reblogged this on sofianruler.

  41. It’s nice that you took the time to explain this one – when I started looking into all that goes into being a serious writer, I found that most articles on voice were vague.

  42. Reblogged this on Blog of a College Writer and commented:
    This has helped me so much.

  43. A very good article and very true. Characters who all sound the same was always an annoyance to me. I remember even as a kid bumping into that.

    For that reason, and because I like to be thorough anyway, I write all my characters very much as individuals, each with a different voice, a different way of talking and thinking, different concerns, different words uses – different styles entirely. It’s habit now (I’m writing the third book in a science fiction series).

    Research is hugely important, too. Not just the technical side and expertise in the field, but the psychology as well, just as you said (bad guy psychology is good, too – and fun).

    As for jumping into life – man! For me, martial arts was the big one. I wanted to learn how to write a fight scene accurately, but got so into it, I ended up teaching it for some years.

    I also learnt to drive semi-trailers (articulated lorries), motorbikes, to fly ultralight aircraft, handle weapons, did a survival course and lived in the wilderness (literally no house) for five years. All either deliberately taken on or gladly accepted purely because it advanced my experiences and would help with my writing.

    It not only did that, it all changed my life.



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