Think about who your favorite authors are. Now, ask yourself why they’re your favorites. Is it because of the clever plot twists and turns of phrase? Is it because of the way they craft compelling, believable characters? All of these things are part of making a great story, but if you love returning to the same author again and again it’s probably due to something much simpler—their voice. The way they tell the story.
What is voice in writing?
A writer’s voice, also called a literary voice, is a blend of the writer’s personal style, tone, personality, vocabulary, syntax, and unique experiences. In simpler terms, it’s the personal expression of that writer and no one else. Many writers can be identified by the unique way their voices sound on the page, even when the narrators and genres change.
Regardless of the story’s genre or time period, certain stylistic trademarks will consistently make their way into any given writer’s work. These can include the way sentences are structured: some writers might favor short, snappy sentences while others like indulgent sentences held aloft by a small army of commas that go on for a third of the page. The energy to those sentences might be intimate, lighthearted, and approachable, or they might be more objective and distant. This all becomes part of a writer’s signature style.
You’ll also see the same thematic elements in a writer’s work, even when the plots and characters change. This is because deep down, writers are often trying to communicate the same central ideas to their audiences over and over, since they’re things the authors care about deeply. This passion will naturally become a part of the stories that they tell.
A writer’s voice can also be a reflection of the relationship they have with the reader and with the world around them.
Some writers might find ironic humor in every moment of their story. Some might converse with the reader with a comfortable intimacy, like a sibling or friend. Others might be drawn to the beauty all around them, exploring it with rich, sensual imagery in any genre of work.
You’ll be instinctively drawn to these energies in the work of the writers you love. When you begin writing your own stories and developing your own unique voice, you’ll find that your own energy and tone begins to shine through more and more.
The writer’s voice vs. character’s voice
It’s important to note that the writer’s voice isn’t the same thing as their characters’ voices. A writer’s voice is the expression of the author; a character’s voice is the unique way in which their fictional characters express themselves.
In a well-written story, two characters might speak in very different ways depending on their social class, location, and upbringing. Giving your characters different voices is a wonderful exercise in characterization.
For example, if you write a story about a troubled city-bred teenager going to visit his ailing grandmother in the countryside, it’s unlikely that the teenager and the grandmother would speak in the same style. They’d probably have different vocabularies, different ways of putting their sentences together, and they’d speak at different paces.
Showing these two character voices realistically is not an easy thing to do, but a wonderful way to grow as a writer.
The writer’s voice vs. point of view
In creative writing, authors also need to choose a point of view from which to express the story.
The most common point of view styles are first person (told from the character’s perspective, using the pronoun “I”), third person limited, and third person omniscient (both told through the narrator’s voice, using the pronouns “He,” “She,” and “They”). However, there are other point of view styles you can use like second person and fourth person.
Some of these perspectives will be closer to the characters, and others will be more distant. In a closer, more intimate perspective, you may find that the author’s voice and the character’s voice overlap. In a more removed point of view, you may find that the story being told begins to sound less like your individual characters and more like you.
5 distinctive writer’s voices
Some writers in literature have such instantly recognizable voices that you would never mistake them for anyone else; they’ve inspired generations of imitators, as well as new authors who have learned from them before going on to develop unique voices of their own.
Let’s look at some of the most iconic writer’s voices in literature.
1. Mark Twain
Now the way that the book winds up is this: Tom and me found the money that the robbers hid in the cave, and it made us rich. We got six thousand dollars apiece—all gold. It was an awful sight of money when it was piled up. Well, Judge Thatcher he took it and put it out at interest, and it fetched us a dollar a day apiece all the year round—more than a body could tell what to do with.
Mark Twain was the original American everyman. Unlike many of his contemporaries who were writing in high literary voices, he wrote stories using a first-person narrator drenched in the slang and colloquialisms of the time. This made it feel like you were hearing an account from a close friend instead of reading a highbrow literary work.
The quote above is from his magnum opus, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a book that was incredibly ahead of its time and is still being debated today. His casual intimacy made his stories feel marvelously present and immersive for readers.
2. Raymond Chandler
It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.
Raymond Chandler has been called “the father of the noir genre,” and is famous for his gritty, lightly sardonic detective novels of the 1930s and 1940s. His narration is made up of short, snappy clauses, one- and two-syllable word choice, and lines of dialogue that keep the pace swift. His writing voice has a marvelous gift for conveying time and place.
The quote shown here is the opening to his first major novel, The Big Sleep, which later became a cult favorite film starring Humphrey Bogart. Right away he shows us a self-aware depreciation that endears us to the central character and lands us squarely in the sharp, well-developed lines of the setting.
3. Jane Austen
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighborhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.
So begins one of the most iconic romantic comedies of all time. Jane Austen wrote with a soft, romantic neoclassicism, hiding a sarcastic and rich perception of the human condition behind the socially acceptable formality of the time.
Her author’s voice contains sentences are often long and languid and sepia-toned. If you read her work and pay attention, however, you’ll notice a cutting wit weaving in and out of the rose-scented decorum.
4. Ernest Hemingway
All of the sadness of the city came suddenly with the first cold rains of winter, and there were no more tops to the high white houses as you walked but only the wet blackness of the street and the closed doors of the small shops, the herb sellers, the stationery and the newspaper shops, the midwife—second class—and the hotel where Verlaine had died where I had a room on the top floor where I worked.
Ernest Hemingway is famous for prose that is clean and uncluttered to the point of sparsity; luxuries like adjectives, adverbs, and semicolons are used sparingly or tossed away in favour of stark minimalism.
The above excerpt is from his Parisian memoir, A Moveable Feast. In his work, Hemingway stripped away everything that was unnecessary to reveal the carefully curated bones of the story underneath. In character-driven works, the dialogue is largely objective; he does not romanticize his narrative, but simply shows the world the way it is. Nothing more and nothing less.
5. Agatha Christie
“Supposing,” murmured Poirot, “that four people sit down to play bridge and one, the odd man out, sits in a chair by the fire. At the end of the evening the man by the fire is found dead. One of the four, while he is dummy, has gone over and killed him, and intent on the play of the hand, the other three have not noticed. Ah, there would be a crime for you! Which of the four was it?”
“Well,” I said. “I can’t see any excitement in that!”
Poirot threw me a glance of reproof. “No, because there are no curiously twisted daggers, no blackmail, no emerald that is the stolen eye of a god, no untraceable Eastern poisons. You have the melodramatic soul, Hastings.”
Agatha Christie’s writing has a simplistic poetry to it that is anything but simple. The long reigning queen of crime fiction, her work is heavy with expository dialogue and is rich in characterization. Though her work deals with unnerving and often bloody subject matter, the way she strings her words together has a soft and quintessentially feminine energy.
This quote from her famous ABC Murders shows the way she plays with character psychology through dialogue. She is very efficient at conveying layers of subtext through careful word selection and simple dialogue.
3 ways to develop your own writing voice
Now that you’ve developed an understanding of what voice in writing means, let’s explore three things you can do to begin developing your author’s voice (and one thing not to do!).
1. Read everything
This is true of all aspects of the writing craft, but especially for developing your literary voice.
Try reading the five authors we talked about here, and go back and read your personal favorites. Read new authors just launching their debut novels, and seasoned authors whose books have been inspiring writers for generations. Read books in the genre you hope to write in, and books it would have never occurred to you to read before. Every single one has something to teach you.
Try to develop an inner ear for the way each writer assembles a single sentence. Look at which details they take time to explore and which details they leave to the imagination of the reader. By getting to know the rhythms of a range of different writers, you’ll begin to get a sense of which ones feel like they could be a part of you.
2. Try on other writers
Once you’ve absorbed the voices of other writers through reading, try giving yourself a challenge: write something in the voice of one or more of those writers.
For instance, you might write a piece of flash fiction and imagine how it would sound if Ernest Hemingway had written it, and then describe the same story again in the voice of Jane Austen. You’ll be amazed at how different they’ll be.
This is not plagiarism, because you’re being inspired by these author’s voices—you’re not copying their writing word for word. If it makes you more comfortable, you can subtitle your story, “inspired by the literary voice of ______.” However, the most important thing is that you begin with your own unique ideas and challenge yourself to fit those ideas into voices that have inspired you.
Here’s the thing: your subconscious is pretty smart. Without you even noticing, your mind will be cataloguing all of these details and deciding which ones feel like a good fit for your unique voice, and discarding the rest. Doing these exercises won’t leave you sounding like a watered down version of Jane Austen or Ernest Hemingway; they’ll help you find which tones, styles, and rhythms feel like “home” to you and which are only places to visit. The voice you emerge with will be all your own.
3. Experiment with structure
It’s been said that formal, structured poetry reveals a lot more about a writer than modern free verse poetry. The reason for this is that when faced with more rigid boundaries, writers will naturally look for ways to stretch their personal creativity and express their own voice.
For example, if two poets are told to write a fourteen-line sonnet in iambic pentameter about the rain on a winter’s day, those two writers will produce two very, very different poems. Each one will reveal something about the way that writer sees the world and their relationship with it.
The same is true of fiction. Say two writers are asked to write a short story about two people who meet at a busy café in a train station, each of whom is keeping a secret from the other. Sounds pretty specific, doesn’t it? And yet, this simple story seed holds worlds of possibility.
The way each writer brings their own unique perspectives, tone, approach to sentence structure, and perception of the human condition will dictate the direction that this little story will take.
To develop your own writer’s voice, try using writing prompts and story archetypes to exercise your writing muscles. The more specific the exercises, the more you’ll be able to see how much of what comes out is completely, unapologetically you.
Bonus: the 1 thing not to do to develop your writer’s voice
In some lessons on developing your writer’s voice, you might come across this singularly important “rule” (like all “rules” of writing, be wary of following it if you don’t quite understand why you’re following it in the first place): whatever you do, keep it consistent.
The reasons for this are twofold: Firstly, if you need to force yourself to keep your writer’s voice consistent, it’s not your writer’s voice. Your voice is what naturally comes from you; it is your essence given from in words. If you ever feel like your writer’s voice is getting off track and you need to corral it back into shape, what you have is not a voice—it’s a style.
The second reason is that your writer’s voice is constantly evolving. Growth is never a bad thing in any aspect of our lives, and certainly not in our literary voices. The more we read, write, and learn about the world, the more our writing will evolve and refine. Trying to keep it “consistent” is to limit all the possibilities of what it can become.
The bottom line? Finding your writer’s voice is not an act of creating something from nothing; it is an act of sloughing away everything your voice is not to reveal the voice that has been there all along, and then giving it room to grow.