Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Got Voice?

Voice is something that a lot of writers struggle with. I know I did, and still do sometimes. No, I'm not talking about those voices inside your head that won't shut up until you put them on paper. Although, they can be helpful, when they aren't driving you to insanity. But how do you really understand voice? In the past I spent a lot of time searching the web for a clear and concise definition of voice. Sadly, I always came up empty. I could never find a good description that made sense to me. And that's because voice is so tricky. Voice is one of the most subjective parts of writing, because the definition of voice is different for every reader.

So how do you know if your writing has voice? The short and blunt answer to that question is, if you are still asking, you probably haven't found your voice yet. When you find it you know. It's not just a feeling in your gut but everything starts falling into place. It makes sense and everything feels right. But if you aren't sure yet that's okay. There are things you can do to draw out your voice.

1.) Start with someone else's writing
When you read something and it's dripping with voice, you just know it. But what is it about that piece that makes you notice? Sometimes it's the language used, the dialogue of the characters, or just some quirkiness or distinct feature to the writing. But voice really goes deeper than that. It's the essence of everything you write. Your voice can come down to the very words you choose and the manner in which you string them together on the page.

2.) Listen to those voices
Remember those voices I mentioned at the start of this post? The ones that make you feel like a crazy person? Yeah those! Listen to them. Let them speak through you. Allowing those crazy voices to take over helps form your voice. Pay attention when that happens and try to apply it throughout your writing.

3.) Search your manuscript
So how do you find your voice when you aren't sure? This can be tricky. But after finding mine, I'm a firm believer that it's hiding in your manuscript somewhere just waiting to be discovered. Yes somewhere in your manuscript is a scene just oozing with your author voice. You just have to find it. Odds are it's not your first page or even in your second, third or tenth, but it's in there. So where do you look?

Think about your main character, what's important to them, and what defines them as a character. Then find a scene in your manuscript where they are doing one of the following:
  • Engaging with a close friend
  • Engaging in an activity that is really inside their comfort zone
  • Engaging in an activity that induces stress or tension
  • Engaging in a scene far outside their comfort zone
  • Engaging with the enemy/antagonist
In the first two bullets your character is in their element. The main character is comfortable to act like his or her true self. In situations like this their voice is likely to speak loud and clear, sometimes it even screams. If you can find a scene like that, it shows your character in their natural environment and how they respond in day to day situations.

On the flip side, the last three bullets take the character in the complete opposite direction. It's a situation or event where your character doesn't have time to think and their true colors can really show, meaning their voice is likely to be louder then as well. Taking a character out of their element allows them to really shine or fall flat on their face. Either way they will usually do it in a very distinct way with specific words that define them completely.

4.) Read it and read some more
Once you find that magical place where your character is screaming loud and clear in his or her natural voice then you need to read that scene. Then read it again and again and again. Get a good feel for the voice in the scene, why it's coming out so clearly, and why it works. Hold onto that scene tight, you'll need it in the future.

5.) Apply
Now that you've identified your voice and have a good understanding of it, go back to the beginning of your book and rewrite the scene using the newly discovered voice. Often times it doesn't require large rewrites but small changes that pull the character's voice to the surface. Use the language the main character would use and let their thoughts and feelings seep onto the page.

By this point your gut should be churning because everything should start falling into place. If you are still struggling don't despair. It happens to a lot of us. See if you can get a trusted critique partner to take a look at your manuscript and identify some scenes that have great voice. Then use those as a guide to rework the rest of your book.

Your voice is there, now go find it!

How would you define voice? Are you struggling to find yours? Do you have any good tips on voice or blog posts to share? Let me know! I'm always curious to learn more.


  1. Great tips, Jamie! I especially like #3. Thanks for posting this.

    1. Thanks Ruth! And thanks for encouraging me to write this post :)