Voice. Agents want it and award-winning writers have it, but what exactly do people mean when they say a novel has a strong or unique voice? And how can you develop your own writing voice?
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What IS a Writing Voice?
There’s no exact definition of voice.
According to literary agent Rachelle Gardner, “your writer’s voice is the expression of YOU on the page.”
Cris Freese over at Writer’s Digest says, a writing voice is “not only a unique way of putting words together, but a unique sensibility, a distinctive way of looking at the world, an outlook that enriches an author’s oeuvre.” (Oeuvre, by the way, is a work of art or literature – I just had to look that up. Way to be fancy with your writing voice, Cris Freese.)
To make a simple analogy, some actors and singers have distinctive voices. You can easily recognize Morgan Freeman’s kindly-yet-God-like tenor, for example, even when he’s doing the voice-over for a movie about penguins. In the same way, some writers have unique voices. If I plopped you down in the middle of a David Sedaris essay, I bet you could recognize it as his.
So a writer’s voice is what sets their writing apart from other writer’s. It’s what makes their writing recognizable and distinct.
(For 40+ YA and Middle Grade authors with strong voices, scroll down!)
Do You Need a Unique Writing Voice?
I’m going to say no.
At least, you don’t need a voice that’s SO unique your writing could never be mistaken for anyone else’s. Very few writers have a voice that distinct, and your writing doesn’t have to be as recognizable as Morgan Freeman’s voice in order for it to be good and engaging (and successful).
More important than unique, I think, is that your writing voice be strong, consistent, and appropriate for what you’re writing.
Take this excerpt from a YA book I recently read and enjoyed, Last Seen Leaving by Caleb Roehig:
It was one week until Halloween, and everyone on my block seemed to be already getting into the spirit. Across the street, the Harrisons had a series of tombstones lining the walk to their front door, each one engraved with a different “funny” epitaph. HERE LIES THE MILKMAN – HE PASSED HIS EXPIRATION DATE. That kind of thing. It was a gauntlet of terrible jokes, and if you survived it, Mrs. Harrison – dressed in a peaked hat and a warty latex nose – would award you a miniature Charleston Chew.
This has a strong, appropriate writing voice, but it’s not so unique that I’d be able to pick Roehig’s writing out of a line-up of other writer’s passages.
Furthermore, if you’re writing fiction, your voice might be different depending on what sort of story you’re writing. J.K. Rowling’s voice in the Harry Potter books is different from the voice she uses in her Cormoran Strike detective novels (for which she uses the pseudonym Robert Galbraith). If you dabble in different genres, you’ll likely use different voices.
And if you write fiction in first person, the stories you write will have different first person narrators who will, most likely, have their own unique voices. The first person voice Katherine Applegate uses in her novel Crenshaw is different than the one she uses in The One and Only Ivan. Perhaps because the narrator in Crenshaw is a ten-year-old boy, whereas in Ivan it’s a gorilla.
On the other hand, there are some writers who have a distinct writing voice no matter the first person narrator they have created. Most, if not all, of John Green’s first person narrators sound basically the same: smart, snarky, and loquacious. And pretty much all of Sarah Dessen’s first person narrators have similar voices. Is this a bad thing? Obviously not because John Green and Sarah Dessen are prolific, bestselling authors — perhaps people love their books so much because they have a recognizable writing voice no matter the character telling the story.
Anyway. My point is, if you have a super unique writing voice (or want to cultivate one), that’s great. But if you don’t, that’s okay, too. It’s more about finding the right voice for the particular story you’re writing.
But What EXACTLY Makes Up a Writing Voice?
Although voice is sort of a “you know it when you see it” phenomenon, I think it’s helpful to look at the choices writers make (unconsciously or not) that can contribute to their writing voice. Although some of these elements might be considered writing style, I would argue that style is an element of voice.
How the writing sounds — in your head or when you read it out loud — is a big part of voice. This includes sentence and paragraph length, the white space on the page, and the use of repetition and rhyme.
Notice in this example from We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, the use of rhythm and repetition. Notice the lists of threes, the staccato sentences paired with longer, more lyrical ones, and the way the author chops up a sentence, poem-like, for effect.
- The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
- Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli
- Beauty of the Broken by Tawni Waters
- The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Word Choice and Sentence Structure
What words you choose and how you construct your sentences will be a part of your voice. Is the language you use youthful or sophisticated, formal or casual, academic or elementary? Do you use slang (either real or made up)? Are your sentences complex or short-and-sweet? Do you use stream-of-consciousness fragments?
In the following example from Feed by M.T. Anderson, notice the use of cuss words and informal language, including a futuristic slang word.
In the excerpt below from The Leaving by Tara Altebrando, notice the stream-of-consciouness sentence fragments and the single-word paragraphs.
(Both of these books, by the way, can also be examples of rhythm.)
- Ash by Malinda Lo
- The Last Book in the Universe by Rodman Philbrick
- A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd
- George by Alex Gino
- The BFG by Roald Dahl
Writing in dialect (ala Mark Twain) is what many people often associate with voice. But unlike Mark Twain (who could get away with it), you should probably dial back your dialect so it doesn’t overshadow your story or make the prose difficult/annoying to read. If you’re writing in southern dialect, for example, you don’t need to drop the “g” from every -ing verb. Instead, use word choice and sentence structure to convey accent, like in the example below from Hoodoo by Ronald L. Smith.
Similarly, including foreign language can add to your writing voice, such as in the example below from Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan.
In The Skin I’m In by Sharon Flake below, a few key word choices only hint at the narrator’s voice, but I can hear her voice in my head one hundred percent:
- As Brave As You by Jason Reynolds
- Beauty of the Broken by Tawni Waters
- The Tia Lola Stories by Julia Alvarez
- The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
- A House Made of Stars by Tawnysha Greene
- Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Patterson
The tone — humorous, dramatic, old-fashioned, ominous, snarky, peppy, silly — is a huge part of writing voice. You might use an omniscient narrator with a lofty, storytelling tone. (Or an omniscient narrator who includes lots of funny, silly, or self-deprecating asides.) Or you might use a first-person narrator with a tone that is confessional, sarcastic, or melodramatic.
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin has folk-tale tone:
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green has that classic John Green tone: intelligent, sarcastic,and darkly humorous
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak has a unique (and somber) tone because the narrator is Death:
- A Series of Unfortunate Events series by Lemony Snicket
- Me, Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews
- Hold Me Closer, Necromancer by Lish McBride
- Ash by Malinda Lo
- The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo
- Camp So-and-So by Mary McCoy
- The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart
POV, Attitude & World View:
The point of view you choose (first, close third, omniscient, etc.) isn’t the same thing as voice, but how your narrator sees, describes, and relates to the world is a huge part of the writing voice. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon (excerpted below) is a great example of how a narrator’s worldview can influence voice. In this case, the narrator is a teenage boy with autism, which affects his thoughts, attitude, and how he describes the world around him.
- Chime by Franny Billingsly
- The Graham Cracker Plot by Shelley Tougas
- To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before trilogy by Jenny Han
- The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Bejamin
- Counting by 7’s by Holly Goldberg Sloan
- A House Made of Stars by Tawnysha Greene
- Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper
- Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy
Whether you’ve made a conscious choice about the voice of your narrator, or your writing voice has developed over years of practice, it should stay consistent throughout the story.
Some example of authors with super strong, consistent voices:
- Roald Dahl
- Miranda July
- Francesca Lia Block
- John Green
- Lish McBride
- and pretty much all of the other authors I’ve given as examples in this post!
How Can I Find My Own Writing Voice?
I’m not sure there’s an easy answer to this. The more you write, the more you will find and develop the writing voice that comes most naturally to you.
I also think voice is something you can practice and experiment with. Think about the elements listed above. Play around with rhythm, word choice, tone, and point of view to cultivate the right voice for your story. Try different voices and see what feels right for you, and for your story. It may be that your writing voice changes over time, or changes depending on the type of story you’re writing.
And, of course, read writers who have strong voices! All of the writers I’ve mentioned above have strong voices and would be a great place to go for examples and inspiration.
What about you? What authors do you think have strong or unique voices? Do you have a writing voice that comes naturally to you? Has your writing voice changed over time?