Saturday, 8 September 2012

Does your writing have voice?

While I was tweeting my reactions to the slush during Pitch Madness, the words 'great voice' popped up a lot in my tweets. But then a response about how voice in writing seems like some magical, elusive thing had me thinking about what voice is, and how you can tell if your writing has it (great voice, that is). So I thought I'd write this to try and a) make 'voice' seem less like a vague concept which might disappear on a gust of wind, and b) say when and why it's such a big deal.

I remember when I first heard the word 'voice' in relation to writing, and I thought WTF? Do they mean the dialogue?

Uh, no.

But if you've ever read an Austen novel and been able to imagine perfectly the smirk on the face of one of her heroines as she delivers a subtle but devastating assessment, that's because you 'hear' it in the voice. If you read Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting and suddenly find yourself thinking in a Glaswegian accent (and using the c-word where normally you'd just pause for breath), that's because you've been drawn into the voice. And if you've read Chuck Palahniuk's Choke and suddenly realised you were rooting for the sex-addicted con man, you'll know what a sneaky, powerful thing great voice can be.

But what exactly is voice

Here's my understanding of it:

If your novel is in 3rd-person, the voice of your novel is the style, personality and attitude you give your writing.

If your novel has a 1st-person narrative, the voice is the phrasing and speech patterns of the narrator.

That's pretty straightforward, right?

What is “voice” in writing and how is it created? Why is it important to add voice to your writing? (Danny's Symbolic)
CC image by Danny Getz

Whether voice is great or not is a bit subjective *cold shiver*, but I think a reader can still identify great voice without necessarily connecting with it.

For example - I'm not a MG reader. I doubt I've read a published MG novel since I was that age myself. Just not my thing. But I've read quite a few samples lately *cough cough* which were MG, and I could still see great voice in the writing. Or not, in some cases. But whether I like MG or not doesn't actually matter. It matters whether an agent who reps MG or someone picking your book up in a bookstore likes the voice in your MG novel because they're your target readers.

It's the same as with the 3 examples I gave above - ask a hundred readers if they liked the voice in Emma or Trainspotting or Choke and you'll get different responses. Austen, Welsh and Palahniuk aren't going to be everyone's favourite authors. Doesn't mean they don't all have great voice.

Not connecting with a voice doesn't mean it's not there - and that's the really tricky part. The part where if you get an agent's response that they "just didn't connect with the voice" and you think but all my CPs said it had tons of voice...

Head in Hands
CC image by Alex Proimos
...the agent's response doesn't necessarily mean your writing isn't full-to-the-brim with it. It may be that the voice in your MS just isn't one that particular agent likes.

The thing (and you can start throwing things at me now) is to keep going until you find the one who does like the voice in your MS, and all the other components which make up your novel. This might be the thing which makes your novel from the POV of a sociopathic serial killer draw people in. (Dexter, anyone?)

I read an article which said that voice is something a writer develops over time. I don't know whether this is true or not. I've read a lot of MSs by first-timers that I think have fantastic voice. And some where the voice isn't stand-out. But again, that's just my opinion. But I can see, especially with authors who publish a series of books, how they find a voice that works for them and their readers and stick with it. At least for a while. Then maybe they go off and write a book for adults about a town council election with nary a wizard in sight...who knows. Maybe the voice stays the same, maybe it falls flat, or maybe it changes and is still great voice.

Voice, if you get it right, is what will make a reader feel like they know your characters and the world you've created, and were there when the story unfolded. It's the suck you in element that makes you forget you're reading, and can make an otherwise horrible character sympathetic. Most of all, it's what might just get you a "WOW" when the reader closes the book.


  1. I've always thought of voice as your writing's personality.

  2. Great post, Kat. "Voice" does seem like this elusive thing, but I think you pinned it down nicely!

  3. I always thought your writing had great voice Kat, it's really quirky and unusual! also I love the faceplaming statue! It should be a Meme...

    1. Thank you so much! And I liked the statue too - seems like a right drama queen ;)

  4. I remember my very first critique by an editor who told me "It feels like you just haven't found your voice." Confused the heck out of me! But I've come a long way since then, and you do a great job explaining that elusive element. :)

    1. Thank you, Janet. I think as it's often so open to interpretation, a lot of writers stress over comments about their 'voice'. (I know I do!)

  5. I love that your comment re: the agent. "I coudn't connect with your voice." I ALWAYS interpreted that as "you don't have any" or "yours sucks." But I totally think it is THIS. It wasn't the voice they like to read. Exactly. Thanks for this!

  6. Great post. Voice is the writer's personality connecting with the words, and as in the real world you won't jibe with everyone you meet. Voice is such a difficult thing for an aspiring author. I think the more a person sits down and writes, the better they can hone their own original voice. At least, that's how I discovered mine :)

    1. Great comment, I absolutely agree! Thanks :)

  7. Great post! That voice thing is tricky-tricky. ;)

    1. Thanks Brenda <3 I think critique on 'voice' bring on a cold sweat for most writers! ;)


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