The concept of voice in writing is one of the hardest to define and teach to writers. Yet having a distinct voice is important for anyone who wants to be noticed—whether it’s for writing a blog, writing a novel, or getting followers on Twitter.
A writer’s voice is influenced and characterized by a lot of different things. And, while a writer’s voice can encompass a range of writings from one author, the voice can also vary depending on the genre and purpose. Still, for established, respected and liked authors, there are usually a few general areas that we can look at that can help us understand the concept of “voice.” These include tone, rhythm, language, subject, and attitude.
The best way to get a sense of the concept of voice is to look at and study the writings of different authors—especially those with, well, different voices. Humorous writers are probably the most distinctive when it comes to voice.
Here’s an excerpt from an essay by popular comedy-writer David Sedaris called “Standing By,” about his observations from travelling.
It was one of those situations I often find myself in while travelling. Something’s said by a stranger I’ve been randomly thrown into contact with and I want to say, ‘Listen, I’m with you on most of this, but before we continue I need to know whom you voted for in the last election.’…. Of course, you can’t just ask people whom they voted for. Sometimes you can tell by looking, but the grandmother with the many bracelets could have gone either way.
David Sedaris is funny because he’s achingly honest and sincere, and shares the same kind of bewilderment of others that we all share. He seems to voice what many of us might be thinking but would never actually say.
Margaret Atwood, one of my favorite writers, is funny for the way that she plays with language and makes us look at things a little differently. In “The Female Body,” she plays with the word “topic,” making fun of an editor’s invitation for her to write on this “topic.” Atwood often writes with fragments, using a lot of concrete objects and images, as we can see from the following excerpt:
I agree, it’s a hot topic. But only one? Look around, there’s a wide range. Take my own, for instance.
I get up in the morning. My topic feels like hell. I sprinkle it with water. I brush parts of it, rub it with towels, add lubricant.
Ever the writer and not the theorist, Atwood insists on the physicality of the body and uses irony to show it.
Voices can be sarcastic, ironic, sincere, encouraging, harsh, gentle, silly, offensive, lazy, convoluted, hoity-toity, prosaic, poetic…and so much more. If we read authors from the Victorian area, we inevitably see longer sentences, more description, and a lot of “dear reader” interludes. Yet even within specific trends, we can spot distinctions in voice. Think Charles Dickens versus Louisa May Alcott. Their subjects, their attitude, and their use of language are somewhat different, distinct to their own voices.
Of course, a lot of other factors influence voice, and the more popular voices harness the trends of the time. Cleary, writers with a fast-paced, witty style that translates well to sound bites and tweets are probably going to go viral faster than someone who likes to write long, descriptive paragraphs. It’s something to be aware of, yet you also want to be careful of writing in a way that is not entirely authentic for you. Find a way to be authentic—don’t write simply to be read. People pick up on inauthenticity.
Mary Pipher, now a well-known author of several influential books, describes this struggle in Writing to Change the World:
I struggled for years to find my voice. At first, I wrote in a self-conscious way: I sat down and ‘committed the act of literature.’ My anxiety about writing caused me to write in a constipated, bland way that sounded clunky, pompous, and effusive all at the same time. I was imitating other writers and producing inferior work.
This is not to say that imitating others—if done in a conscious way—can’t be a productive method for finding your voice. Mimicking others, like trying on clothes, helps you become aware of what works well for you and what doesn’t. You eventually bring your own flair to it and make it yours.
Pipher says that once she wrote as she talked, she felt she found her “authentic” voice. Yet be careful of following this prescription–nobody writes exactly as they talk. There would be some pretty boring, repetitive stuff out there if we did! I think what she means here is that by allowing herself to see writing as a form of talking—not as an avenue to impress people with her dazzling intellect—she was able to give herself permission to say what she wanted to say how she wanted to say it, and in a way that would be easily understood.
How do you know or find your own voice? Becoming aware of the concept of voice can help. So can becoming aware of the styles of various writers and how they affect you as reader. As much as I’d like to, I can never approach the brilliant linguistic playfulness of a Margaret Atwood. I can, however, look to what makes me laugh, to what the things are that I find funny, curious, strange, or ironic. You also might think about how you present yourself when you are at your best. What do people like about you? That you are down-to-earth? That you have good advice? That you get right to the point? That you have great stories? These are just some of the ways that writers might have a unique aspect of their voice. Find what works for you and run with it.
Mary Pipher quote from: Writing to Change the World (New York: Riverhead, 2006): pp. 42-43.