Welcome back (after a short hiatus) to my series on using literary devices in the real world. After my post on tone, reader Laurie brought up the subject of voice– “Voice is something, like tone, that has always felt a little elusive to me.” Based on the number of questions we at the blog get about voice, Laurie’s not alone! I understand the frustration some authors have with the mystique that sometimes surrounds the concept of “voice” in writing – I’m as guilty as the next agent or editor who rhapsodizes about a “great writing voice” or fantasizes about finding the next great “voice” without spending a lot of time talking about this seemingly indefinable quality. That’s probably because author voice is a tricky quality to talk about without being too prescriptive. My favorite definition of voice is “the personality of the author as revealed through the writing.” That said, it’s hard for an agent to give specific advice about voice without sounding like we’re suggesting you change your personality/writing style, or without sounding as if we’re dictating what that should be. In reality, all we really want is for your voice to present more clearly and strongly on the page.
In my last post, I talked about tone, tone being the author’s attitude towards his subject, whether that’s flippant, derisive, sentimental, etc. Because tone is a quality that can be very personal/distinctive, it’s often confused with voice– tone contributes to voice, certainly, but it’s just one of the many ways an author reveals his personality on the page. When it’s done well, voice tells me in the first couple of paragraphs what the author’s style of humor is, how intellectual his writing is, what tone he’s taking, how seriously she takes herself, what she’s “rated–” PG or R?– etc. Regardless of the type of book being written, the answers to these questions about the author’s personality can be found on virtually any page of a book with great voice; it shines through the narration, the dialogue, and the description.
To use voice effectively, and to develop a great author voice, you have to understand the ways in which voice is revealed. Hyperbole, sarcasm, and tongue-in-cheek comments all let the reader know you have a sense of humor, set up the type of humor you will be using– subtle or overt, situational or narration-based– and primes the reader to be on the lookout for more jokes. Sentence length tells the reader what to expect in terms of syntax and difficulty– is this going to be a book I’m going to have to put a lot of mental effort into or one I can pick up casually and read a chapter at a time for entertainment? Readers expect to engage at the same level throughout a book, so if your sentence length or level of complication varies widely in your book, that’s a voice problem– the reader no longer knows what to expect or which style is the “real” you.
Word choice is another element that affects/reflects an author’s voice. It’s natural for a writer starting out to be a bit self-conscious of his words on the page, much like someone at a new job or on a first date is hyper-aware of how he’s coming across to others. In the same way, newer writers sometimes write with a consciousness that someone– an agent, a peer group, an editor– is going to read their work, and that awareness can sabotage or smother the writer’s true personality coming out on the page. Authors may choose words to make them come across as more intellectual or more relevant, and the words they choose in their attempts to project rather than reveal themselves can be extremely distracting to the reader and create distance between the reader and an author who comes across as inauthentic or faceless. If you aren’t using long, complex words naturally, they’re going to be jarring to the reader when we come up against them strewn awkwardly along your story. If your voice/writing style is very informal, more formal language is going to stick out. Your words are those that come fairly naturally to you, not those you choose because you want to sound more “writer-y” or intellectual. The reverse is also true; if your writing style is naturally very cerebral or formal, conscious decisions to try and “dumb down” your word choice or syntax aren’t going to ring true, and this prevents the reader who would love your natural voice and word choice from getting a clear picture of that voice.
The first step in using voice effectively is to understand your own voice. Take a passage of your writing– probably more than one paragraph, so you have plenty to go on– and look for the answers to these questions:
- What is my tone? Humorous? Irreverent? Chilling? Gritty? Optimistic? Melancholy? Dark? Zany?
- Where on the scale do I fall? I.e., if your writing voice is humorous, what kind of humor are you using? If your voice is dark, is it horror-movie dark or Lifetime-original-movie dark? If it’s chilling, is it rated PG-13 or R? If it’s irreverent, is it only mildly offensive or are people going to burn your book?
- What is my rhythm/sentence length? Is the majority of your story written in short, punchy sentences, or in long, flowery sentences? Or are they of average length?
- What is my syntax? Are my sentences simple and straightforward? Are they complex?
- What is my word choice like? Does it sound like I consulted a thesaurus for every sentence? Do my out-of-the-box word choices support or distract from my story? Are my words a fit for my audience’s average age and level of education?
If you have trouble answering these questions for your own writing, farm out the chore to a competent reader. Ask a good writer and reader to look at your writing and pass her observations on to you; see how they match up with your own observations. The better you know your tendencies as a writer, the more successfully you will be able to recognize writing of yours that detracts from or weakens your voice, or that stands out by being substantially different.
Sometimes when you examine your voice and start to recognize the patterns that naturally occur in your writing, you come to the realization that you haven’t written the book you thought you had, and find yourself reexamining the genre or age group you write for. You may start out thinking you’re writing YA but discover after the fact that your voice, whether because of your word choice or syntax or approach to your subject, is naturally much better suited to an older reader, or you may think you’ve written a thriller but what your voice is really better suited for is romantic suspense. I know it seems overwhelming to consider that the genre or readership you’ve worked towards and identified with might not be the best fit for your voice/writing style, but you’ll meet with a lot less resistance on your writing path, long-term, if you figure out where your strengths and the market align, rather than trying to apply your strengths to an area of the market where they’re not the greatest fit.
It’s important, in these discussions on voice, that you don’t let some of the finer points of voice distract you from the big picture; that is, that voice is the personality of the author as revealed through the writing. The better you understand what makes your writing uniquely yours, the more clearly you can identify these characteristics when they show up on the page, and the better you can develop them, as well as weed out elements of your story that aren’t a great fit with your voice.
A lot of this content was repurposed from my Voice Lessons series I did about 18 months ago– if you’d like to see more of what I had to say about voice, check out the series in the archives! Keep your questions on literary devices coming, and as always, thank you for reading!