Chip MacGregor

September 23, 2014

Voice Lessons: Part 1, Defining Author Voice


brick green no smile b:wHere at the Chip MacGregor blog, we receive thousands of questions from readers every week. Okay, maybe more like dozens. At least ten. While a majority of those questions have to do with the publishing side of writing– the editorial process, finding an agent, understanding contracts/rights/etc.,– someone occasionally sends in a question related to craft, and probably a fourth of those questions have to do with author voice and how to define/develop it.

Most frequently, readers’ questions on voice are very similar to this one:

“I would find it helpful if you would say more about ‘voice.’ What does that look like? How does one develop and improve ‘voice?'”

I understand the frustration some authors have with the lack of definitive answers about voice– 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– one of the best definitions of voice in a piece of writing 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 beyond general comments like “your voice seems inconsistent” or “your voice doesn’t come across very strong” without sounding like we’re suggesting you change your personality/writing style. In reality, all we really want is for it to present more clearly and strongly on the page.

What great voice “looks like” is a book that tells me in the first couple of paragraphs what the author’s style of humor is, how intellectual his writing is, how whimsical he is, how seriously she takes herself, how “safe” she is (does she write camera-fade-to-black fight scenes or no-one-under-17-admitted-without-a-parent fight scenes?)– 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 one of his books; it shines through the narration, the dialogue, and the description.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll talk about the way that writing style, syntax, word choice, and atmosphere affect an author’s voice and how to use these elements to develop and improve your own voice, as well as look at examples of some great voices already in print. If you have any questions about voice you’d like addressed in the series, leave them in the comments. Thanks for reading!

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  • Preston Brad Rentz says:

    Your post Erin is the clearest description I’ve read yet on “voice”. Thanks, look forward to reading more.

  • Cameron Bane says:

    I think this is going to be a great (and much-needed) series, Erin; looking forward to more!

  • RC Atchisson says:

    Looking forward to this. Somehow “voice” always ends being explained like many people’s definition of “art”: they know it when they see/hear it.

  • Debra L. Butterfield says:

    Erin, I’m certainly looking forward to this series and how it can give me insight into my own voice, but also the voice of others. I’m especially interested in word choice. I look for the best word available, but never gave a moment’s thought how that word affects my voice.

  • Erin, I’m really enjoying your column and wanted to say that I think YOUR voice is distinctive. You come across as both humorous and lighthearted while at the same time well spoken and thoughtful. Your advice gives me a sense of confidence in your experience and curiosity about you as a person. Thanks for what you write here on Chip’s blog.

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