Chip MacGregor

October 28, 2014

Voice Lessons: Part 4, Responding to Voice Criticism


brick green no smile b:wI’m starting to wrap up my series on author voice, and this week and next week will be looking at ways authors can protect and continue to develop their literary voice.


So far in the series, I’ve really tried to emphasize that a lot of these examples of voice are descriptive rather than prescriptive, meaning that just because one author in your genre tends to use less description or more complicated syntax doesn’t mean that the way for you to have a stronger, more effective author voice is to do the exact same thing. On the contrary, the best way for you to develop a strong author voice is to be as much yourself as possible, but I’ve talked with a  lot of authors who have  received feedback or criticism about their voice that has caused them to second-guess their instincts or believe that they need to change their voice in order to further their writing career, and in most cases, this isn’t true. Below are several common pieces of voice-related feedback authors receive and the do’s and don’ts of responding.


  • “Your voice isn’t very strong/you need to develop your voice more.” DON’T: go out and become a caricature of a voice in your genre. If you write thrillers and are advised to strengthen your voice, that shouldn’t be taken as a prescription to go back and re-write your story in over-the-top Gothic style or to add a bunch of distinctive vocabulary or syntax as a way of manufacturing a recognizable voice. DO: start a list of what elements already define your voice (ask a critique group or writing partner to help you) and then write (and read) a LOT more. Voice is largely developed through experience, but reading authors with strong voice can help you develop your ear for voice and make you more aware of the way your own voice comes through on the page.
  • “Your voice needs to be more _________ (humorous, menacing, formal, informal, intellectual, accessible).” DON’T: blindly accept any and all feedback in this line. One reader’s preference of voice in a certain type of book doesn’t mean that you have to (or that there’s any way at all you could) cater to an individual reader’s taste. DO: consider whether that feedback is driven by personal preference or by genre/readership norms. If you write for a younger audience and someone tells you your voice needs to be more accessible, you may want to consider whether you really have a handle on the age/education of your reader. If you’re writing a non-fiction book on accounting, that might not be the place to let your informal Twitter voice drive the manuscript, and you may want to consider the possibility that your voice needs to be more formal.
  • Your voice needs to be more consistent.” DO: ask for clarification, if you can. Do they mean that your voice comes and goes, or that it changes tone throughout? If the former is the problem, take a look at the places where your voice IS evident and think about ways you could apply the same technique in other parts of the manuscript. If it’s the latter, take it back to genre: if the majority of your cozy mystery is humorous/lighthearted except for the two places where you suddenly shift into completely chilling terror-territory, you probably need to re-work the scenes in the minority to better fit with the tone you have more consistent success with in the rest of the manuscript (and the tone a reader generally expects from that genre). Just because you CAN suddenly write a completely hilarious scene or a completely horrifying one doesn’t mean you should– if it’s going to confuse the reader or lessen your authority as a thriller writer (or a romance writer, or a children’s writer, or… etc.), it needs to be excised in the interest of further establishing your voice.

Though it can take different forms, the majority of feedback on author voice is pointing out the same thing: you don’t consistently sound like yourself. Attempting to reinvent your voice  in response to every individual critic is ultimately going to be unproductive as well as completely destructive to the development of your consistent, unique voice. In general, take voice-related criticism with a grain of salt, consider it in light of your genre and potential readers, compare it with your own understanding of your writing voice, and then get back to writing, always the most surefire way to develop a strong voice.



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