Chip MacGregor

March 11, 2013

What is "voice" in writing?


We’re continuing our “ask an agent anything” series, where I’m trying to offer some short answers to your general publishing questions. If you’ve got a question you’ve always wanted to ask an agent, send it to me or leave it in the “comments” section. One reader wrote to ask, What is “voice” in writing? “

Voice is the personality of the author, expressed through words on the page. When you write, your word choices, your phrasing and structure, your thinking and themes — they all help establish your personality as a writer. So the way I write is different from the way someone else writes — my personality comes through, and shows how I’m different and unique as a writer. (An example: Stephen King and William Faulkner both like long sentences, psychological implications, semicolons, and the use of the word “and” in their works… but nobody ever picked up a Stephen King novel and mistook it for a William Faulkner novel. Though they share some characteristics, each writer has his own personality, and that comes through on the page.) Of course, not every writing voice is good — just as not every singing voice is good. A great writer has a voice that is appealing and interesting.

Similarly, another person asked, “How does a writer know when he has established a strong voice in his work?” 

It takes time and effort. I’ve always thought a writer recognizes his or her own voice over time, so the more you write, the better you hear yourself in your words. My experience is that, as I write more and more, my personality becomes clear on the page. When we talk, your words don’t sound like mine. Your stories don’t sound like mine. Your personality is unique, and getting that to be clearly expressed on the page will help you define your voice. (So, for example, when I tell my story of being in the air on Sept 11, the way I tell the story of that day will be different from the way YOU might tell it.) The writers we love best express themselves through their own voices, and we love hearing those voices because they are individual, and, in the words of Carolyn Sloan, “they teach us to be ourselves by supplying us with an example of genuine emotion…” Great voice in writing is a unique and courageous act. And I don’t think it can be created — I believe it rises up from the soul of the writer.

And one writer wanted to discuss contests: I’m entered in the Writers Digest Short Story competition, which states that Writers Digest has one-time publishing rights for the top 25 entries. So if I’ve entered, have I given up my publication rights? And as an agent, would you chew me out for being a bonehead? I just want to know if I’ve made a mistake in giving up my non-exlusive rights.”

You might very well be a bonehead (I’m reserving judgment), but you’re pretty safe with the WD contest. First, if it’s really “non-exclusive” rights, you’re free to re-sell those rights. And if this is a one-time agreement, it’s similar to any other print publication article. I doubt I’d chew you out… especially in the short story market, which is a tough, tough place to get published.

One writer wrote to ask me, What do you think of POETS & WRITERS magazine? Do you subscribe? Why or why not? And if you used to, why don’t you now?”

I think Poets and Writers is a wonderful magazine. It offers very good information on writing and the industry, incorporates a lot of event and academic stuff, and has always worked to get writers connected to one another. There’s not much else like it. I used to subscribe, but I no longer do. That has nothing to do with the quality of the magazine, but instead with the fact that I can’t stay up with so many publications. A couple years ago I took steps to simplify my life, and that included giving up some of the magazines that were good, but that I didn’t have time to adequately read. (I took further steps last year, cutting out even more magazines, axing TV news, etc.) For those writers interested in the literary side of the industry, Poets and Writers is an excellent resource.

I have received this question several times: You apparently do a lot of religious books. Is there a website that connects inspirational writers specifically with Christian agents? If not, do you think there’s a market for one?”

I do not know of a website that connects religious writers and agents. That doesn’t mean there isn’t one, it just means I don’t know of one. There are websites that attempt to connect Christian writers and publishers, including, but I don’t know if there’s one aimed at agents. Would there be a market for one? Maybe — my sense is there’s a market for just about everything. The questions would be “is it any good?” and “is it better than what we currently have?” The industry is rapidly changing, which means the role of agents is changing significantly. Some well-meaning sorts tried to create a Christian literary agent association a couple years ago, but it didn’t work out. I thought it was a noble effort, but I also wasn’t in favor of joining… I just didn’t feel it was set up appropriately. You’d have to think through things like “how are you going to define Christian?” and “what sort of guidelines are we going to have?” I have no doubts about the sincerity of religious-book agents — I just don’t know that it’s big enough to really have its own organization. Why not simply do what I did and join the Association of Author Representatives (the trade organization for full-time literary agents)?

Another writer had a similar question: Is there a place in religious publishing for a strong Christian story, but with rough patches of reality along the way?”

Of course there is. Publishing is replete with examples of literary novelists with religious themes who include some of the grittier aspects of life. If you’re unfamiliar, read the works of Lisa Samson, Flannery O’Connor, Gina Holmes, Susan Meissner, Ann Tatlock, Mark Bertrand, Elizabeth Musser, Ginger Garrett, Mary DeMuth, Alice Wisler, and Charles Martin. There are plenty of writers doing Christian books in a real-world setting. (I’m going from the seat of my pants, so I’ve doubtless missed some other fine writers who ought to be included.)

Similarly, I’ve received several forms of this question: Do religious publishers really have such overly strict requirements that they cannot use such words as ‘priest’ or ‘sex’ without being dismissed?”

No. That’s completely untrue. At least, in my extensive experience. Sure, if you’re doing a sweet romance, you can’t use racy language — but that sort of expectation is extant in ANY publishing line. You write to your audience. If your audience wants a clean romance, you write a clean romance. If they want a vivid action scene, you create a vivid action scene. But there’s not some written or unwritten code, other than societal norms. Think of it this way: If you’re writing to a religious audience who is offended by overt sexuality, then it’d be pretty dumb to include it in your novel with is supposed to be aimed at them. (A note: You may be referring to a blog post from bestselling novelist Ted Dekker a couple years ago, in which he cited a long-out-of-date document from Harlequin that listed certain words they didn’t want used in their religious fiction, in order to keep from sounding sectarian. Harlequin has since taken down that document, and the discussion has moved on.)

Happy to keep the conversation going…

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  • Peter DeHaan says:

    I’m really enjoying this series of posts that answers submitted questions. It seems everyone addresses something I’d been wondering about. Thanks!

  • I guess voice can be a courageous act, Chip. I never thought of it that way, but you are certainly putting yourself out there and when the voice is unconventional, you’re putting yourself out there for a good deal of criticism….I have a request. I’d love to hear more about what you and other writers consider a great hero or heroine? What makes a reader keep reading? You’ve probably covered these things before, but I may have missed it. All my best, Steve

  • sally apokedak says:

    great post.

    I didn’t read Dekker’s thing on forbidden words, but I remember two words off that old Harlequin list: priest and panties. I remember those two because I said, “You can’t mention priests, and you can’t mention panties, and for the love all that’s holy, never, ever, ever, mention priests IN panties.”

    And I agree with MaryAnn–that was a great quote. I’m tweeting It.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Of course, if there were fewer priests getting into panties, they might not be in the news so much lately, Sally.

  • Becky Doughty says:

    Hi Chip,
    At the risk of self-promoting, but only because it’s in DIRECT response to your reader’s question about connecting inspirational authors to inspirational agents, on April 1st, a couple author friends and are launching a new website, It’s a website geared toward “community mentoring” – and one of the ways we’re reaching out to other authors is by offering free running lists of agents accepting new clients, publishers (in particular, those who don’t require agent representation for ms subscription), and other service listings, such as editing, formatting, cover art, etc. We’ve all struggled with trying to find UPDATED lists like these online – I think Michael Hyatt’s list is finally getting outdated (it still lists certain agents at old agencies, and others who are no longer in the business at all!). Of course, we are playing it safe by making the “Check the website first!” disclaimer!

    These question/answer sessions are really quite helpful – thanks for listening to your readers.


    • chipmacgregor says:

      Happy to let people know about your new website, Becky. And I offer this bit of advice to up-and-coming authors: “When you get right with Jesus, you’ll probably be working with MacGregor Literary.” Food for thought… :o)

  • MaryAnn Diorio says:

    Chip, I love these words of yours: “Great voice in writing is a unique and courageous act. And I don’t think it can be created — I believe it rises up from the soul of the writer.” Now that is a wonderful example of strong voice in writing.

  • Thanks for the discussion on voice. It’s as hard to describe as it is to develop, I think. But my favorite writers are the ones with the unique voices. You mentioned Charles Martin above as an example of someone who writes grittier stories. I also think he’s an excellent example of a unique writer’s voice. I’m still working on discovering my voice. The more I write, the more my personality peeks out between the lines.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Agreed, Robin. It was novelist Gina Holmes who encouraged me to read Charles Martin, and I’ve come to appreciate his fine voice. Thanks.

  • Rick Barry says:

    Your example of Steven King in the topic of voice reminds me of another fun comparison: Horror writer Steven King and horror writer Richard Bachman. Even though King denied it for a long time, Bachman was a pseudonym he created to double his sales. But as you point out, Chip, King’s voice was still King’s voice, and fans figured out that King really was Bachman after all.

    (I know you know all this. I share for the sake of other readers.)

    • chipmacgregor says:

      That’s an excellent point, Rick, and one I had forgotten — readers figured it out based on voice.

  • Judith Robl says:

    Chip, you encourage me with your simplification of life which includes unsubscribing from worthy publications. (RE: Poets and Writers Magazine) I’m in the midst of unsubscribing from much in my life as well. As a hopeful novelist, I’ve been reading virtually everything which keeps me from writing much. By now, I think I’ve read enough to see what is and isn’t helpful to my writing aspirations. So I’m cutting to the bone, keeping only those things that are most helpful to my specific purpose. It hurts, but in another Good Book I’ve read, pruning is a necessary exercise for fruitfulness.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      A few years ago we moved to a small town on the coast to simplify, I gave up TV news and a bunch of magazines, and tried to pare down costs. Now things are building up again, and I realize it’s time to take a fresh look. Appreciate your note, Judith.

  • I taught the concept of Voice to my middle grade students. It isn’t easy to grasp, but by asking them to read picture books helped. I had them change up the voice for each character in the book. This helped illustrate how in a book, a character’s voice should be obvious, but so should the author’s. I think they understood a little better after that lesson. Great answers to the questions, Chip!

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