Voice is possibly the most elusive part of being a great writer. It’s tough to pin down why some voices work and others don’t. We love voices that feel real and authentic, but we also love voices that are over-the-top and full of outrageous personality.
It’s tough to develop a voice and for some writers it’s the hardest part of the writing process. Once you’ve gotten down the structure and you’re avoiding grammar mistakes, your writing might still lack the sort of voice that publishers go crazy for.
I’ve heard from a lot of writers who are frustrated because they feel that a lot of the books out there aren’t written with a strong voice. Part of this confusion is that we always think of the strong unique voices and we discount the neutral ones. As a writer, you actually have two choices when it comes to voice:
1. Be Unique
2. Be Neutral
A unique voice is easy to spot (Roald Dahl, Chuck Palahniuk), but the neutral voice is often discounted. A neutral writing voice is one that is not distracting. Perhaps a better term for the neutral voice would be “invisible.” But make no mistake, it is not average or mediocre. In fact, it takes quite an advanced level of skill to pull off a neutral voice. Depending on your skill set and what you like in a novel, you will have to choose which style to develop.
Regardless of whether your voice is neutral or unique, it still needs to follow the same basic guidelines to succeed.
Voice is in the Details
A voice that truly captures our attention and draws us into a story is able to do so by focusing on details, especially specific details that are difficult to imagine. Often when a voice is “bad,” the voice is simply not providing valuable details that enhance the reading experience. The key to your voice is in the unique and specific details that only you can notice and describe.
Anyone can describe the ocean as “sparkling blue,” but how do you describe the ocean? How can you bring the reader closer to your unique perspective so they can see from your eyes? Though it’s an easy go-to phrase, I doubt most writers really think of the ocean as “sparkling blue.”
We’ve all heard of method acting. Well, method writing can be just as effective. This isn’t always possible since your characters might be having supernatural or inappropriate or dangerous experiences, but sometimes it is possible to experience what your characters are going through. If your character is gun wielding, get yourself to a shooting range. If your character is a bowler, join a league and learn how to throw a ball and keep score.
You can also pull from experiences you’ve already had in your life. For example, when I was six-years-old I got a horrible sun burn with my neck, back, and shoulders coated in huge blisters. I can describe the feeling of the breaking blisters and the smell of the aloe and the pain of trying to sleep on a blistered back. On the other hand, I’ve never had stitches so I can’t really describe what that experience is like. If I wanted to write about stitches, I would need to do research or listen to people talk about their own experiences.
The real life visceral experiences are important to developing voice. If you don’t know what it feels like to be in your character’s shoes, how is the reader going to know?
Because vivid details are so important to a strong voice, copying the phrases and descriptions we’ve all read a hundred times will make your voice feel weak. We already know that clichés can cause our voices to weaken, but the generic boring descriptions (like the “sparkling blue ocean”) can be equally weakening.
Every time a person reads a certain phrasing, it loses meaning. The initial emotional reaction gets weaker and weaker until there is no reaction at all. So if your novel is full of “big brown dogs” and “sparkling blue oceans” and “eyes like deep pools,” there is a very good chance that your voice is lacking strength.
One of the best features of a strong voice is writing that flows so smoothly and naturally that it carries the reader through the story. There are a lot of components that go into creating a nice flow so I’m going to list out some of the major ones. A voice with a great flow:
- Doesn’t linger on any one detail for too long.
- Doesn’t dip into back story long enough for the reader to lose touch with what’s happening in the moment.
- Weighs important details more heavily than unimportant ones to steer the reader in the right direction.
- Doesn’t repeat words or phrases too close together.
- Never jars the reader out of the story with awkward or confusing wording.
- Avoids clustering difficult words (advanced vocabulary or fantasy words) so the reader doesn’t stumble.
If you struggle with flow, I recommend reading your work out loud. It can also be helpful to read more published fiction in your genre to get a better sense of how a professional writer sounds when read aloud. Comparing your writing to the pros can be eye opening.
A great voice is consistent. The writer demonstrates mastery of their craft because they hit on their perfect voice 100% of the time, not just sometimes. An excerpt from the beginning of the novel should have the same basic “sound” as an excerpt from the middle or end. Sure the characters change and the scenes vary in intensity, but it should still read as if it were written by the same person.
In order to convey strength, the voice can’t flip-flop erratically between different styles. It can’t be light and humorous in one chapter and deathly serious in another. The voice should remain relatively steady while still conveying the intensity of the scene.
Choose an excerpt of your book and read it carefully. Highlight any descriptions or phrases that you feel you’ve heard or read before. Once you’ve done that, go back through your work and replace those phrases with your own voice. This might take some time, effort, and even practice to get right, but stick with it.
Manually putting in more of your own personality in revisions might feel like cheating (we all want voice to flow naturally) but it’s how you can create a strong and consistent voice. Line editing is all about ripping out the phrases and descriptions that aren’t our best work.
Discussion Question (please discuss below):
Which writer’s voice is your favorite?
16 thoughts on “Novel Boot Camp #11: Improving Voice”
I can’t get enough of Alexander McCall Smith. He’s quaint, droll, yet pithy. His voice is pure entertainment for me. I also enjoy Salman Rushdie’s voice. If you liked Midnight’s Children, try Shalimar the Clown. There are so many great voices in writing. I have to mention Neil Gaiman and Markus Zusak, both unique and yet similar in that they have an intense edge to every description. And of course, any book by Stephen King or Orson Scott Card seems like a letter from an old friend. They are polar opposites yet so consistently personable.
I write for children. My favorite voice is that of Lauren St. John (The White Giraffe). I imagine her as actually being the 11 year-old Martine. I want to write like that.