Finding a Voice in Your Writing

To all fiction writers, and even nonfiction writers, one of the most discouraging issues encountered is to find a suitable voice for their writing. Often times when reading the work back over they’ll find that it is too dull or or that it is unmemorable. This is a simple issue but it is also a crucial issue. Some writers are so outright with their voice that just by a single excerpt readers will know who’s work it is. Other writers are more subtle with their voice. Just to get a general idea of what voice is, this video nicely explains.

The first thing to do is it actually identify what you’re trying to say. Take fiction for example. When crafting a story the writer has to consider what point of view would fit best and what tone the story should have to be the most effective. Some writers will change certain things about the voice of each story to fit the story best, other writers will remain constant with their voice and craft stories specifically to fit that. But in both cases the writer makes decisions to get their point across in the most beneficial way. Once the writer has identified what they’re trying to get across then they’ll make their choices accordingly.

Written in 1929,
Written in 1929, “The Sound and the Fury” was one of the main factors in Faulkner later winning the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Art many times reflects the artist. However, in writing, the voice of the story can reflect the character more than it reflects the author. The best example of this would be William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury”. The story is broken up into four sections with each taking the perspective of a different character. The first section follows a Character named Benjy, it also happens to be one of the most baffling texts in literature. The character Benjy is mentally retarded and has no sense of time, therefore in mid-sentence the story can move back periods of decades to a different event with no indication of any change. But this also gives the reader a purely objective glimpse into the other characters as Benjy observes them but doesn’t speculate on them. Again in the second section of the book, when it follows a character named Quentin, the tone of the story becomes more disenchanted and morose, reflecting the character’s outlook.

Faulkner gives a good example of how a writer’s voice is malleable to the story. The tone of the story shifts as the reader realizes the purpose of each character. This is a valuable lesson on identifying the role of each character and how to best reflect that with the other tools in writing. Another example being that throughout “The Sound and the Fury” the first three sections are narrated in the 1st person, except for the fourth section which switches to the 3rd person. Without giving away the story, this decision was made to make the story flow better and conclude the narrative. This showcases how certain devices such as tone, narrator, and story elements are used to reflect each individual character, and subsequently the author. Being able to identify the purpose of the story will allow the writer to then make decisions on each one of these factors to find their voice.

Something else to take into account when writing is to identify the audience. Many times writers will avoid this step because it seems cumbersome and irrelevant, but often times it is just what a piece needs. Take into an account a writer who has a strong voice in their writing, for instance Hunter S. Thompson. One thing about Thompson is that he has a specific audience, although it’s hard to tell whether he reflects the culture or if the culture reflects him. What I mean is that he is known for “Gonzo Journalism” that subjective narrative style in journalism that recreates the story from the 1st person on psychedelic drugs. Like in his “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” he describes walking into a bar and seeing lizard monsters tear each other apart.  Thompson’s writing appeals to a specific audience, namely the hippie culture of the 1960’s and people that act like that generation. Knowing where the audience come’s in is crucial. If he were to write something that didn’t reflect his other famous work in any way, it would have the possibility of losing his audience and it could be disastrous. The trick was to write something appealing to that same audience but in the same way have it be original. For writers of unknown work the trick would be to more gear the book towards a specific audience and then go from there.

But also sense in a general sense art reflects the artist, something personal will always be revealed through your voice. It can be through the diction, the way you portray the characters, the morals of the story, ect. The story can be very personal and introspective. The narrator can choose to comment on things that reveal the opinions of the author, or it can be more impersonal and tell the story without much commenting. Even the story itself reveals something about the character. Like after reading “The Grapes of Wrath” the reader has a pretty good sense of the personality and politics of Steinbeck. In that way his writing was very personal because his voice framed the story so it would reveal a lot about him.

A famous drawing in the opening pages of
A famous drawing in the opening pages of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” sketched by Thompson’s famous partner Ralph Steadman.

Taking this into consideration it’s helpful to contemplate exactly what it is about your own character you wish to reveal. While subconsciously certain things may slip through in your writing you may never notice, the writer has the ability to craft the story to their liking. Sense inevitably something about yourself will be portrayed in the writing, you have the power to decide what. Going back to Hunter S. Thompson his writing reveals that he is a high octane person, that he enjoys excitement and adventure. For Hunter this was reflected mostly through his diction and tone, but there are other ways to do this. Again, you don’t have to be consciously doing this to make it happen in your writing. If you’re a very depressed person chances are it will show in your writing, the same goes with happiness, anxiety, eagerness, hopefulness, or whatever the emotion may be. This is why some writers wish to be in a specific setting and mood they write: so their writing is more consistent and it puts them in the right frame of mind.

Even if you choose for your personality not to have a strong presence in your writing, the voice is what makes a difference. Some of the most elegant writers ever had a very subtle voice, and others had a more strong voice. It’s really about what suits the writer and the story best.

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25 thoughts on “Finding a Voice in Your Writing

  1. If you use your voice consciously it will ring false. The truth is to write honestly and thus your voice cannot otherwise than be apparent.
    It’s a sort of Zen metaphor regarding the mechanics of the process of wording yourself, or to take a practical example: Keats ode on a Grecian …. etc.

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  2. Great post! I really like Peter Elbow’s discussion of voice (or capital “V” voice) in Writing with Power. Elbow’s book has a really corny title, but is actually one of the best books to discuss process I’ve found.

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  3. That bit about how self expression is subconscious is a particularly good point. It’s a lesson I had to learn a couple years back: to stop writing anything straight to camera, and start focusing solely on expressing some character’s perspective. In fact I’ve found that things about me come out even when I just write down random words that rhyme, so strong is the subconscious drive to self expression.

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  4. Faulkner is one of my favorite authors of all time and The Sound and the Fury is one one my favorite books of all time. Thank you for sharing. Faulkner is a strange bird I find. I know people who absolutely loathe him and what he’s about literature wise and people like me who can’t get enough.

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  5. Great post. I just started writing a fiction work recently about a week ago so I needed to hear this. I really liked the point you brought up about finding a certain emotion to write in, in order to keep the writing consistent. Also, I loved the Hunter Thompson connection. He was my favorite writer when I was younger. He certainly had a specific voice and style that he owned.

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  6. Please forgive me if I am not impressed. Twenty five years ago I was dabbling in poetry and the one thing that held sway in poetry was voice. I remember reading how Robert Frost was recruited by one of his fellow poets for a “Poets Retreat” where amateurs would write and the professionals would critique. Frost was never one to critique as he suffered no fools. When on woman handed him her work he was moved to exclaim, “T S Eliot on the worst day of his life would never have written such bad poetry!” Or words to that effect. It is a true story. A poet or a writer must find his or her own way of speaking as translated into writing. That is the essence. Yes, lots of PhDs and professional writers can talk about the subject, but is all means nought unless you can understand your own voice. That is, the way your talk and think. Pure and simple. Henry James sounds sort of like an Englishman but when he descends into the talk of the east end he is terribly lost. He can’t master the Cockney accent or speech patterns that many Londoners can. He’s an American who can imitate upper class Brits but knows little about the lower classes because he has not been around them very long. How we hear the world is one thing, but how the world hears us is another.

    Case in point. The poem by Dylan Thomas, Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night is written in the voice of Thomas Hardy. Thomas admits as much. It’s not his voice but that of Hardy. Do you start to understand how voice works? For a long time Thomas got away with in in the public eye, yet, he could not escape that while the words were his, the voice was Hardy’s. Of course the hard part about voice is that if we try to make our individual characters have unique voices then we risk the falsity of our own voices. Such attempts become artificial, wooden, inarticulate. Beware the siren of creative writing classes for they will lead you onto the shoals and rocks that destroy your writing.

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  7. It took me 38 years to find my written voice! I find it really odd that my written voice is so much calmer, rational and more serious than how I chat to people face to face. Peculiarly, if I write when I am feeling down my posts don’t get as good a response as when I write when I am happy. However, if I read the posts back objectively I cannot really sense that my words come out differently whatever mood I am in – it is something more than just the words and the order of them that seems to impact the reader.
    As always, a thought provoking and helpful post. Thank you.

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  8. I’m all for the democratization of the written and published word, vis-a-vis the internet and self publishing, but what is often left out of discussions about writing is Craft–as opposed to crafts–these days everybody wants to be a writer but the craft requires mastery.

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  9. I thank you very much for penning this article. For me it has been a struggle of many years to to articulate my self in a fictional voice. And to my surprise I have been able to transcend the conventional narratology of the voice and articulate myself in unstable narrator who is highly a legion of voices. This article has inspired me Many thanks. Anand Bose from Kerala.

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