So what is ‘voice’ in writing?

Google it and you’ll find any number of definitions.

This is what Wikipedia has to say:

    The writer’s voice is the individual writing style of an author, a combination of idiotypical usage of syntax, diction, punctuation, character development, dialogue, etc., within a given body of text (or across several works).1

From Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent:

    So what is it? To me, your writer’s voice is the expression of YOU on the page. It’s that simple—and that complicated. Your voice is all about honesty. It’s the unfettered, non-derivative, unique conglomeration of your thoughts, feelings, passions, dreams, beliefs, fears and attitudes, coming through in every word you write.

    Voice is all about your originality and having the courage to express it.2

From The Kill Zone:

    In a similar manner, when it comes to defining the writer’s voice, it can be the combination of the author’s attitude, personality and character; the writer’s style that conveys the story. It’s called the writer’s voice. Voice is the persona of the story as interpreted by the reader.3

It’s all correct. And there’s any number of variations on the definition.

Recently, I’ve had discussions with authors who’ve said to me their voice changes depending on what story their writing. I don’t buy that.

For me, (the definition of) voice can be diluted further.

When I’m reading a story, I hear the narration in my head. It’s not my actual voice I hear. Or my standard inner monologue of thoughts. It’s something distinctive to that author. That author might diversify in what they’re writing – go from satire to contemporary drama to historical romance to erotica to sci-fi – but their voice always shines through, a sine wave that is unique to them, just as bands and artists have distinctive sounds.

Turn on the radio, for example, and even if you don’t recognise the song, you can usually identify it either by the sound of the vocals and/or the music. Even when artists try something difficult – e.g. go from rock to something jazzier – the sound is still them at heart.

Think about the song ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. Listen to the vocal range displayed there by Freddie Mercury and the other members of Queen. But it’s all still Queen, regardless how many highs and lows they hit, how often the song varies from ballad to melody to rock.

Voice is something that I really look for in a story.

Sometimes, when I’m reading, I feel like the author has tried to aggrandise their prose, as if (they feel) that will make them sound impressive. When I was young, I used to try something similar, consulting the Thesaurus for alternatives that might astound the reader and show them how smart I was. Others I read might try to be shocking, as if (they believe) their temerity will titillate and/or awe me. There are any number of ways writing can be untrue to its author.

This doesn’t mean that voice has to be simple. It just has to be you.

It can take a long time to discover your voice. I think it took me twenty years. Usually it comes through lots of writing, lots of experimentations, lots of trial and even more error.

But as you write, think about how you tell your story. Think about how you would tell it, if somebody asked you to speak it to them. Would you dress it up or just be straightforward, be true to yourself as a person?

One final way to think about it: if we both went to the bank and the bank was robbed, we would both relay the experience differently, because we’re unique and our minds, the way we interpret and process events, differs. Even if we tried telling this story a variety of different ways (e.g. humourously, dramatically, experimentally, satirically) or in different styles (e.g. chronologically, in flashback, disjointedly, backwards) our voice would still be the spine of our narrative.

Ultimately, voice is about being true to yourself, regardless of what we write.


1. Writer’s Voice – Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Writer%27s_voice. Accessed 20 January 2013.
2. Rachelle Gardner – http://www.rachellegardner.com/2010/07/what-is-writers-voice/. Accessed 20 January 2013.
3. The Kill Zone – http://killzoneauthors.blogspot.com.au/2012/09/what-is-writers-voice.html#.UPtBCmd5eSo. Accessed 20 January 2013.