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Finding Your Voice

by Susan J. Letham

Novice writers tend to feel awed by the concept of "voice."
Once you understand what writers mean by voice, it becomes
easier to grasp.

You wouldn't mistake Goldie Hawn's voice for Liz Taylor's,
even if you couldn't see their faces, would you? And if I
were to give you a text to read, you wouldn't confuse a
ghetto gangster with that a Washington lawyer. Not only do
they sound different, they also use different kinds of
language: words, tone, sentences, forms of address.

Here are three voice examples:

Example 1: I love the heady cruelty of spring. The cloud
shows in the first weeks of the season are wonderfully
adolescent: "I'm happy!" "I'm mad, I'm brooding." "I'm
happy--now I'm going to cry ..." The skies and the weather
toy with us, refusing to let us settle back down into the
steady sleepy days and nights of winter.

Example 2: I believe I have some idea of how the refugee
feels, or the immigrant. Once, I was thus, or nearly so. ...
And all the while I carried around inside me an elsewhere, a
place of which I could not speak because no one would know
what I was talking about. I was a displaced person, of a
kind, in the jargon of the day. And displaced persons are
displaced not just in space but in time; they have been cut
off from their own pasts. ... If you cannot revisit your own
origins--reach out and touch them from time to time--you are
for ever in some crucial sense untethered.

Example 3: Privacy in the workplace is one of the more
troubling personal and professional issues of our time. But
privacy cannot be adequately addressed without considering a
basic foundation of ethics. We cannot reach a meaningful
normative conclusion about workplace privacy rights and
obligations without a fundamental and common understanding
of the ethical basis of justice and a thorough understanding
of individual and organizational concerns and motivations.

Different backgrounds and distinguishable voices

Do you think the examples were written by the same person?
Of course not. Anne Lamotte (example 1) is a contemporary US
Writer and diarist. Penelope Lively (example 2,) a British
author who spent her childhood in Cairo in the 1940s. Laura
Hartman (example 3) is an academic who writes about ethics
and technology. They are people with different backgrounds
and distinguishable voices.

Voice is the way your words "sound" on the page

In writing, voice is the way your writing 'sounds' on the
page. It has to do with the way you write, the tone you
take--friendly, formal, chatty, distant--the words you
choose--everyday words or high-brow language--the pattern of
your sentences, and the way these things fit in--or not--
with the personality of the narrator character and the style
of your story.

The voice I'm using to write this is friendly, familiar, and
direct, at least I hope it is. I'm writing more or less the
way I would speak if we were chatting face-to-face. When I
write poetry, fiction, or social policy articles, my voice
is quite different. I don't talk straight to my reader as
I'm doing to you, I move back a step, become more distant,
choose other words and different sentence structures.

You might be surprised to know how many beginning writers
write out of character, that is, they choose the wrong voice
and tone for the purpose they have in mind. Your New England
preppie won't chew on her words like someone with a Texas
drawl or talk sexy, like a Detroit hooker. A Hickville
street sweeper is unlikely to speak like a Harvard graduate,
at least not unless he really is a Harvard graduate... but
that would be story, not voice.

Voice is a reflection of experience

Voice is a reflection of how your character experiences the
world of your story. Invest time in developing your figures
and getting to know their background. When you've done that,
tell your story out loud, as if the characters in your story
were speaking. Let your characters tell you the story,
listen carefully to how they do it, then start writing your
story down. If you can 'hear' your characters, it's likely
that you'll get the voice of your story right.

How to develop your voice

Write as much as possible. Keep a journal. Imagine you are
writing your journal for a friend, perhaps in letter style.
Write about your day, the things you see and experience, the
thoughts that go through your head. Watch the news or read a
newspaper and write your thoughts on current events. Writing
about your views is good voice practice, because it forces
you to think of new things to say and new ways to say them.

We don't stop to think too much as we write letters, we
don't weight up every word--we tell the story. That's
exactly what you need to do when you write your drafts. When
you start to worry about the way you're going to sound, you
quickly lose your voice.

Ask friends to describe your style

Once you have a stock of personal writing, ask a friend to
read it and tell you how you come across on the page.

- Is your personal writing literary? funny? romantic?
   poetic? factual? upbeat? depressing? straightforward?
   flowery? How do you sound?
- Do you write your mind? Express opinions? Or are your
   words over-polite and politically correct? Writers get to
   call intimate interpersonal relations 'sex' and digging
   implements 'spades.'
- Is it stilted? Does it flow? Do you sound like YOU?
- Does your writing have a rhythm?
- Do all your sentences sound the same? Are they varied?
- Do you have 'favorite' words and phrases that you repeat
   often? If so, which ones? Can you find alternatives?

We have to go deep inside to find our real voices, the ones
that hide beneath the social veneer, and that means finding
out who we are and what we think about the world. It's
important that you get to know your natural voice so you can
stay in style, and so you can adapt to fit your characters
in the right way.

A long, long letter to your reader

When you move from your journal into your story, think of
your manuscript as a long, long letter to your reader, and
remember that we rarely have problems writing letters and

It takes time and a lot of writing to develop a voice, and
impatient writers love to skip that part of the process. But
writing before you're ready won't cut it in most cases. You
run the danger of having no real voice to speak of (or
with.) The tips in this article will set you on the right
path to finding your voice and, through that, authentic
voices for your characters and stories.

2002 Susan J. Letham

Susan J. Letham is a British writer, creative writing tutor,
and owner of . Sign up for
classes and competent 1-on-1 coaching. Pick up your no-cost
subscription to the monthly Inspired2Write Newsletter at:

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