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Cultivating a Compelling Writer's Voice

As a writer, it’s important to take some time to allow yourself to play on the page, which helps you try out different ways of coming across on the page. Allowing yourself to pursue some undirected writing practice is also great for unearthing emotional and visual details of a scene that needs some heft, or to get the juices going when you have writer’s block.


As useful as open-ended writing is, it is equally powerful to contemplate the elements that make up a compelling voice while you go about refining your own. Understanding aspects of the voice you’re striving for matters because, particularly in non-fiction, the author is the narrator. That means your inner world is the one readers are most likely going to seek to inhabit.


What if your creative non-fiction focuses on something other than you, such as having the place of a story take center stage? Your voice may not play as noticeable a role then, but it’s human nature for readers to still want to know whether the narrator is reliable, to know your voice. To use a fictional example, people are more likely to remember Sophie and Nathan (Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline in the movie version) of Sophie’s Choice than the character Stingo. Yet that young American serves as the narrator and the glue driving the work forward.


What’s Voice About?

So, what makes up voice, beyond the grammatical distinction of passive and active voice an English teacher likely drilled into your head in younger days (That is, generally avoiding sentences like “It was a dark and stormy night,” and instead going for something like, “The raindrops pelted the doghouse.”).


It’s often tough to get a bead on what author’s voice is about because it is bit nebulous. Essentially, it is the personality and attitude of the writer expressed on the page. For example, my take on the voice of Alexander Chee in his great essay collection, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, is of someone who is smart, angst-ridden, candid, and contemplative.


The elements that come together to create voice include:

  • Word choice (aka diction). Did you call the city mayor a slippery character, or note her habits in a way that suggests she’s captivating.

  • The pattern within sentences, such as whether you regularly string together clauses (like the one ending this bullet point).

  • The patterns, or rhythm, of the text at the paragraph and larger-scale level. For example, do most of your sentences tend to be clipped, or to be long, which often adds speed and energy? Do you switch back and forth in sentence length, which resembles everyday speech? Mixing up the length of sentences can help to create a voice of intimacy that readers can latch onto as they seek to emotionally connect to something in your work.

  • Tone, which involves moods and attitudes such as excitement or frustration about the subject you’re covering. While some writers define tone just as being about how they feel about a subject, we’ll get into the nitty gritty of tone in a follow-up post. For now, think of the tone of a piece as being one of the voice “personalities” you have – ­like different songs performed by the same artist, or the different roles you are able to step into in life. There’s the work you who gives a formal presentation, and the you who hangs out at a barbecue with friends, and the you trying to outscore your neighbor on this week’s crossword puzzle, and so on.

Why Bother With Voice?

If reading that bullet list feels akin to being left with piles of lumber, nails, and concrete mix and being expected to whip up a 10-story structure from that, you get the picture of why voice is tricky. There’s no detailed blueprint to work from; you have to feel your way into your voice because of the multiple, partly organic, considerations involved. After all, how easy is it to plan to come across as understated, sassy, vulnerable, self-conscious, or savvy.

Why bother to ponder voice then? It can help to know that you are analytical, say, and look for ways to bring that trait out in your writings for readers who appreciate a thoughtful approach. In addition, delving into what you really think about personal experiences, as part of the art of defining you voice, can unearth the gems of your true motives and beliefs about life.


Not concerned about such Zen outcomes? No worries. You can draw inspiration instead from knowing that a voice that rings true is what most readers ultimately seek – whether from the sheer luxury of experiencing your emotional journey from the safety of their living room sofa, or to gain greater perspective on their own life.



Building a Memorable Voice

Some readers will favor authors whose worldviews, and therefore voices, don’t match their own to stretch their thinking. So, you might miss the mark if you to try to think of readers’ preferences and then work to create a voice they’ll like. For that and other reasons, making sure your voice is a true reflection of your take on events is a much better step toward creating a voice that will be valued. It’s like the old saying, “Write what you know.” It’s easiest for your writing voice to “sing” on pitch if you project it in your natural register rather than trying to project as a soprano when you’re really a deep bass.


Where the choices get harder is in considering how true to the real you a writing voice should be. Watch out for the tendency to want to always keep an upbeat voice, even though that can be more comfortable for readers at first blush. That type of writing has its place in many circumstances, perhaps for sharing an anecdote about your uncle who was a role model and a paraplegic war veteran. But the philosopher Michel de Montaigne could’ve been talking about autobiographical writing when he wrote, “There is no conversation more boring than the one where everyone agrees.” Nowadays, readers are often drawn to seeing the ungainly complexities of someone’s reality. They will likely move on if you stick with the monotone, in-the-spotlight version of yourself usually saved for in-laws.


Digging into Your Stuff

Let’s face it. Digging deep and showing your life’s underbelly is no easy thing to do, though. You may also prefer to hide a Peyton Place slice of the past from wanting to protect others whose behavior might not shine so brightly in your recap.


To take care of the concerns of these parties, you can show your work to them before publishing it. Mary Karr, a literature professor, memoirist, and author of The Art of The Memoir, notes in it that most of the great autobiographers she knows have done that, with few getting a backlash. You can also wait to publish till someone who would be particularly unhappy dies.


To muffle your own self-protective tendencies, a helpful approach is to remember that everyone’s life has its share of inconsistencies. And you can avoid thinking about voice when writing a first draft. Allowing your initial draft to come out unrestrained can be a huge help, moreover, in revealing unexpected aspects of your relationship with the content.


Beyond a freewheeling approach to rough drafts, plan to put in lots of writing time to gel your author’s voice. In particular, here’s some advice from Writing True: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction, which I used as a textbook for several years while leading a writing group. In this book, literature professor and author Dr. Sondra Perl, and author, educator, and public speaker Dr. Mimi Schwartz, recommend:


  • Seeking to personalize content. The process of adding specific, personalized details makes for good writing in general. And adding them to a short story or other manuscript requires you to make choices between word options. Those choices will inevitably turn into elements of your voice, as they will be influenced by the mindset you have toward what you’re discussing and your worldview.

  • Letting other voices fill the stories you cover. Your viewpoint will likely be a more compelling read when juxtaposed with that of your dissenters, for instance.


Covering a variety of writing topics also matters. Going back to that caution about avoiding hitting one “note” as a writer, try to vary the subjects you target while developing voice so you can reveal different facets of your perspectives on life. Your general worldview may be cheerful and formal, for instance, but chances are, you show another, more colorful, you, after an incident such as having two flat tires on your rental car while returning home from a long trip. Don’t shy away from playing with your full emotional repertoire on the page. That's a part of getting comfortable expressing the different tones of your writing voice.


Growing Into Your Voice, Yourself

Once you come to understand the best voice for a piece, it can become easier to define other aspects of the work, such as what traits to convey about a major player in a story. Nailing down your voice can thus help put meat on the bones of a story. Particularly in longer works like a memoir, a distinct, consistent voice will be woven throughout, expressed in more than one tone of voice as the author’s focus shifts.


Getting to that point is still mostly about putting in the time. And about reading writers who’ve done their due diligence on voice (Karr’s book on memoir provides a long list, for starters). The process of editing a piece will help you distill down to the essential elements of your unique voice too. If you edit a piece yourself, that might involve six or a dozen or more rounds of review, with gaps in between each round helping you continue to see the piece with fresh eyes.

Regardless of your writing and editing process, developing a compelling unified voice comes down to undertaking a contemplative journey. That is, the process involves unpacking your emotional Russian nesting dolls — the layered interpretations of life events that you’ve developed. During this process, a writer may wash ashore with some awkward bedfellows in early drafts, especially when addressing a new or controversial topic. No Eureka moments may happen. But chances are, the rough versions of your voice that emerge will be telling you bits and pieces about yourself. That process will ultimately help you fall into a vocal groove while pursuing the larger themes you were meant to engage with.


In the bigger picture sense, getting to know the nuances of your writer’s voice can result in becoming more grounded in your approach to life. That’s particularly true if you take the step of looking at the role your beliefs and actions have played in molding personal experiences.


You can choose, in other words, to suss out and address the why behind the things that a writing practice has revealed about your hows and whats. Bringing life to your writing voice can thus pave the way to building your own life anew.