Ep 191: Write to Discover Your Voice

WritingEp 191: Write to Discover Your Voice

Ep 191: Write to Discover Your Voice

[Ep 191]

You know within a few notes if you’re listening to the Beatles or the Bee Gees, James Taylor or Justin Timberlake, Sting or Cher.


Well, it’s their voice. You recognize their voice.

In literature, it may not seem as obvious, since we aren’t usually hearing the author’s voice when we read their work. And yet, I’ll bet you could read a few lines of someone’s work and tell me if it’s:

William Faulkner or Wendell Berry
Barbara Kingsolver or Stephen King
Tom Wolfe or Virginia Woolf


Once again, it’s their voice. You recognize their voice.

You’d know if you were reading something by Annie Dillard, Anne Lamott, Ann Voskamp or…Ann Kroeker.

Even if you didn’t know them before, if I put passages from Annie Dillard and Anne Lamott side by side, you’d be able to detect a difference. A big difference.

Some of it would be due the content. Some of it would be due to stylistic choices each of them makes, like word choice, sentence length, literary devices, allusions. Each writer brings to their work different memories, opinions, and passions. That and more plays into the words we write and the way we write them.

Somehow it all comes together into something we label “voice.”
What Is Your Writing Voice?
Agents and publishers say they’re looking for a unique voice, a new voice, a fresh voice, a genuine voice, a voice that rings true.

We writers want to have a voice like that. We want to know we’ve found our voice and we want to deliver our work in that one-of-a-kind voice that connects with readers and stands out in a crowded market. We’re all trying to land on that special “something.”

What is this mysterious thing called “voice”?

The answer is often vague and subjective, sometimes as unhelpful as “I know it when I see it.”

This answer—and it’s not uncommon—leaves writers anxious and unsure of themselves. They get self-conscious and start to question, “Is this my voice? Or did I sound more ‘me’ in the last project?”

And if they continue to squirm as they work, worried they sound like someone else or like anyone else, they’re at risk of losing the authentic voice that may already be pouring out of them naturally.
Definition of Writing Voice
I poked around in books and online and discovered that a few people venture a definition of voice.

Education Northwest, the organization that developed the 6+1 Traits, describe voice as “the heart and soul of the writing, the magic, the wit, the feeling, the life and breath.”1 A reader, they say, should identify something individual, something unique from “all other writers.”2

Okay, sounds good. That’s what we’re aiming for: individual, unique, a little heart and soul and, if possible, wit.

But how does the writer find that? How does the writer pull that off? How do we know our paragraphs aren’t pulsing with copycat wit? And how can we get some of that magic?
Develop an Ear for Voice in Writing
While it’s hard to be objective about the individuality of our own writing voice, it’s easier to listen for voice in others. In Writing with Power, Peter Elbow describes a time he assigned autobiographical writing to his students and as he read their work, he paid attention to what held his attention.

Over time, he identified those sections, paragraphs, sentences, phrases, and fragments as writing that “felt real.”3

He said, “[I]t had a kind of resonance, it somehow rang true.”4 He sensed power in their words. This power, he decided, was voice.

“On some days,” he writes, “these passages jumped out at me very clearly: it’s as though I could hear a gear being engaged and disengaged.”5
Your Writing Voice Is Power
Elbow began to recognize feelings these writers exuded in some of these sections—anything from happiness to self-pity. And yet he found it difficult to nail down a clear explanation or source of the power these writers conveyed or an objective definition of voice.6

He did, however,

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