Tag Archives: Writer’s voice

I Hear Voices. Writing Voices!

opera singer

All writing is good writing.

No, not that drivel other people grind out like so much alphabet sausage. I’m talking about your stuff. All your writing is good.

Good for you, that is, like spinach. Even the stuff you didn’t want to write. All those application essays for college, the apology e-mails at work,  the gangster novel you were duped into co-authoring with “52Pickup,” that guy you met on the online-poker site (who, you found out, was also bluffing about his writing talent). Think of it as cross-training, when you work different muscle groups in different ways so you are ready for any fitness challenge.

[I’m assuming that’s what happens to people who exercise]

We bloggers talk often talk about finding one’s “writing voice,” a concept that can be challenging for beginning writers. I even wrote a post on the subject back in the early days of Clawing at the Keys, which you can enjoy or mock right here if you missed it the first time.

If you’ve been kicking around the writing scene for a while, though, you already have your voice and don’t think much about it. The next challenge becomes finding your other writing voices. Like all the “people” manufactured by your multiple-personality disorder, you have other voices, not just the awesome one you show off in your stories and on your blog.

I bring this up because of a mildly humorous comment I left on my pal Shelina’s blog, A Writer Inspired, yesterday. Every April she posts thirty writing challenges in thirty days, and yesterday’s challenge was to rewrite an existing passage or story from one’s own oeuvre using a different writing voice from usual. Earlier, at work, I had finished writing an ad-hoc software-training guide, which of course reads much drier than the stuff I post here, and I jokingly asked her if that counted as fulfilling the challenge (she said yes).

But then I got to thinking about it, and I realized I kind of enjoyed writing the guide. I’ve compose plenty of training material, but this project was far more of the “From the sidebar, select McFly. You will be redirected to the Flux Capacitor page (see fig. 2.1)” variety, which is new for me. When I read the document back for revision, darn it if it didn’t sound like a real technical guide. Of course, it is real, but I was happy to have captured that voice exactly on my first attempt.

singing catWhere did I find my inner software-guide voice? It didn’t come from writing speculative fiction.

Looking back, I think of the surveys I created for research courses I took in college. My papers on medieval architecture. The press releases I had to write for my Public Relations Management class, that 3.5-hour-long beast that ran from 6:30 to 10:00 every Tuesday night throughout my final spring semester.

Even farther back, filling all those high-school English journals. The report on the history of Maryland I had to write and present in fourth grade (I puked during the presentation. Sorry Maryland. Nothing personal).

I’m not sure how those writing experiences conspired to help me come up with polished technical instructions, but I do know I have many distinct writing voices that can be applied in an array of scenarios. I admit I was not excited, at the time, about those writing assignments in college and primary school. Yet here they are, paying back the investment time and again.

So next time you’re slogging through some drab writing project or alphabet-sausage assignment when you’d rather be hammering out the third draft of your novel or weaving a soul-touching tapestry in poem, remember that your writing is still being served.


How about you? What other kinds of writing do you do? Do you consider yourself a versatile writer?

Reading While Writing

What's in YOUR head?

What’s in YOUR head?

Some writers say they can’t or won’t read books while working on a project, perhaps fearing they will be unduly influenced or their writing voice will suddenly mimic that of the other writer.

Do you think this is a legitimate concern or a form of literary germ phobia?

None of us is inside another person’s head (at least I hope not; it’s fraught with risk, not the least of which is tripping over an optic nerve). Aren’t we being arrogant when we claim to know what someone is thinking or experiencing?

In that case, I’ll stick with explaining why it doesn’t happen to me: One, I believe reading and writing are separate mental functions. I don’t have the brain scans to prove it (I sold my Magnetic Resonance Imager for cupcake money), but think about the line-in and line-out jacks on a home-theater system. If you plug your DVD player into the output, you won’t see anything. The signal is running in the wrong direction. You have to find the input.

When I’m reading, I’m receiving and processing the abstract symbols on the page into useful information, perhaps going “Oooh” and “Ahhh” when the writer makes me think about something in a new way. When I’m writing, it’s like I’m installing that home-theater system. I’m figuring out where the cables go so the story works when I plug it in. It’s passive acceptance vs. active imposition.

Two, if my writing voice easily wavers and bends to outside forces, then it’s not mature yet, and I’m not ready to compose a novel.

I actually prefer to read books while I write, for serendipity is a better writer than I am. Indeed, I coincidentally began reading something the same time I started my current project. The book was an academic work about teenage singers of the early 1960s and their impact on the civil rights movement. My novel is a brutal, post-apocalyptic survival story.

If, by the grace of Odin, my novel gets published someday, it’s safe to say these two titles will not share shelf space. But in the process of thinking about the ideas expressed in that book, a light bulb went on regarding the relationship between my two main characters. As my once nebulous concept starts to gel, I am discovering that that book is influencing the core theme of my story.

My writing voice has not gotten confused, nor have I decided to reset the tale in the 1960s and make the hero a doo-wop singer. I’m being influenced in a subtle, serendipitous way that I believe will make the story better. Perhaps if I’d read a different book, another theme would have emerged. But I didn’t read a different book, I read that one. So I’m going with it.

What about you? Can you read a book while working on a project? Can you chew gum while this is happening? Is someone living in your head and reading your thoughts?

Does it hurt?

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Man, I’m stuck in the ’80s lately with my song choices. Oh well. They wrote more relevant titles back then. Here’s one about writing books by Elvis Costello:

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How did you develop your writing voice?

If you are like me, you read a mix of novels, magazine and online articles, essays, blogs, and informational books on a rolling basis. Did you ever wonder why one writer goes for puns, another for gravity, a third for elegance, a fourth for gothic imagery, and so on? Do you consider how these writing voices compare to your style?

A Poet Without Tea

A Poet Without Tea

My fiction writing is characterized by short paragraphs and minimal detail. I rarely describe my characters’ appearance, unless doing so hints at their motivations. I tend to avoid backstory and instead leave clues through dialog. I’m not making an effort in that direction. It just comes out that way.

Some reasons I do this become obvious when I think about them. One, I don’t like tangential writing. Please don’t ever lend me a novel that stops the story for a chapter to describe how a boat engine works or to offer specs on popular wood lathes of the 1970s. I guarantee I will close it right there and give it back to you. Life is too short, and I’m not that polite.

You are surely aware of a certain famous, acclaimed, epic saga about an organized crime family, which was made into what many, including me, consider to be amongst the greatest films of all time. Unfortunately, I can’t get past page 50 of the book for all the relentless tangents. I’m sure the critics know more about great literature than I do, so I’ll just call myself a Philistine and move on.

I also despise excessive detail. I tried to get into a popular contemporary mystery series, but the author can’t resist grinding the story down to explain what each red-herring suspect has in his garden. Look, he’s either got flowers in there or vegetables. Unless I really need to know because the body of a Classical Studies major is buried under the zinnias, spare me the Latin names.

Not surprisingly, I’m inevitably influenced by writers I admire, and I tend to enjoy writers who get to the point (Elmore Leonard) and writers who have a dark wit (Poe). Peruse my story links under the Fiction tab above to witness some dovetailing.

My other influences are less apparent. I sometimes read novels and then watch the resultant film version, and I marvel how the screenwriters can tell the same story with only about 10% of the events making it to the screen. Harkening back to my public relations courses in college, during which the phrase “less is more” was branded onto my forehead, I am probably brainwashed to be a fiction minimalist.

And last, since I gravitate toward writers who are brisk and direct, I tend to seek writing instruction that is brisk and direct. Brisk and direct writing instructors tell you that exposition, even one word of it, is FOR PATHETIC LOSERS. You gotta find a way to tell the story without using exposition, they say. Leave clues through action and dialog. The circle is now complete!

My intent as a writer is to keep the story moving at a fast pace, make my characters interesting and colorful, and keep my reader hooked. My writing voice is a byproduct of that, not a means to an end.

So from whence does your writing voice derive? Have you thought about it? If your answer is too involved for the comments section below, why not blog it and let me know? I can post a link next time! Poets absolutely welcome. I may learn something yet.

While you are thinking about it, enjoy “Voices Carry” by ‘Til Tuesday, the first song I could think of with “voice” in the title. Sorry if they jam you with an advertisement first, and double sorry about the guy’s acting in the beginning. Yikes. Did they pay him?

Finding Your Writing Voice

A message from me: Today I join the already swollen ranks of those who dispense writing advice in the blogosphere. If, through my sage words, you become a bestselling author, you owe me money and will be hearing from my lawyer.




Writers often hear the word “voice” used to describe one’s writing style, but those new to the craft may wonder what that means and where to get one. The wonderful news is that you already have a writing voice! You just have to move some junk out of the way to find it. Like Michelangelo freeing his figures from their marble prisons, the writer has to free her voice.


I continue to get at my writing voice four ways, and I think they will work for you. The obvious, ongoing method is practice. Write. Write. Write. I know everyone says that, but they also say, “Don’t run with a knife in your hand.” That is never bad advice, and neither is write, write, write, because you will master the mechanics of writing and allow your voice to show through. Like playing guitar or building life-sized Star Wars vehicles out of Lego bricks, you inevitably get better by doing (though one of these will get you laid and the other typically has the opposite effect). 



Another facet of finding your voice (besides avoiding weak metaphors like that one) is to be Zen. Since I am too wired to be Zen, I just try to relax. In my days as a performing musician, my best shows happened when I was relaxed, centered, and in the moment. I did not think about what song was next, or who was in the crowd, or the difficult passage I was about to play. In other words, try not to think. Find your inner Malcolm Gladwell and go with your gut.


Your gut is where your writing voice is hanging out most of the time. 


You also need an editor who knows writing. Maybe the idea of someone rooting around in your gut is unsettling, but you need that person who is willing to say, “This ending sucks,” or “This section belongs in a different story.” I have more than one editor, and my pieces are always better for their suggestions and insults, especially in regard to tonal consistency. A crucial component of “voice” is maintaining the right tone. Michelangelo didn’t give his David a clown nose, did he?


As you seek an editor, note that your mother is not a candidate. My mom is a great proofreader, but she’ll never criticize my work, and it usually needs criticism. On this point, I encourage you to edit a fellow writer’s work as well. You may recognize some of the mistakes you are making but have not been able to see.


My last suggestion, particularly for new writers, is to avoid trying to sound “writerly.” If you have not yet hammered out the mechanics of composition, keep it simple until you do. If you have to write, “My hamster and I went to the pet store to buy a miniature badminton set for the rodent beach party,” say it just like that. Steinbeck would not have written, “It was thereupon decided that we were to travel to the pet store, from which a miniature badminton set was to be purchased, thus enlivening the rodent beach party.” And neither should you.


I edit for a living, and, in doing so, I’ve seen a person’s death described as “his deathly demise,” and I frequently come across constructions like, “he was a person who showed a friendly personality,” instead of, “he seemed friendly.” Avoid affectation. If you read it aloud and it sounds clunky or awkward, it is. When words come naturally, you are using your voice.


If you have other ideas for finding the writer’s voice or can improve upon my suggestions, leave a comment.