Friday, November 25, 2011

What Is Voice—And How Do I Get It?

Spend much time around editors and writers, and you’ll hear a lot about voice. It may be the number one thing editors want to see in a manuscript. But what exactly is voice?

I’ve attended several talks on voice, and mainly the speakers read examples from novels with voice. Or rather, they read examples from novels with poetic voices. Does that mean we all need to be more poetic as writers? And if so, how? Hearing examples doesn’t necessarily translate to understanding how you can improve your own voice.

Let’s start with two basic truths:

All writing has voice. It may be a slow, boring voice, or a clunky, confusing voice, or a straightforward, fast-paced voice, or a beautiful, poetic voice. “Voice” does not have to mean the beautiful poetic language most often found in “literary” novels (even though those are most often used as examples of strong voice).

Different readers like different voices. Few people would like the boring or confusing voices mentioned above, but many people prefer a straightforward, fast-paced voice, many others like a beautiful, poetic voice, and some readers enjoy both.

Personally, I tend to enjoy straightforward, fast-paced novels, with a bit of beautiful description here and there. I don’t like novels where the voice seems to dominate the story and the plot takes second place. That’s my personal taste as a reader, and so that’s what I strive for as a writer. I would say my voice is simple, lively, and brisk, and that’s true whether I’m writing fiction or nonfiction, for children or for adults. My characters have their own individual voices, depending on their gender, age, background, and personality, but my voice ties all my writing together.

Sometimes I have critique clients ask me if I can help them with their voice. My answer: I can’t help you have a great voice, but I can teach you how to avoid having a bad voice. It’s a matter of learning specific techniques, such as:

being specific with your language,
choosing strong, vivid nouns and verbs,
avoiding the overuse of adverbs and adjectives,
showing rather than telling,
using all five senses,
mastering point of view,
varying your pacing appropriately,
And knowing when to break the rules.

For the rest of the year, I’ll be going into these techniques in more detail, so stay tuned.


  1. You make an excellent point about voice. Just because you have a "voice" doesn't mean it's for me. Good post, Chris.

  2. Nice post. I am always reading about "voice" in agency and editor submission preferences. I agree that different voices appeal to different readers, but I like your list of what works best in general.