Not sure what a writer’s voice is or how to develop it? Wondering if it’s important and if you need it?
Finding your writer’s voice helps you better connect with readers, reviewers, literary agents, editors, and publishers, but more importantly, it helps you know who you are as a writer.
What is a Writer’s Voice?
When editors, literary agents, or reviewers talk about a writer’s voice, they’re referring to unique qualities that separate one writer and their work from another writer. It’s also a way to signal to a particular audience or readership that they might like a specific author and/or book.
While your voice might change and evolve over time, as a writer you should be able to identify unique elements that characterize you and your writing. It’s less about being stuck in a box and more about having a stronger sense about the kind of writer you are, and the sort of writing you lean towards.
Examples of Voice When Talking About Writers and Their Work
“She fuses nuanced relationships, complex grief, religious whiplash and Hollywood trauma into a bold story with a specific comedic voice.”Jerrod Carmichael on Jennette McCurdy’s memoir, I’m Glad My Mom Died
“With a singular voice and twists you won’t see coming, Luckiest Girl Alive explores the unbearable pressure that so many women feel to ‘have it all’ and introduces a heroine whose sharp edges and cutthroat ambition have been protecting a scandalous truth.”Publisher’s description of Jessica Knoll’s novel, Luckiest Girl Alive
“Told in a fresh, playful, and often lonely voice shot through with references to high and low art, Celan and Kafka and Optimus Prime.“John W. W. Zeiser, The Los Angeles Review, on Chen Chen’s poetry collection, When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List Of Further Possibilities
“An award-winning literary voice praised for her fearless and vivid prose.”National Post (Canada) on Roxane Gay’s short story collection, Ayiti
And here’s one I received:
“Gee is an eloquent writer whose voice resonates well past the last page.”Maggie Smith, author of Keep Moving and You Could Make This Place Beautiful, on Darien Hsu Gee’s poetry chapbook, Other Small Histories
How Do You Find Your Voice as a Writer?
In order to find your voice as a writer, you need to be willing to experiment with different styles and voices until you find your own. I know — easier said that done.
I believe that voice is about understanding who you are as a writer and making sure that gets translated onto the page. People can say whatever they want to say about you and your work — you can never control other people or their opinions. What matters is that you connect to the kind of writer you are and kind of writing you do. Once you know who you are as a writer, things start to fall in place.Voice is about understanding who you are as a writer. Click To Tweet
Identifying your writer’s voice will help you later if you ever decide to get a literary agent of publish your work, so you may as well spend a little time understanding what it is and how to develop it. The best way is to simply start writing, and see what comes out. Don’t worry about being perfect or sounding like anyone else. Let the words flow. See what you notice. As I always say to my students, your job as a writer is to pay attention. Pay attention to how the words flow from you, and the decisions you make during revision.
Finding Your Writer’s Voice: An Exercise 📝
This exercise takes a few minutes and can give you some helpful information about who you are, how others see you, and what characteristics you are drawn to in other writers. It’s a way to begin narrowing down some descriptive words that you can play with.
How you appear off the page does not necessarily translate to how you present on the page, but it may be closer than you think. Give the exercise a try and drop a comment below if it offered any writerly insight. You’ll need about 20-30 minutes, a couple sheets of paper, and a nice dose of honesty (yours and others).
How do you describe your favorite writers?
Think about your favorite writers and what attracts you to in their writing.
Take a sheet of paper and draw three columns. Write a writer’s name at the top of each column, then below their name, write five words that describe them as a writer (or their writing). Don’t worry about what other people say or if they would agree with what you write — this is about you and what you notice. Write quickly; it’s okay if you write the same word in more than one column.
When you’re done, circle any words that appear more than once. If two different words essentially mean the same thing, circle them. Synonyms are our friend (more on this later).
How do you describe yourself?
Next, take a sheet of paper and draw a line down the middle. Write five words that describe yourself on the left side. Not you as a writer, but you as a person. Don’t overthink it. No one is going to see this. Get those five words down.
How do others describe you?
Next, ask four people to use five words to describe you. If no one’s around, get them on the phone! Tell them you only need a few minutes of their time. Don’t mention this is for your writing, because that’s only part of the picture. Ask them to quickly list five words that describe you.
Regardless of what they say, don’t argue or ask them to elaborate. If they want to explain why the chose a certain word, just listen and take notes, even if you disagree. Write their five words in the right column (for the next person, just add their words below the last person’s, keeping it all in the right column). If more than one person says the exact same word, put an extra tally mark next to the word.
Now draw a line from any of the words in the left-hand column and match them to the same words in the right-hand column. If you described yourself as “smart” and they described you as “intelligent,” you would connect the two words as they essentially mean the same thing. If someone wrote “smart” and another person wrote “clever,” you would draw a line from both of the words to your word.
Once you’re done, circle the words on your list that appeared in both columns. Don’t overthink this or take anything too personally — it’s just a starting point to see where you may be. Let’s move on.
Compare and contrast
Now look at what you circled on the list of authors you like, and compare it with your list of circled words that describe you. Any similarities? (Remember to treat similar words/synonyms as the same.) Once you’ve studied the lists, choose the top five words you identify most closely resonate with from the circled choices and write them neatly on an index card or sticky note. Place the card near your desk so you can see it every day. You can take it down or even swap out words later, but for now, let it marinate and cook.
Remember: these are not necessarily words that future reviewers will use to describe your writing, but they are words that describe you as a person and writer. Remember these words as you embark on your writing career, and let the words follow.
Here’s a list of over 500 character traits you can use to hone your description of yourself as a writer. Use this list to find more active synonyms to describe yourself and your writing.
Other Ways to Discover Your Writer’s Voice
Read. A lot.
Reading voraciously helps you recognize the voices of other writers and your own. You’ll get a sense for how they express themselves on the page, regardless of what genre they write in, and how you feel when you read their words.
Write. A lot.
The bottom line: while all of the above is helpful, the only real way to develop and identify your voice is to write. A lot.
When you write, you send messages to your brain that you are in this writing life for real. The more you write, the more your brain receives the message. Practice makes perfect, and persistence is the name of game when it comes to writing and publishing. Your intention for your writing and literary career should motivate you to move in the direction of understanding your craft and who you are as a writer.
The more you write with intention, the better writer you’ll become. I often say that I am being paid to become a better writer with each book I write. I never assume I am done learning or growing as a writer just because I have a book sitting on a shelf in a bookstore. Remember, I’m the already-published writer who went back to graduate school when she was in her fifties to get an MFA. For me, learning to be a better writer never ends.
If you’re a new writer, in the beginning you may imitate the writers you admire, either purposefully or inadvertently. Don’t stress about that — keep writing. It’s a bit like Goldilocks figuring out which porridge is “just right.”
A note to fiction writers: it helps to take occasional breaks from your work to write a personal essay or micro memoir (click here for help with that). Writing about what you know from a personal perspective will always ring true on the page — you won’t be striving to sound like anyone but you — and you’ll be able to use that skill in your fiction.
Read your writing like a writer
Once you have a draft, read your writing like a writer. This means studying the choices you make, how you string words and sentences together. Look for any distinct words in your prose. Do you use dialects or slang? Are you formal or casual? Do you use short sentences and paragraphs, or longer ones? Pay attention to your own writing the way you would someone else’s. Look beyond the entertainment or educational value — ask yourself, does this work? Does this work well? Why or why not?
Read your writing out loud
I an a huge proponent of reading your work aloud, regardless of the genre or length (yes, this means I read my entire novels out loud, sometimes multiple times).
Reading your work out loud — not in a whisper, not in your head — helps you hear how your words sound and how they flow together. It helps you to catch errors or awkward phrasing. Sometimes when we write and revise our work repeatedly, we’ll accidentally leave out a word but when we skim the sentence on the page, our brain fills in the gap because it knows what you meant to write.
Reading your work out loud will help you get a feel for the rhythm and cadence of your writing as well. Poets know this — many will perform their poems when they read them, emphasizing certain words, pausing, changing the tone and pitch of their voice, putting their whole body into reading their work. They are deliberate in their word choice and line breaks. This is why some poems can deeply affect you even though they may be less than 100 words. Read your work aloud so you can hear yourself and begin to recognize yourself in your words.
Don’t rush to share early drafts of your work
There’s a tendency for new writers to share their work too early because they’re hoping for positive feedback on their writing. I get it, I do. We want social proof that we’re on the right track, that we have a talent for writing, or that our writing is good (better yet: bestseller-will-be-made-into-a-movie good). We want reassurance that we’re not wasting our time, that our work has purpose and meaning, is entertaining or moving.
If you have a few trusted readers willing to read your work-in-progress, go for it. But in general I advise keeping your work close until YOU know your relationship to it. How do you feel about it? What’s working for you, what isn’t? Getting feedback too early in the writing process has a way of influencing your work in a way that takes it away from you. Everyone has an opinion, but it doesn’t mean they’re right.
I’ve seen writers rush to implement the advice of others, especially those more experienced than them or a freelance editor they’ve paid for feedback, and lose the heart of their story. The writing becomes a mash-up of different people’s voices and ideas, and it can be very difficult to dial back to the beginning. Some writers end up shelving the work altogether because they don’t recognize the writing as their own anymore.
There will be plenty of time to share your work later. Until then, keep it to yourself and just keep writing.
The Evolution of a Writer
Once you discover your voice, readers will begin to depend on a certain type of writing and delivery whenever they open your books or read an article that you’ve written. They aren’t going to stop reading and wonder who this author is — they’ll know it’s you.
For some writers, this feels limiting. Does that mean your writer’s voice has to stay the same forever? Of course not. If you’re writing a lot, your voice will evolve over time. It will mature and develop and continue to be refined. When I look back at my earlier work (cringe), I feel as if I’ve changed a lot but I also know the essence of my voice remains the same.
If you’re publishing your work, especially with a traditional publisher, you’ll be working with editors to prepare your work for publication. This process, while exciting, will also push you to hone your voice faster because you’ll be working more intently and with more accountability to make your writing ready by a certain point in time. That all being said, the essence of your writer’s voice, especially if you’ve taken the time to get to know yourself and your writing, may evolve but continue to hold true. It will continue to be recognizable. Your writer’s voice is who you are and what sets you apart from other writers. Celebrate it once you discover it.
Want to read more about finding your writer’s voice? Check out these resources:
- Writing Voice: The Complete Guide to Creating a Presence on the Page and Engaging Readers (Creative Writing Essentials) by Writer’s Digest
- What Is the Writer’s Voice? How to Find Your Writing Voice by MasterClass
- Craft Capsule: Find Your Voice by Simon Van Booy on Poets & Writers