What is ‘voice’ and can you develop it?

Voice is important

It seems all editors and literary agents search for “voice” in a story. Without it, we’re told, we’re doomed to failure. Probably the most annoying thing is when people say you can’t learn ‘voice’ – you either have it or you don’t. I don’t agree with this. I don’t think people pop out of the mother’s tummy with writer’s voice.

For example, there are comedians who are naturally adept at delivering a funny line, using dramatic pauses, impeccable timing, etc. Sure, being a natural at certain skills will give you an advantage but I don’t believe all comedians, or writers, were created in the womb and wonder whether this myth is propagated to create mystique about voice. But first, let’s understand what voice is, why it is important, and some of the things we, mere mortals, can develop our writing voice.

What is voice?

Voice is the style of writing that makes an author’s writing unique. It is your personality in written form. Just like patterns of speech, a number of things can make an author’s voice unique, such as the choice of words, observations (is it quirky or matter-of-fact), prose (is it flowery or straight to the point), the beat and rhythm (e.g., how long or short the sentences are, use of alliterations, internal dialogue, run-on sentences vs fragmented sentences, etc), the tone (the level of humour, quirkiness, irreverent, etc).

Active or passive?

Voice can be active or passive. An active voice is when the subject of the sentence proactively doing something. E.g., Bob walked on the pavement. A passive voice is when the subject of the sentence is having something done to it. E.g., The pavement was walked on by Bob.

The passive voice is less direct, has less clarity, and less energy than the active voice. Like the example above, it can also be more awkward to read and often use more words than the active voice. Therefore, it is usually better to write in an active voice.

Why is voice important?

Choosing the right voice will have more chance to elicit the intended emotion and connect with the reader in the same way an upbeat personality will likely attract more interest. A good writing voice can captivate, inspire, charm, or teach the reader. Writing that has little or no voice can leave the reader disengaged and not wanting to read more because the prose is bland. As the old adage goes, how you say something is probably more important than what you say.

How do you develop voice?

1. Read in your genre and practice your voice when you write

Don’t be afraid of trying new voices – you don’t need to stick to one type of voice for all your writing however don’t copy your favourite authors, instead understand what it is they’re doing that makes it work for them and utilise it in your own way, using your own voice.

2. Write with intention

Ask yourself what emotions are you trying to elicit from the reader? Will your writing achieve this? This also spans to the story level. What story are you writing? A dark mystery should have a different voice compared with a romantic comedy.

3. Distinct character voice

Each character should be distinct enough so the readers can differentiate each character from each other. Consider writing from different points of views as different perspectives can create different levels of excitement, tension, etc.

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