I spend a lot of time thinking a lot about the craft of writing. If you’re going to teach other writers about the craft, you have to think about it. A lot. Lately, the subject of voice has been in the front of my mind. Specifically, what is “Voice,” and why is it so important?
Simply put, voice is you. It’s your unique way of speaking, of thinking, of communicating. It’s your background, where you live, and how you feel. It’s what you know and what you think.
Voice is made up of dialect and word choices, but it’s so much more. It communicates your unique view of the world to others. It's rhythm and flow. It's as much about where you pause as where you don't.
Voice is as important to writers as it is to musicians because unless you find and embrace the way of communicating with the world that is uniquely yours, you may have a hard time inviting readers into the worlds you create, whether in fiction or non-fiction, short story or novel.
We know, of course, that physical voice is the way we know who’s speaking when we pick up the phone, or overhear a couple of friends talking. But your soul’s voice is deeper than that. As a writer, our voices are also made up of what we believe is important, what we find funny, how we view and judge others and our philosophies about life in general.
That philosophy of life is where our creative voices begin to differ. That’s what makes Jerry Seinfeld different from Jerry Lewis. What sets the comedian Gallagher apart as he smashes watermelons while dishing on the world in general and stupid people in particular. It’s what made Larry the Cable Guy famous and what helped Oprah soar to heights most of us can’t even dare to imagine.
Compassion for the less fortunate made Red Skelton unique. Mister Rogers had a far different voice from Bozo the Clown. Listen to the Beatles music and you’ll hear how they went from just another long-haired boy band to adult men with deep observations to make about the world. Their views of the world set them apart from songwriters everywhere. No one would ever mistake Reba McEntire for any other female singer.
Even within the Beatles, you can tell the difference between a John Lennon song and one written by Paul McCartney. If you know classical music, you’ll know there’s a very big difference between Beethoven and Mozart, between Mozart and Chopin, between Chopin and Brahms.
Disney has voice. You know what you’re getting when you go to a Disney movie, and you know a Disney movie when you see one, even without the mouse ears to clue you in.
Quentin Tarantino has a distinctive voice. Spike Lee has voice. Norah Ephron has voice. Ron Howard has voice. If you see a movie with any of these names on it, you know what you’re in for. The projects aren’t identical. No one would have any trouble telling the difference between Splash!, Cocoon, Far and Away, and Apollo 13, but there are similarities in all those movies—and those similarities are voice.
Likewise, Jennifer Cruisie has voice. Susan Elizabeth Phillips has voice. Curtiss Ann Matlock has voice. Anne Tyler has voice. Victoria Holt had voice. Suzanne Brockman has voice. Deborah Smith has voice. Taylor Caldwell had voice. James Michener had voice. Whether or not you like what they do, you always know what you’re getting when you pick up one of their books.
But that’s not true of everyone out there writing books today. If you spend much time judging contests within the romance world, you’ll know that many, many hopeful authors are opting for a “safe” voice in an effort to break in with that first sale.
Those contest entries were so homogenized, it was almost impossible to tell them apart. None of them made a positive impression on me as I read and, in fact, the only detail I remember from that whole pile of entries was that a frightening number of authors had even chosen the same basic plot setup to write about that year. In fact, the only thing that kept me from thinking that they’d all been written by the same person was the occasional use of a different font or header format.
In our rush to get published and do things “right,” some of us are losing the very thing that makes us unique, but it’s that unique voice that might land the publishing contract we’re so anxious to get.
There was nothing wrong with those contest entries. The writing in all of them was pretty good and technically correct in almost every aspect—but “pretty good” writing doesn’t win publishing contracts, or build huge reader bases, although it might win contests because, after all, someone has to be awarded first place, even if every entry is mediocre.
Voice goes deeper than word choice and sentence structure. Voice is life philosophy. You don’t pick up a Jennifer Cruisie book or one by Susan Elizabeth Phillips if you’re not in the mood to laugh. You know that even when they’re tackling serious subject matter, they’ll treat it with humor.
Their outlooks on life are light and somewhat irreverent, and they write about people who live their lives with the same outlooks. Voice is why one screenwriter gets us smiling while we watch a movie about dying wives and heart transplants, but the next guy sends us out of the theater feeling raw and empty.
Voice is not generic. It is always, always, always unique. That means that if your work sounds like the work produced by the person sitting next to you, you probably haven’t found your voice yet.
Check back later for more thoughts on the writer's voice.