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This Thing Called Voice

// Author: Jordan Locke // 11 Comments

Back when I was working on my first novel, after I had something loosely resembling a draft, I thought I’d better learn about the craft. While reading a book on writing, I discovered the term voice. According to some well-respected experts, voice is the be-all-end-all of why an agent decides to offer representation.

I wondered, what is this voice thing, anyway? Why use the word when referring to writing? Voice is speaking. Writing is, well, something else.

Of course, in a way, writing is speaking on paper. Back before books were invented, cavemen would tell stories by the campfire for hours. Some were made up, I’m sure, while others were passed down through generations.

Well, if voice is so important, and you happen to be a great storyteller, why not just record yourself and transcribe it? No need to edit draft after draft, right?


Consider some of the most engaging speakers on the planet. Do you think they just walked up to the podium and started talking? No. They, and their speechwriters, went through many drafts. They worked for weeks to get the wording perfect. And, of course, they all had lots of practice and years of study. The best speakers have fine-tuned their voice.

A novel is even harder to write. It needs to engage the reader for many hours. The plot has to follow a logical path, the characters must be fully developed, and the writing needs to be crisp rather than a meandering mess. Those first words put down on paper are probably not ready for publication.

Of course, voice is subjective. What one agent loves, another will find too flowery or too stark.

My writing has evolved over the years. The first and second books I wrote were intended for adults. I realized, though, that my voice is geared more toward a younger audience. I tend to write shorter novels, shorter chapters and shorter sentences. Honestly, the vocabulary I use is more limited than most adult writers. Also, I had what I thought was a killer idea for a teen novel, and I enjoy writing to a younger crowd.

My writing voice is not my natural speaking voice. I have read many books on writing and tend to follow the advice. My first drafts are mostly rubbish. Only by polishing and re-polishing can I create something remotely readable.

While talking to a friend of mine, I mentioned how much effort it takes to make writing sound casual, like the words had come easily from my mouth. It seems counterintuitive, I know, but the more you work at it, the more natural the writing sounds.

For me, at least, writing is not merely speaking on paper. This thing called voice takes work.

Tell me in the comment section, what does voice mean to you?

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  1. Erika Beebe - November 4, 2013 4:03 am

    I have always been an animated story teller, and to me, Voice is just that, the character speaking to me and telling me the real story. I’m right there in the MC’s world. It’s difficult to do, but I believe with hard work, we can find it. :o ) Great post.

    • Jordan Locke - November 5, 2013 3:26 am

      Thanks, Erica.

      I’ve never been much of a storyteller in real life, but I have a vivid imagination. When I write, I try to describe the scene as best I can. Then, it’s a lot of rewriting and editing to get the words right.

  2. Dawn - November 4, 2013 2:29 pm

    One of the coolest blog header photos I’ve seen! Enjoying the posts and looking forward to reading more.

  3. Jordan Locke - November 5, 2013 3:28 am

    Thanks, Dawn. I don’t write fantasy (at least not yet), but I love the image.

  4. Kate McMurry - November 13, 2013 8:09 pm

    Hi, Jordan. I enjoyed your post on voice. :) FWIW, I personally look at voice from a couple of perspectives. First, I see strong similarities between the literary jargon terms, “voice,” “tone,” “style,” and “perspective.”. There is an overlap between “voice” and “tone” to the extent that an author routinely writes comedy, light-drama or dark drama. Voice is also related to the personal “style” of the author, which refers to the unique language usage, sentence structure, chapter lengths, and choice of genre, subject matter and types of protagonists that the author makes. Voice also overlaps with the idea of an author’s personal perspective, frame or attitude toward life, which is rooted in personality, upbringing and life experience. A second way that I perceive the creation of voice is through the author’s choice of the point of view (POV) from which to narrate his/her novel. In omniscient POV, the narrative voice can range from a distant, emotionless, godlike presence telling the story, all the way to the other extreme, an obviously opinionated narrator whose attitude about the actions of the characters is either dramatically or comically judgmental (employing the technique of a judgmental narrator is also known as, “authorial intrusion,” because the judgments are presumed to be opinions held by the author AKA the author’s “voice,” and is a literary device particularly common in 19th century fiction). Both of these types of omniscient POV also frequently “head hop,” seemingly randomly dropping into the perspectives of multiple characters throughout the novel. When omniscient head-hopping occurs, invariably third person is used, which is either “camera’s eye view” or close third. In contrast, first-person POV is the polar opposite of a disembodied narrator. The voice of the novel becomes the distinctive voice of the protagonist. One of the pleasures of first-person is that, in varying degrees, it always originates from an “unreliable narrator,” in that this protagonist’s story is not an objective, scientific recitation of facts, but a story of the protagonist’s unique reaction to particular events in his/her life. Authorial voice is amplified when the concept of unreliable narrator is dramatically enhanced by presenting a narrator whose perspective is either comically skewed (such as The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion) or mentally deranged (such as the Edgar Allen Poe narrators who are the source of the coining of this phrase). Within a novel utilizing predominantly third person, unlike the usage of third-person described previously that accompanies an overriding omniscient POV, there is a miniscule amount of non-judgmental narration (usually only in short bursts of setting descriptions or transitions between scenes). In modern, character-driven novels, third person is almost always presented as deep-immersion third, which provides readers with nearly as intimate an experience of the protagonist as first person, but minus the sometimes claustrophobic (and often narcissistic) overtones of first person. The very rare use of second-person POV (“you did this; you want that”) immediately informs the audience that this is a literary novel, since it almost never occurs in popular fiction. Finally, an author’s choice of POV can be either instinctive or conscious (as in the case of certain genres such as mystery and YA having a huge prevalence of first person), but either way, by the choice of POV, the author inevitably steers his/her readers as to how closely identified with various aspects of his/her novel he/she wishes them to be, whether the characters, the plot, or the worldbuilding.

  5. C. Erani Cole - November 14, 2013 6:48 am

    ‘Voice’ is reading something and being able to hear other voices tell the story without you having to put in any thought or effort. Love the blog :D

  6. Anita - November 15, 2013 3:38 am

    As a reader, voice is what grabs me, makes me want to read past page one and get to know the character.
    As a writer, voice is a character’s distinct sound that epitomizes their personality, or it’s an authorial tone that invites others to listen to an interesting story.
    Great post!

  7. A.M. Day - November 17, 2013 12:06 pm

    That’s a good question. Well, I tend to talk too much on paper and off. Love dialogue, but sometimes too much dialogue can spell trouble on paper. I agree with Erika Beebe. Voice to me is my characters telling me their stories. It’s amazing how you can start off writing in one direction and Character A or B veers off the beaten path, taking you to a different place…a good place and sometimes a better place than you could have imagined.

    Cool blog by the way.

  8. Donna Davidge - March 26, 2014 10:51 am

    I really like your blog posts and am glad you found me on twitter- great shares on writing thank you so much-

  9. Irene Elizabeth - April 28, 2014 10:38 am

    Voice is something that I’ve also been confused by. It seems so artificial to me when people say ‘write in your voice.’ Most of the time, I look at the advice and think ‘but isn’t this story meant to be about more than me?’

    Erika’s comment about letting the characters help you, rings somewhat true… but that doesn’t really work for me. I don’t write from a first person perspective, or even from a very tight third person, so my characters voice can really only be heard through dialogue, action and circumstance. Which really just leave *me* as the voice… and just what is that?

    I think that part of my problem is that I’ve always been very strong at pastiche. Other people will creep into my work. Turns of phrase, idioms, even settings and concept and execution will suddenly appear. Sometimes I know that they’re not mine, but often I’ll use them and only notice them when I go back over my work.

    I’ll be reading something I’ve written, going back over a scene, or even a chapter, and I’ll realise that the ‘voice’ (whatever that is) doesn’t entirely belong to me.

    Ultimately, I’ve decided that the presence of my ‘voice’ is less important than the story itself.

    I’ve decided that ‘voice’ doesn’t relate to turns of phrase, or the exact drum beat that underlies an action sequence.

    Instead, using my ‘voice’ just means telling only the story I can tell, with characters that belong to me.

    Anyway… I’m loving these posts. A lot of the things your discussing here are things I have felt/am feeling when it comes to the writing process.

    I’d like to wish you best of luck with the book… It looks great, and reads even better. I look forward to finishing it.

  10. Klaus Schilling - January 18, 2015 9:16 am

    I detest everything character-driven. Intrusive authorial narration is my one true way to go.


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