Finding Your Writer’s Voice

by James Scott Bell



You hear it every time there’s a panel of agents and/or editors, when they are asked what they’re looking for in a manuscript. Someone always says, “A fresh voice.”

But no one knows how to define it. Over the years I’ve heard some attempts at explanation, and I’ve jotted them down. Here they are:

• A combination of character, setting, page turning.

• A distinctive style, like a Sergio Leone film.

• It’s who you are.

• Personality on the page.

• It’s something written from your deepest truth.

• Your expression as an artist.

Well, okay. I guess. But how do we develop voice? Indeed, is it something that can be developed? Or is it something you’re born with?
What if you write in different genres? Is your voice in a noir thriller going to be the same as your voice in a romance?
Should writers even worry about voice? I counsel my students to be true to the story they’re telling, true to the characters, and not to worry about this elusive thing everyone says they want. If the tale is well told, that’s the main thing.
But I do think there is something to be said for trying to coax out a little more voice, even though you can never quite nail it down to pure technique.
So what is it that does the coaxing? In a word, joy.
“In the great story-tellers, there is a sort of self-enjoyment in the exercise of the sense of narrative; and this, by sheer contagion, communicates enjoyment to the reader. Perhaps it may be called (by analogy with the familiar phrase, “the joy of living”) the joy of telling tales. The joy of telling tales which shines through Treasure Island is perhaps the main reason for the continued popularity of the story. The author is having such a good time in telling his tale that he gives us necessarily a good time in reading it.” – Clayton Meeker Hamilton,A Manual of the Art of Fiction (1919)
I think Professor Hamilton nailed it. When an author is joyous in his telling, it pulses through the words. When you read a Ray Bradbury, for instance, you sense his joy. He was in love with words and his own imagination, and it showed.
I recall a Writer’s Digest fiction column by Lawrence Block, back in the 80’s, and he was telling about being at a book signing with some other authors, one of whom was a guy named Stephen King. And Stephen King’s line was longer by far than for any of the other guys.
Which got Larry to thinking, what was it about King’s stuff? And he decided that it was this joy aspect. When you read Stephen King, you feel like you’re reading an author who loves writing, loves making up tales to creep us out, enjoys the very act of setting words down on paper.
Because when you’re joyful in the writing, the writing is fresher and fuller. Fuller of what? Of you. And that translates to the page and becomes that thing called Voice.
So the question is, how can you get more joy into your writing?
Here are some thoughts:
1. Be excited about your story. If you’re not jazzed about what you’re writing, you can’t be joyful about writing it. Dwight Swain, the great writing teacher, once said that the secret of excitement is to go deeper into your characters. Create more backstory, more secrets, more complexity, and you’ll get excited again.
2. Write at your peak “freshness” time. Find out when you’re most creative and awake and alive. Write for all you’re worth during that time.
3. Take a break when it’s drudgery, and do something else for awhile. I find that if I read a passage by one of my favorite writers, I soon enough get excited about writing and want to go back to my project.
4. Try a dose of Dr. Wicked. This neat little program can be accessed online, or downloaded to your desktop for ten bucks. Basically, it makes you write fast, because if you don’t it will soon emit a terrible sound that will sandpaper your brain. Writing fast, without thinking too much, is fun, and many times you’ll tickle out some of your best stuff that way.
5. Picture the reward. Now and then you need to daydream about your finished book and all the happy readers who are going to enjoy it––and who will put you on their favorite authors list.
For more on voice, please see my book on the subject.
So what about you? Do you find joy in your writing? If not, what are you going to do about it?


56 thoughts on “Finding Your Writer’s Voice

  1. In Stephen King’s book ON WRITING, he wrote about getting back into writing as he was trying to recover from an accident that almost claimed his life. Each day was physically exhausting as he struggled to find out if he could still do it. Here is how he described it:

    “On some days that writing is a pretty grim slog. On others—more and more as my legs begin to heal and my mind reaccustoms itself to its old routine—I feel that buzz of happiness, that sense of having found the right words and put them in a line. It’s like lifting off in an airplane: you’re on the ground, on the ground, on the ground…and then you’re up, riding on a magical cushion of air and prince of all you survey. This makes me happy because it’s what I was made to do.”

    King put it so well. This is how I feel, sometimes, when I write and things come together. On other days, I ‘slog’ along hoping those magical days will return. Is this ‘voice?’ I don’t know. For me, it is hard to describe but I know it when I feel it, when I see it come together in story.

    • Mark, thanks for posting that bit from King. And yes, we all “know it when we feel it.” And feeling it is part of the reason (maybe the main reason?) we do this!

  2. I think voice is what comes through when we don’t try too hard. It’s uniquely you and uniquely me. I’ve been struggling with the idea of finishing a contemporary I half wrote a long time ago. But I don’t feel confident with my contemporary voice and I think it’s the joy factor you mention, Jim. It’s not that I don’t have a contemporary voice, it’s just that I find more joy in writing historical novels. When I find a contemporary story I can get excited about then I’ll write that story and it will be fun.

    Note to self:

    Write like no one is watching me, even that critical inner editor.
    Write like no one is judging me, even my future audience.
    Write like there are no expectations to burden my creativity.
    Write like only I can.

    Thanks Jim. That’s the best writing therapy I’ve had all year. 🙂

  3. For me finding the joy in writing seems incompatible w/almost every other aspect of the writing life as we all view it. I admire those who can write voluminous amounts of material AND experience the joy of writing.

    For me the joy in writing comes from taking my own sweet time to plot, research, & write a few special stories. To linger over one scene for 3 months if need be. Re-write 50 times if need be–until I know in my heart it is finished.

    Clearly this is not conducive to finishing many projects, and not having a lot of work out there is not advantageous, for many reasons frequently discussed at TKZ.

    I’d personally be content to finish just those couple projects that really light a fire in me because they will reflect my voice. Perhaps it is as simple as admitting I’m a hobbyist who has a few choice things to say then I am done.

  4. Thank you, Jim. This is helpful to me today. Seems like #1 is just as applicable to writing non-fiction, which is my task at hand. Although I don’t get to make up the backstory, I can always probe deeper, empathize more. And the more engaged I am, the more joyful the writing process.

    Today I’ve been overly focused on the deadline and the hard work of it, so thanks for the reminder to enjoy myself!

    • Good point, Kit. Writing non-fiction is really writing about people on a timeline, and it’s those people that make up the “interesting part.” Well said.

  5. I absolutely find joy in what I write, and in the rare cases that I don’t, I find I Can’t finish it. And maybe it’s just as Well. When It’s there, I know I’m on the right track.

    • Katarina, I think it’s possible to find the joy again in a project. It may take some hunting, though. Perhaps if you just can’t then you do know it’s the wrong project to pursue. I try to find this out before I start writing in earnest.

  6. Someone described voice to me as in ‘How would I ‘hear’ this if it was narrated?’ Not ACTUAL voice, obviously, but does it sound like the author? Even bad authors can have a voice if it makes them distinctive.

  7. Hey, I’m ALL joy joy joy when I’m writing. It’s the multiple rewrites and second-guessing that blows the bliss and turns me into a corner-sitting, knuckle-sucking cretin. I start wondering if my voice is suitable for the character, if it fits the scene, if all the characters are starting to sound the same. It’s only during the first draft that I feel free.

    The only thing that saves me is if I love my MC. As long as I do that, I can work to save the book.

  8. This is all helpful, but I am less sure about #4. I am as Amanda described. The first draft is great fun. Then …
    Thanks for this post.

  9. Great post! My problem, like Amanda, is in revision. I’ve been stuck in revision on a novel project because the critical mind is in overdrive. The other novel project is slow to get going because the outline is starting to not be so much fun any more. But I love both projects.

    The outline problem will solve itself–I just begin drafting and find the fun.

    It’s the revision phase of the other novel that I’ve got to figure a way through. As it so happens, I have a copy of Revision and Self-Editing for Writers–I’ll check out the exercises and see if that can’t unstick me.

  10. I do think publishers/professionals THINK they want “fresh voices” until it comes down to really seeing them. As you know, Jim, CBA sticks with what it thinks works with only a few excellent exceptions – your work being one of them. Your voice is terrific and distinctive, your writing absolutely tops. I called you the King of lawyer snark, and it’s true. Good, good books. CBA sticks with their staid demographic for the most part and “fresh” doesn’t honestly seem to be in their vocabulary.

    I wholeheartedly agree with the joy thing. If you can’t please yourself with what you write, then what’s the point? It takes too much time and effort to produce. #s 1 and 3 are it for me.

    • Nicole, what you say is quite true….if a voice is TOO fresh for the sales team, that becomes one voice they get nervous about. Every now and then one breaks through, but others can become casualties of commerce.

      The trick for the writer is to find that sweet spot where voice and viability meet.

  11. Love this post, love the idea that voice comes from joy!

    The subject of voice has always fascinated me and I’ve had many a lively argument with fellow writers who insist that voice and style are the same thing. I disagree.

    I think voice, style and tone are related but I also think it’s valuable to make distinctions between them. Tone, I think, we all understand as a conscious choice we make as writers — ie, dark, comedic, detached, emotional. But style and voice? A successful writer can master all the elements of craft — plot, characterization, dialog, tone, etc — and never achieve a genuine style or voice.

    To me, style goes one step further than tone. It’s the sum of the writer’s skill in using language and it comes from a more personal place. I mean, there’s no way to confuse the style of Hemingway and Faulkner, is there? Each was unique.

    Then there’s voice. To me, it’s one step beyond style. It is not just the writer conveying his attitude toward his story; it is also a mirror of the writer’s own essence. It lets us know what KIND of person is addressing us, what kind of mind and heart. It’s a distillation of the writer’s character shining through the prism of words.

    The best definition I ever heard of voice was by the critic Anatole Broyard: “Voice is the sound of conviction…the tone very close to the one the writer uses when he is alone and talking to himself.”

    Needless to say, voice can’t be faked. Which is why it is so rare.

  12. I do find joy in my writing. Hamilton’s quote is a keeper and I put it in my Quote Box.

    I would like to write in first person, but I find that the “joy” gets out of control and I become severely self-indulgent, and more that a bit boring. 🙁

    • Jim, you’ve hit on the big danger of first person–the running off at the mouth syndrome. I advise trying to find the voice of the narrator and make it different than your own. Give the narrator plenty of attitude. That’s fun. And then stick to the story.

  13. Unlike some of the other commentors, the joy (the fun) increases for me when I edit, because that’s when I really get to play with language—the ultimate toy.

  14. I love Dr. Wicked too. I spent the $10 and have the app on my computer. I use it when I need to jump-start a scene or experiment with an idea. Most of the writing I produce there is terrible, but I usually get a good kernel or two, or I discover a story direction I can run with. Plus, who doesn’t feel like a rockstar when you kick out 500 words in 20 minutes?

  15. Another excellent post by you, Jim! Your book Revision and Self-Editing is at the top of the list of books I recommend to my clients and other aspiring novelists.

    These are all great tips for developing your voice. I especially like Dwight Swain’s advice, “the secret of excitement is to go deeper into your characters. Create more backstory, more secrets, more complexity, and you’ll get excited again.”

    Good stuff! I always look forward to your Sunday posts here!

  16. Will I ever discover my writers voice?
    Where am I? Who am I? What … am I?—Who are you?

    Dr Wicked sounds fun.

    I will try it tonight!

  17. I’m really happy you pointed out joy as an important part of voice. I’m much better at letting the words flow than I used to be, but sometimes the joy is hard coming. Then it’s a vicious cycle where I know I need to write, but the writing feels like pulling myself over broken glass, which makes me feel worse.

    Maybe instead of focusing on the “business” side of things so much (you know, the “treat this like a job and write every day” which IS important, but not always easy) I’ll instead focus on the joy when things get tough.

    As usual, you inspire me!

    • You are so right, Elizabeth, that the “business side” of things can be a real buzz kill on the writing. So yes, major in the writing and when you do, swing for the fences.

      Thanks for the good word.

  18. When a writer’s “voice” is working it resonates with my inner-reader voice in my head. Everything merges into a seamless flow. When I write, I try and reverse the flow. Getting into the characters is a big clue. Why, I could walk around in “character” for days. Seriously, try it. But the “Thing” is seeing and writing the story and the dialogue from the “inside” out and writing it to/with the reader’s voice in his/her head. I keep thinking that it’s all the same place. If that makes any sense. (Time to go take my meds now.)

  19. I feel like I’m just beginning to discover my fiction “voice”… finished off my first novel last month after completing NaNoWriMo in the Fall. Just yesterday I started writing my second, and I feel so much more confidence and clarity as I write, compared to how I felt the first go-round. I’m excited to see what else I learn this go-round.

    I appreciate your “mentoring” of us younger writers, Mr. Bell. I’ve enjoyed listening to your advice and trying to hone the craft as I go. Thanks!

    • Jess, you’re in a very good place. Completing a full novel is a tremendous learning experience. You’ve done that. Now you’re moving forward, and it truly is exciting when you start to get it, to feel it. Thanks for the good word.

  20. This is why it bothers me to see authors on social media complaining about deadlines, or posting how much difficulty they’re having with a chapter, etc., because I think that tears away the curtain that shields our readers from the WORK of writing. I don’t like to post a lot about my process, and I don’t want to know about the labors of my favorite authors. I like the idea of a story’s effortless appearance, even though I know better.

  21. I am not so sure that voice springs from joy as much as it springs from any strong emotion.

    When I write fiction, I feel the story. On the first run through the work, I don’t so much as play with the words as pour them out and shuffle them later.

    When I get stuck, I’ve learned to walk away a bit. I go for a run or soak in a shower so I can stop the loop and listen to the voices inside my head. Invariably, I’m stuck because I tried to force something in the story and my characters are rebelling.

    And when I listen closely and tell that story as honestly as I can, then I have a voice. Recognizably mine – perhaps, but the source of the voice is in the story itself and the passion that makes me write (literally – I started writing when the voices were interrupting my runs.)

    My biggest fear is that, voice or not, I won’t have the craft to share the story I see and hear in my head, that the skills aren’t there to honor the idea.

    But I write anyway. There is a sense of joy there and also not a little bit of hope and love. Plenty good enough to keep me at the keyboard.

    • I call the writing craft, specifically structure, “translation software for your imagination.” It is indeed what helps us get the story we feel and see in a form readers can relate to.

      Keep writing.

  22. Well done. You’re dead right about the joy part. I started the outline of a new novel. My editor wasn’t crazy about the subject, but said to go ahead. I pushed and pulled and produced an outline. She read it and wasn’t enthusiastic. “You love cats,” she said. “You’re funny when you talk about cats. Why not write about cats?”
    “But I hate girlie books about cats,” I said.
    “You don’t write girlie books,” she said.
    Now I’m writing about cats — a funny book about cats. And the joy is back –for me. Hope my readers will feel it, too.

  23. One of my favorite books is ‘Finding Your Voice’ by Les Edgerton. I doubt I can say it better than he does, but to me, voice is the essence of the way you think and say things coming out on the page. People have problems when they try to sound writerly, or worse, when they try to sound like some other writer they like.

  24. At the day job we’ve got little mirrors all over the place with a phrase emblazoned on them: The customer can hear your smile.

    So true, whether it is in doing IT support, writing books or recording audiobooks I know that my smile shines through it. This smile inducing career, this giddy attitude, this generally happiness filled profession brings a joy of its own both in the creation and the execution of the books/stories. It’s like playing in the back yard as a kid, having fun making stuff up and generally running about shouting and stomping and riding my horse and jumping out of invisible planes and fighting giant dragons that dare crawl out from beneath the wood shed. Except now, folks pay me to play in imagination land.

    Yeah…I’m happy with this gig.

  25. I’ve never considered the aspect of “joy” associated with voice. While I believe I have one when I write and engage with my story, I question what happens to it after it’s critiqued and edited. How do I keep my voice when someone else tells me I need to make changes? And I agree with an earlier comment that the publishers seems to really want what sells and what is popular more than they want to take a chance on a new author who’s not mimicking published ones. These are the things that want to steal my joy.

    • Don’t let ’em steal it, Marilyn. Sure, there is an editorial phase. Take in what seems apt, but don’t be afraid to fight for what makes you you.

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