"A writer’s voice is her fingerprint, a way for a reader to identify style"
Does the subject of developing voice make you want to run? You’re not alone. Explanations run the gamut from the way writers pen their prose to bigger-than-life characters who attract readers with their view on life.
Voice is everything a character experiences and expresses according to their traits and the writer’s unique style.
A writer chooses unpredictable characters, both in actions and in dialogue, and establishes a voice that draws readers into the story. A writer’s voice is her fingerprint, a way for a reader to identify style. It can’t be developed by studying a textbook or taking a writing course or reading how-to blogs and articles. Each writer has a unique way of stringing together words and sentences, a subconscious activity stamped with personal style, word choice, originality, and passion for the project.
We develop our voice over time—by writing, polishing our craft, and knowing our characters. It’s much like our unique conversational style but with a strong additive: the character’s voice. That means no two characters ever quite sound alike. A strong writer’s voice doesn’t overpower the character but hooks the reader’s attention and refuses to let go.
Donald Maass describes voice as “not only a unique way of putting words together, but a unique sensibility, a distinctive way of looking at the world, an outlook that enriches an author’s oeuvre . . . An original. A standout. A voice.”
Our ability to dive into characters and create an adventure strengthens our voice. We weigh each word choice to decide if it’s succinct and descriptive.
Are we using strong verbs and vivid nouns, the ones our character would use? Have we chosen the best word in the character’s voice, one we’re comfortable with?
A writer’s genre also influences word choice. A lot to think about, but when we tune out the critics and write the story of our heart with a character we love (or love to hate), the voice will be at our fingertips.
I went through several stages of forming my voice while following rules, not following rules, then allowing my writing to morph into my voice. When I concentrated on good writing and put the guidelines into perspective, my voice came. Note that what is appropriate for the style, format, genre, and publisher guidelines is not the same as exploring and finding our unique writer’s voice. As Thomas Merton said, “Not all men are called to be hermits, but all men need enough silence and solitude in their lives to enable the deep inner voice of their own true self to be heard at least occasionally.”
The following areas are important to me. While they may not become part of a writer’s voice, they give us an example of the subconscious development that is necessary to establish our writing voice.
- I’m a bare-bones writer. I don’t like to read paragraphs of description, so I don’t write them.
- I use humor sparingly and always in character. I can be dark—or I can be flirty. Sometimes a character requires a little more of what I avoid, so I have to weigh my preferences with what the character’s telling me—then mix the two.
- Sometimes all it takes is a single word or phrase to accomplish voice.
- I detest exclamation marks. I will stay up all night rewording scene and dialogue to eliminate that little bat and ball from the end of sentences. I prefer using word choice, characterization, and the scene’s mood to convey emotion. But if an editor believes it’s the best choice, I will present my case … and together we’ll decide for the sake of the story.
- I use only said as a dialogue tag. It’s an invisible word. The only other tag I might consider is whisper. I don’t use asked as a dialogue tag. The punctuation mark and the syntax show the sentence is a question. Why insult the reader by telling them twice it’s a question?
- I want my writing to be understood immediately. That means not sending readers to the dictionary. Clarity with distinctive nouns and verbs is more important than a word’s number of syllables.
- I don’t use semicolons or colons in fiction. I believe the use of italics for internal dialogue tosses the reader out of the adventure. I emphasize style, word choice, originality, and passion for the project to establish individuality. Don’t be afraid to be you. A distinct voice means having the confidence to allow your personality to shine through your story.
Outstanding writing comes from composing one sentence after another. When a reader can say only you could have written that story, then you have established your voice.
DiAnn Mills is a bestselling author who believes her readers should expect an adventure. She is a founding board member of the American Christian Fiction Writers, director of the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference, and a member of Advanced Writers and Speakers Association, Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers.
DiAnn is passionate about helping other writers be successful and speaks to various groups and teaches writing workshops around the country. She and her husband live in sunny Houston. DiAnn is very active online and loves to connect with readers on social media and at diannmills.com.