Finding Your Voice — The Writer’s Greatest Challenge

Cover of "The Writer's Voice"
Cover of The Writer's Voice

Think of your favorite writers, whether of books, blogs, or magazine or newspaper articles.

Chances are you’ve become devoted to them because of their voice, even if you’ll never hear their accent or intonation directly.

Their authorial “voice” is crucial to attracting and retaining an audience.

Are they funny? Angry? Poignant? Sarcastic? How much you enjoy their work, and their choice of voice, depends mightily on this decision.

And maintaining that voice throughout the manuscript is the writer’s job — if the reader has started out expecting opera, they don’t suddenly want hip-hop halfway through!

Choosing which voice to use is just one of many decisions we need to make when we sit down to write — confiding, casual and conversational tones often work best for bloggers, probably less so for a more formal work of history or biography.

Christopher Hitchens. now suffering esophageal cancer, writes eloquently about this in the most recent issue of Vanity Fair:

The most satisfying compliment a reader can pay is to tell me that he or she feels personally addressed. Think of your own favorite authors and see if that isn’t precisely one of the things that engage you, often at first without your noticing it. A good conversation is the only human equivalent: the realizing that decent points are being made and understood, that irony is in play, and elaboration, and that a dull or obvious remark would be almost physically hurtful. This is how philosophy evolved in the symposium, before philosophy was written down. And poetry began with the voice as its only player and the ear as its only recorder. Indeed, I don’t know of any really good writer who was deaf, either.

One of my favorite bloggers also recently addressed the same topic:

That’s what I want to feel as a reader; I want to feel someone there, compelled to tell me a story because they are sure only I can truly understand it. There are four authors whose voices are perfect for me – Colette, Willa Cather, Kafka and Rilke. In each case you can feel the heart beating and the mind thinking behind the voice. The book by Alvarez I’m reading, The Writer’s Voice, is quite interesting and provocative, but it’s also rather jumbled; however, it does make me want to spend more time with those favourite authors and their pitch perfect voices.

The underlying issue for every writer is confidence — that you will find readers, that they will want to read you, that your voice will be heard!

I’ve been writing for a living since I was 19 years old, so had, even then, a preternatural confidence (perhaps that of the only child, never competing as hard for attention?) that someone might want to hear what I have to say, in the way in which I choose to say it.

Bad editors can silence your voice and wilt your resolve to speak — or have your fictional characters speak — as you wish.

A terrific editor (I had one for “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail”) helps you see where you’ve slipped out of character, as it were, or where your narrator’s voice begins to grate.

Whose writer’s voice(s) do you most enjoy and why?

18 thoughts on “Finding Your Voice — The Writer’s Greatest Challenge

  1. I have read the Al Alavarez book, very good. My personal favourite is the poet Seamus Heaney. I love his casual way of putting things together that have depth and meaning woven into the descriptions. Carol Ann Duffy, the Poet Laureate is another good one.

    Finding a voice and then maintaining that throughout your writing is the hardest part of it all, and the only way to achieve it is to keep writing, even on the bad days. So you can create a body of work and examine the content and understand how you yourself write. Editing (self, or others)your work though is such an intrinsic part of any work produced. This was the hardest part for me. Took a long time to recognise how important it was.


  2. Jim, thanks. I wanted to become a writer after reading Gerald Durrell whose stories of his family made me laugh like crazy and whose ability to describe the natural world is amazing.

    The “voice” can change, though. My first book is non-fiction, mostly reported and interviews, and the tone crisp. My new book, a memoir, relies much more heavily on voice, and a consistent one.

    Knowing what your voice sounds like does take time! It also means, if you freelance like I do, finding editors who value it…not just chop you into pieces.

  3. Thanks! What do you like about their voices? I have never read any of them…

    I used to love Cynthia Heimel (Sex Tips for Girls), who was deliciously funny then. I also like Pan Houston.

  4. Pingback: Finding My Voice via Reflective Blogging « Flickr Comments

    1. That is one seriously diverse list, for sure! I’ve only read Pilcher….have never felt drawn to Palahniuk because of the raw subjects he covers. What do you like about McCarthy?

      I love Michael Ondaatje…I’ve only read two of his books, In The Skin of a Lion and Divisadero. Both have a strange dreamy quality to them I find utterly compelling but not in any way precious or invasive.

      1. I like McCarthy’s economy, his precision, and the way he thinks in images and metaphor. Very lyrical. But I like Pilcher for the opposite reason. Her prose is lush and timeless and proper. And Palahniuk, for his quirky sentence structure and that visceral whap between the eyes. Come to think of it, they’re all a little quirky, so maybe that’s what I’m drawn to.

        And now I’ve got to read Ondaatje. Thanks for that.

  5. Broadside, thanks for this post. I’ve taken away snip’its of advice. I’m drawn to the voices of non-fiction writers, simply because I enjoy what takes place ‘behind the scenes’. Having said that, Mark Haddon is a writer of fiction I fancy.

  6. crgardenjoe

    I’ve enjoyed many different writers, depending on my mood and what I’m looking for. I like Bill Bryson, partly, I suppose, because he’s a fellow Iowan, partly because his travel books have a sharp point of view, a humorous look at the odd people and situation he encounters. I recommend “The Lost Continent” and “In a Sunburned Country” as two of his best. When I was young, I fell in love with comic novelist Donald Westlake. I’ve never been to New York, but feel like I at least have some sense of the place through his eyes. My all-time favorite book that I read as a boy that that really seemed to awaken reading for me was “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and, although she was a southern girl of the 1930s and I an Iowa boy of the 1960s, it felt like she captured the real sense of how children think about the world. Long comment, but I liked your post!

    1. Your list is really interesting. It’s a real challenge to bring the reader with you into whatever place you are trying to elicit for them, but that’s the writer’s job. I tend to really enjoy a musing, wistful voice but can also appreciate a boisterous bossy one like humorist PJ O’Rourke.

  7. How great to find you writing about the same area – I’m fascinated by this at the moment, although I think my own voice has stabilised now. Or at least it always seems to come out the same! But I love the mix of clarity and depth. I said on my post that my best voices belonged to Colette, Cather, Rilke and Kafka. But on reflection I could add Wallace Stegner, Julian Barnes and Anne Tyler too. All very different, and yet all with that perfect marriage of accessibility and profound intelligence. And sympathy too – I don’t like writers who don’t seem to like their own characters.

    1. I’m embarrassed to say I don’t know some of these writers! I tend to focus so much on non-fiction, but you and others here have piqued my curiosity.
      Of all of these, who would you suggest I start with – and why?

  8. I am definitely more drawn to fiction. There are a few writers that I have had a on going connection with since I was very young: Ursula LeGuin, Ray Bradbury, Kafka, Dostoyevsky, Richard Brautigan, Douglas Adams, Tolkien, and Doris Lessing. Recently I have added Horuki Murikami, Roberto Balano, H. G. Sabald, and Cormac McCarthy to my list of trusted voices. Their voices have a way of speaking directly to the deepest part of me even if I don’t agree with what they are saying it sparks a dialogue.
    I love the detached voice of William Carlos Williams and the passionate voice of Mary Oliver. I find it interesting Sthat I also find Charles Bukowski, William Burroughs, and Jack Kerouac fascinating voices, but find their ideas often appallingly callous and negative.
    There are also writers whose voices I am repelled by. After reading a few pages of the first Harry Potter book, I could not get past her voice that seemed so calculated and unnatural. Stephen King also struck me this way as if they were not invested in the story personally. Probably just my personal experience since obviously they connect with so many readers.

    1. Thanks! I loved Ray Bradbury’s work when I was younger (still do), so much so I wrote him a fan letter — he wrote back!

      I was attacked in my apartment while in the bathtub reading Naked Lunch. That put me off him for good!

      It’s really interesting as a writer to hear passionate readers describe what resonates — or does not — for them. It’s so individual!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s