What is a Writer’s Voice?


What is a Writer’s Voice?

I was always confused when critics talk about a writer’s voice. What exactly was that? And frankly, even though I think I have a better idea of what that means now, it’s still a bit vague. I think a writer’s voice can consist of:

  • Settings he typically prefers. Cormac McCarthy picks settings I hate—cowboys, post-apocalyptic world—but I love his writing.
  • Types of characters often used. Do they tend to have an active inner life or is everything revealed in what they do?
  • Language or diction. Is it fairly formal or informal (like this blog)?
  • Imagery and description. Does the author tend to fully situate the reader in the setting through description or does she tend to allow the reader to imagine what things look like? Are the metaphors and similes to die for, poetry in disguise, or are they more functional?
  • Type of plot. Psychological drama or action thriller? Romantic or pragmatic?

There are many other possible components of a writer’s voice but I don’t think we need to beat a dead horse. Suffice it to say that voice is what makes you uniquely you as a writer. Let’s take Jane Austen as an example.

  • Settings she prefers. Middle class semi-rural England.
  • Types of characters often used. Women protagonists, usually with an active inner life, often a little bit outside the norm of that period (poor, orphaned, etc. Okay, Emma the exception that proves the rule).
  • Language or diction. Formal language but with both a wicked and elegant turn of phrase
  • Imagery and description. I would say the Austen tends to let you imagine what things look like unless you need to have the detail. For example, in Pride and Prejudice, she describes Rosings, Lady Catherine de Burg’s residence because the reader needs to know how imposing it is. But otherwise, she tends to leave it to the reader’s imagination. And her writing, while elegant and witty, is not poetry lyrical.
  • Type of plot. Romantic novels of manners, and the small things in life which are big.

Whether or not you concur with my analysis, I think you would agree that Jane Austen would not have written a novel about prize fighters, or the slums of London. She would not take on the big social issues of her day as Dickens did in his but instead focused on the individual trying to make her way in the world.

Similarly, Mark Twain tended to semi-rural, small town America. His characters often spoke in a colloquial way and the writing was frequently humorous as well as biting. It’s not that he stuck with this always—much of his writing does not fit this description, but he developed a style of writing—funny, satirical, unadorned, straight—which is characteristic of him.

So, there you are—voice. Next post: Finding Your Distinctive Voice.