29 July 2013


Two weeks ago, I said that today I'd talk about voice in writing.  At that time, I had a general idea what I wanted to say, but I hadn't researched it.Since then, I've checked out several references, and found that it would be easy to spend hours and hours talking about this topic.

First, I want to narrow the subject for today. Dale Andrews gave us an excellent article on the narrative voice referring to first person or third person, and Terence Faherty followed up with more great info on that subject.  

That's not my topic.

We've all probably heard more than a life time's worth of discussion of passive voice and active voice.  

That's not my topic.

Donald Graves
The topic today is a characteristic of writing that many teachers as well as writers have difficulty in defining.  The term was coined by Donald Graves, Professor Emeritus at the University of New Hampshire, and author of numerous books on writing including A Fresh Look at Writing in 1994.Though some people use the term synonymously with style or tone, that's not what Graves meant, though "personal style" is close.

Another authority tells us that voice is the personality of writing while tone is the mood.  Voice may affect word choice, sentence and story structure, even punctuation.

Since Graves introduced the term, writing instructors have prompted their students to, "Find your voice," just as so many of them insist, "Write about what you know."  I differ with both of those. So far as writing about what you know, why not research and find out what you need to know to write about what you choose? 
I believe a writer can have more
than one best voice depending
upon the subject.

My response to "Find your voice" is that it's incomplete. I think it should be "Find your voice for the piece you're writing." 

We recognize the voices of writers we know just as we recognize the sound of voices of people we know. We would all know the difference in two descriptions of the same thing written by two authors such as Faulkner and Hemingway, and we would be able recognize the difference in how Agatha Christie and Mickey Spillane wrote the same scene.
Ernest Hemingway

Voice refers to the aspects that give the writing a personal flavor, and that personal flavor changes within a writer's works.  Not only does the voice change depending upon the intended audience, it varies with the author's purpose to inform, entertain, or motivate readers to take action. 

Writing to inform readers of the time and location of funeral services in an obituary does not require the same voice as the review of a book on etiquette, nor of a eulogy.

Mark Twain wrote frequently to entertain.  His writing voice is well developed, but note the difference in the voice of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.       
Mark Twain

Opening paragraph of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:

You don't know about me, without you have read a book by the name of "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," but that ain't no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.  There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.  That is nothing.   I ain't never seen anybody but lied, one time or another, without it was Aunt Polly--Tom's Aunt Polly, she is--and Mary, and the Widow Douglas, is all told about in that book, which is mostly a true book, with some stretchers, as I said before.

Huck Finn uses atrocious grammar, breaks rules, and interrupts himself.  All of these plus the choice of words enable us to hear and see the boy before the first paragraph is completed.

Opening of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer:

No answer.
No answer.
"What's gone with that boy, I wonder? You TOM!"
No answer.
The old lady pulled her spectacles down and looked over them about the room; then she put them up and looked out under them. She seldom or never looked THROUGH them for so small a thing as a boy; they were her state pair, the pride of her heart, and were built for "style," not service -- she could have seen through a pair of stove-lids just as well. She looked perplexed for a moment, and then said, not fiercely, but still loud enough for the furniture to hear:
"Well, I lay if I get hold of you I'll --"
She did not finish, for by this time she was bending down and punching under the bed with the broom, and so she needed breath to punctuate the punches with. She resurrected nothing but the cat.

The immediate difference noted is that Tom's adventures are told in third person, while Huck tells his own story in first person.  The voice of both is Mark Twain, but he changes not just the person, but the vocabulary, correctness of grammar and punctuation, and structure of the pieces. 

A writer may change
and further develop voice,
but please don't ever
lose it!
My personal definition of voice has become:  The individual writing style of an author is a combination of idiotypical usage of syntax, diction, punctuation, character development and dialogue within a given body of text.  The totality of that style is voice.  

One of the best explanations I've read of voice is that it's what Simon Cowell is talking about when he tells American Idol contestants to make the song their own and not just a note-for-note karaoke version.

What do you think about voice?  How do you define it?  Is your voice different for varying projects?

Until we meet again, take care of … you!


  1. Ever read Riddley Walker by Russell Hosn? SF novel written in first person, supposedly thousands of years after nuclear war destroyed written civilization and left written english a shhadow of itself. One critic tried translating the first two pages into standard English, demostrating that so much of the plot and meaning disappeared as to lose the whole story. I think if you tried doing th same thing with Huck younwould have the same problem. is voice IS the book.

  2. Hi Fran: Brenda, who taught Lit for a number of years, believes like you, that 'voice'involves the ability of the author to communicate what the characters say and do. She proposes 'The Grapes of Wrath' as an example of how an author demonstrates empathy with his characters. That's it! An author has to convince the audience that, whatever the tale, it is authentic.

  3. My narrative third-person voice for fiction doesn't change much from work to work. The first-person voice of my protagonists is very marked and different from one to the next (contemporary streetwise New York male in my series, fifteenth-century young man in my historicals, and in first-person standalone stories: an 11-year-old girl today, a 12-year-old boy in the 1950s, and a Jewish female shapeshifting country singer. Beyond my fiction, I have one voice for poetry, another for song lyrics, another for academic/professional writing, and yet another, what I'd call a journalistic voice, for blogs and pop articles. But even talking only about fiction, some authors can vary voice and others can't or don't. I read online somewhere recently (and I agree) that Robert B. Parker had only one voice, and that his other protagonists were Spenser in a skirt, Spenser with license to kill, etc.

  4. Great piece, Fran. I've always thought many authors worry too much about voice. It's just there, a part of everything we write, and can sometimes identify a person as quickly as one's walk or facial features.

    Liz, I agree with the comment about Robert B. Parker. Jesse Stone was just Spenser with a badge instead of a PI license.

  5. Good article, Fran, and I agree with your conclusions. I think really good writers do exactly what you said in terms of varying the voice depending upon the story. Some get stuck (not always unsuccessfully) in one groove and stay there.

    As for writing what you know--yes, that's a great place to start, but why stay there? As you pointed out, you can always go forth and research and learn. I think Hemmingway established the model of the writer-adventurer living his novels. But most of us can never do that...nor do we need to.

  6. Good article, Fran. Re voice, well, some authors (Parker has been cited) have only one, for both book and protagonists; others - and may I recommend to you the amazing (non-mystery writing) Joyce Cary - can create a different narrative voice for every book, and a different voice for each character.

    Re writing what you know - one potential writer one time told me that it got boring just writing what they knew. I suggested that they bring their imagination to the table - every emotion, thought, and impulse we have is universal, it just needs amplification. Jealousy (of a pet or a parent or a lover) is jealousy. Fear is fear. Etc. The rest - location, occupation, avocation - is just research.

  7. As a reader, I’ve always and still have trouble telling the difference between voice, mood, and tone when analyzing a story. I like your the idea of voice as personal flavor.

    As for writing what you know, I agree with David that it’s a good place to start, but if the writer stays there, he or she is likely to run out of material.

  8. Thanks for the comments. I agree with everything each of you have said. My voice varies a lot, but I find that when working on something that has a previous definite voice, all I have to do is read a former work and the voice comes right back without effort.

  9. I want to add a special invitation to all Sleuthsayers to be sure to check out the blog two weeks from now on August 12th when I have a great guest blogger scheduled!

  10. Nice article, Fran.

    When I was in fifth grade the class had to write a short story. I wrote mine narrated by a quasi literate story teller. My teacher gave me an "F" and said it was a cardinal rule in writing that the narrator always had to be grammatically letter-perfect. I went to the school library, picked up a copy of Huckleberry Finn and put it on the teacher's desk with my story stuck in the middle. My grade got changed, but not to an "A". The teacher bore a grudge.

  11. I enjoyed your article, Fran. And, I think this is exactly the sort of forum where such discussion makes sense. We have, here, a collection of folks who have a good enough grasp of the language, and of writing, that we can (and probably all do) consider ways to “tint” or “flavor” our writing through voice.

    I completely agree with your first definition of voice, and largely agree with your “Simon Cowell” definition—though I worry that this second definition can be misleading, in the wrong hands.

    My own concern about voice pertains to how it is being taught in our public education system. I believe it’s being introduced to school children too soon, and – as you pointed out – is being taught by people who may not be able either to understand, or to articulate, such an esoteric concept.

  12. Dale and Dixon, you've raised some concerns of mine. When teaching I actually had a principal tell me to grade writing by strict grammatical rules even if it squelched students' creativity.


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