Wednesday, June 1, 2011

5 Ways to Develop a Unique Voice

A unique voice is one of those elusive elements agents and publishers look for in a manuscript. Many say it can’t be taught and many believe it’s exceptionally difficult to edit in.

Jeni Mawter, Australian author of YA and Tween novels, ran the last workshop I attended during the Sydney Writers’ Festival. She covered many topics including voice. Below are some tips she shared:

1. First and foremost we need to ask ourselves, who is telling the story and why? This will impact our style choices for that voice.

2. When considering the style of the voice we also need to think about:
  • word choice – will it be formal or colloquial, will the language be colourful or plain, will the words be simple or complex?
  • Sentence length – In literary fiction sentences tend to be longer. Also, the more tension there is in a scene, the shorter the sentences.
  • Tense – while past tense is the most popular, present tense often makes the story more immediate.
  • Point of View – First person is intimate yet limiting. Third person is more distant but the writer has a lot more freedom.
  • Emotions – the way these are conveyed varies with gender. Males tend to feel emotion through action. Females respond through thought and feeling. Also, emotional scenes gain more impact if the language is simple, so take out all the adverbs and adjectives.
  • Humour – likeability is often closely related to humour. For example, Hannibal Lector in Silence of the Lambs was likeable because of his wicked sense of humour.
  • Attitudes – do you want a cocky voice or a quiet one, a carefree voice or a thoughtful one?
  • Rhythm – lyrical language and rhythms are often found in literary texts.
  • Grammar, punctuation and spelling – will these be formal and proper or will the voice include a more relaxed approach?

3. Practise and practise again. Have a willingness to rewrite and rewrite again.

4. Study. Become a people watcher. Be observant, not judgemental.

5. Read books with a strong voice and analyse how the writer succeeded.

Can you think of other tips to gain a unique voice? Can you name any books that have a strong, unique voice you liked?

Note: Still down with flu... sniffle.


  1. Those are excellent! And often things we don't think about when writing dialogue. Thanks, Lynda!

  2. I always write in present-tense, first-person narrative and love the sense of immediacy it engenders.

    Another fine post, Lyndieloo. :)

  3. I don't like present tense in books :(

    But I do agree that all writers should be observant and that they should watch the world around them in great detail.

  4. PS forgot to give you a tissue for the nose :P

  5. I prefer past tense too Dezzy! :)

    I think a lot of the time you develop your voice as you practice. As we become better writers, our voices are more visible!

  6. This is an awesome post!!!!!

    I write first person present tense and love it. Fortunately it's popular in YA. :D

  7. Lynda, these are absolutely wonderful. And so, so true. I do believe a writer's voice is her/his own; a gift, if you will. However, I also believe it can be streamlined and honed, and gleaning from other writer's works is the best way to do that.

    A unique voice? I really love contemporary writer Kristan Higgins. She writes mostly in first person, which can be limited, but wow, her heroine can carry a book like a champ, make you laugh, cry. Love it when an author plays with my emotions like that. ;)

  8. I'm so sorry to hear you're ill!! Oh dear, please take care!!

    Thanks for these fab tips on how to bolster your unique voice and truly make it your own!! It's definitely an elusive skill to pin down but these tips help, thank you! take care

  9. Hope you're starting to feel better. :)

    The Help has a very distinctive voice and I found Cherie Priest's distinctive in Boneshaker. Don't know how to define it other than it lends itself to the atmosphere of a story.

  10. I'm sorry to hear you have the flu.I hope you feel better soon.

    This is a great post on defining voice.

  11. Sounds like an excellent workshop. Thanks for the tips!

  12. This is a brilliant essay, great tips on voice.

    Thank You.

  13. Thanks for the tips! I think I can definitely define my voice a little bit more.

  14. It always takes me a wee while to settle into a present tense book when reading it.

  15. This is an excellent post. I didn't know that males express emotions by their actions. Very helpful piece of info to know!

    I'd say that Mark Twain's voice is about as good as voice gets.

  16. Sorry to hear you've the flu - I was struggling through one at the writers conference (hope I didn't spread any germs - I tried to contain).

    Helpful post. I like first person sometimes, but not so much present tense for YA.

    Huckleberry Finn had a great voice and John Cleaver in 'I am not a Serial Killer' has a very haunting voice. Getting stuck for some really good female voices that linger with you?

  17. These are great tips to consider when creating voice. I'm big about #4. I study people hoping to make the voice in my work authentic.

  18. These are all excellent tips, Lynda. Thanks for sharing them. Will be book marking this post.

  19. Excellent advice :D I found that Among Thieves by Douglas Hulick has a really strong voice, especially with the use of the colloquial Thieves' dialect.

  20. Alex, good for dialogue and prose :)

    Suze, ;)

    Dezzy, thanks for the tissues..much needed...along with a pillow and a blanket.

    Jemi, same.

    Stina, thanks

    Alyssia, agree. a gift, yes and honed.

    old Kitty, thanks

    M Pax, erm...nope. :(

    Holly, thanks

  21. Theresa, it was :)

    Anthony, thanks

    Emily, great

    Niki, same, probably because it's not as common.

    LynNerd, yes Twain's voice is brilliant.

    Charmaine, hehehe, no fear. Think I pick it up on a train ;)

    Medeia, hehe I studied people even before I became a writer.

    Jordan, thanks

    Rachna, thanks

    Jamie, I like the sound of that.

  22. I get the most of my ideas from people watching.

    I like the point you made about humor. Perhaps I'll incorporate that into my one character, although that might steal someone else's thunder. Hmph.

    I loved the voice used in The Adventures of Huckelberry Finn.

  23. Excellent post. I'm just starting a new book and know I need to nail the voice first before I can go anywhere.

  24. Misha, yep, Mark Twain seems to be a popular choice :)

    Girl Friday, ooo, good luck with your new book :)

  25. People watching is an excellent idea--it's really helpful when you're studying the rhythm and style of a person's manner of speaking. These are all excellent suggestions--I would also say that keeping the character's culture and values firmly in mind would be important, as what a character attends to and how he/she responds would be closely linked to it as well as the other things you have here.

  26. Great post! Thanks for sharing this information.

    Feel better soon!

  27. Awesome! I love reading a unique voice!

  28. Great post. No doubt practice makes perfect. There is a world of difference between the first draft of my novel and the second one.

    Yesterday, as I began my writing journey into the sixteenth century, I thought it would be much easier this go round. After all, I had a previous draft to reference. Unfortunately, I discovered that I'd written it in omniscient instead of limited third. This approach lacked emotion and distanced the reader from my character. Needless to say, I went back to the drawing board.

    I'll probably feel the same way about my second draft when I begin writing the third.(:

  29. Thank you for this! I am consistently told that I have a unique writing voice, but I am never told what makes it that way. These guidelines are helping me put that into perspective and further strengthen my craft.

  30. Great list, Lyn. Sigh, okay--time to slash some adjectives (but I LIKE them, sniff).

    Also--tag, you're it! I've been tagged, and now it's your turn. See my blogpost for details and the nice things I said about you:
    Artzicarol Ramblings

  31. Always great food for thoughts Lynda. Mulling it over as we speak.

  32. Sarah, excellent addition. Yes, People's backgrounds and cultures make a huge impact on their voice.

    Susanne, thanks

    Laura, same here. It often makes a good story great.

    Andrea, gotta love the progression of drafts!

    Jonathon, sounds like you are blessed. It's not always easy to develop a voice.

    Carol, I don't think you have too much to worry about in the adjective department :P Oh! I've been tagged! Heading on over :)

    Ben, mulled thoughts are almost as good as mulled wine ;)

  33. I think for me the most helpful one is the "why" of "who is telling this story and why."

    We all have different ways of speaking depending on our mood, who we're speaking to, what we're saying, etc. Knowing WHY our narrator is telling the story, for me, is the key to understanding how he or she is going to tell it.

    Hope you feel better soon! The flu is the worst. D: *virtual noodle soup!*

  34. Terri, thanks

    Meagan, yes, knowing the WHY helps me too. oh and your virtual noodle soup tastes yum! Can I have the recipe?

  35. I prefer to write 3rd person past tense. Don't like present tense when I'm reading. Finding a good and consistent voice is difficult, I think. I'm working on it >:)

    Cold As Heaven

  36. What an excellent post. But I do have to agree that I didn't much like to read stories in the present tense. The third person works for me.

    Thanks for the great advice!

  37. This is a wonderful post. I love all the great information to utilize here. Thanks!

  38. Great post.
    I usually write in 3rd person past tense...and try to make the voice of the narrative match the mc and mood of the story.

  39. These are great reminders since voice is so essential. I have often heard also that you need to find the characters flaw in there very beginning and the goal they are working toward. Just by knowing these basic things their voice is just...more

  40. Excellent pointers. I've just been experimenting myself on the Thursday tales challenge. O)

  41. Cold as Heaven, yep, it definitely takes practise.

    Nas, yep 3rd person is the popular one.

    Regina, thanks

    Jo, yep it's good to try to match those.

    Deana, so very true. Thanks for adding that tip.

    Madeleine, oh great! It's good to experiment.


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