“Writer’s voice” is one of the problems that flummoxed me very badly when I was a new writer.
I wanted to be a writer badly. When I was young I read everything I could find about becoming one.
Every how-to on writing told me I needed to “find my voice.”
That advice kept me lost for a long time, looking for something but not knowing what I searched for. Finally I figured it out.
Writer’s Voice is Not Something You Find
“Voice” in writing is not something that can be found; it can only be earned. That is a heretical statement, so please note it and note where you read it—you heard it from me.
Writer’s Voice—What it Actually Is
Voice is facility with language. Period. Voice is getting comfortable enough with language—in our case this crippled, crazily structured, often inadequate, and sometime soaring set of hieroglyphics that we call “English”—that who you are and what you believe and what you know comes soaring through. Your writing has your stamp on it.
A voice is not a style. Voice is the ability to write complex and interesting sentences using a variance of structures. Voice is the innate ability to be logical in one’s writing. Again, voice is comfort with the language in which you’re writing.
A voice is not given and yet voice is not elusive. I say again, Voice is earned. Voice comes to the hard worker, just as luck comes to the brave. Facility is earned through practice, meaning reading and writing and editing.
Writer’s Voice—How to Have One
To find your voice, then, read and write and edit.
When I am asked to judge a contest, I often start by reading the first line of every entry. Then I go back and read each first paragraph. Then I’ll read the entries. Nine times out of ten, I know from the first line who is going to win the contest. That’s because voice will shine through right away, evident in the ease and facility and beauty of even the first sentence.
That’s not always the case. But it’s often the case.
(At the moment I am judging the entries in Ninth Letter’s 2023 creative nonfiction contest. I just got sent essays from a bunch of great writers. This one is going to be difficult.)
How Much Time Do You Spend Writing?
Once when I was teaching at a university in my region, I met a young writer from my hometown. That thrilled me immensely—my little hometown had produced another writer! His stories were crazily good, throbbing with energy, but something was off. I wrote a note to him:
I think what you need is lots of experience writing. I don’t think your voice is developed yet. Having a voice means simply having a familiarity with words, so that you say what needs to be said without effort. Voice is practice. I’d like to have a conversation with you about how much time you actually spend writing—not simply writing for practice, in journals, but writing for others to read. My honest feeling, my friend, is that you haven’t even begun to touch the depths of your creativity and ability.
My message to you, then: To find your voice, do a lot more writing, a lot more tinkering, a lot more reading.
Write until sentences come easy.