Finding Your Voice

If you feel that you can never write as well as John Steinbeck [or] Charles Dickens . . . you may be right. But you can write well ... if you find a voice that rings true to you and you can learn to record the surprises of the world faithfully.

Early in this book, we looked at the several purposes that cause people to write in the first place: to learn something better, to question, to share, and to present. Later, we looked at the audiences for whom writers write, including teachers, friends, the public, and oneself. In this final chapter, I'd like to reflect on the writer's voice and to consider how it develops.

In a book such as this, a discussion of voice in writing belongs either first because it's so important, or last because it's so slippery. I have saved it for last because, ultimately, voice is something that develops almost unconsciously or intuitively and largely apart from the more conscious techniques we have studied.

The concept that each speaker or writer has a unique voice, one that's indisputably his or hers, is perhaps the most difficult idea in this book. I'd like to think that with each sentence and paragraph in these chapters you can hear me speaking—that you can imagine the same person speaking, page after page, without ever having met me, the author. I'd

*Telling Writing, Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 1985.

like to think you can, for that is the best illustration of voice that I can think of. However, I cannot speak for you.

But what really constitutes a writer's voice? The type and length of words, sentences, and paragraphs? The ideas expressed in the paragraphs? The arrangement of the ideas into a whole? The values embedded in the ideas? Some unidentifiable quality best described as mystical? Or, as some would argue, do we each have many voices, which vary according to one's purpose and audience? It will be the business of this chapter to explore where voice lies and what control, if any, writers have over it.


Think a little bit about Cicero's definition of rhetoric: "The good man speaking well." (Changed to nonsexist language—"the good person speaking well"—the rhythm is less, but the content is more.) What I enjoy about this simple definition is the implied attention to the character of the whole speaker: What he or she stands for. What he or she believes. The quality of his or her words. The truth of those words. And the embedded notion that these words are, in fact, his or her own.

When we consider written instead of oral speech, the concept of voice becomes even more difficult to pin down. In writing, we can't, of course, hear the timbre of the voice or see the expressions on the face. Instead, we hear the voice through our reading, perhaps gleaning our first clues about the writer from the particular combination of words, punctuation, sentences, and paragraphs that we call style.

If I look for a moment at my own style, as evidenced in this chapter, a few things become obvious:

1. I use lots of first-person pronouns ("I") to let you know that these are my truths, not somebody else's. Other books about college writing assert things quite different from those found here.

2. I frequently use contractions to make my voice more conversational and less formal. I'm an informal, not formal, person.

3. As much as possible, I eschew large or pretentious words (like eschew, which simply means avoid) because that's how I speak with my family, friends, and students.

4. And I use a fair number of qualifiers (fair, well, rather, perhaps, of course). I want to suggest that my assertions are not absolute, to give the reader time to chew on the assertions, and to help readers hear the tone of my informal speaking voice.

Of course, there are more observations we could make about my style— about clause length, fragments, figures of speech, active versus passive verbs, punctuation patterns, sentence rhythms, and the like, but this will do.Style is a matter of choices—some conscious and some not—about the language impression you leave behind.

To the extent that we control our style, we control our voice. We modify our language—sometimes consciously, sometimes not—to suit our several purposes and audiences. Especially at the editing stage, after we have worked out our central ideas (the content of voice), we have the luxury of going back over our draft and selecting just the right word or phrase to convey an idea: to select the word large rather than big, huge, enormous, or humongous. At this level of construction, we choose words to represent our ideas in one way rather than in another. But we don't have time to edit everything that comes out, nor do we want to, and so we probably make more unconscious than conscious choices.


The voice you find in a piece of writing is much more than a matter of style; otherwise, this chapter would be nearly over. When someone reads my writing and tells me that he or she could hear my voice, I believe that is different from telling me he or she liked my style. Voice implies for me a deeper, more permanent resonance; style implies surface elements that are readily manipulated to produce various effects.

In addition to style, there is something that I stand for, some set of beliefs and ideas that characterize me as distinct from you—that, too, is a part of voice. There are some sentences that I could not utter, so foreign are they to my particular way of thinking and living. (At least I'd like to think that's true.) I'd like to think that the words of a Hitler, Stalin, a Ku Klux Klansman, or a terrorist could not appear among my utterances, nor those of the beer commercials on television, nor those of some colleagues down the hall. My voice not only permeates my words, but reflects my thoughts and values as well.


My voice also arranges, organizes, and focuses whatever material comes before it. In other words, voice is also a matter of the patterns through which we see and express the world. From even this chapter you will see the degree to which I am governed by logic or emotion, am inductive rather than deductive, am linear or circular, am probing or casual. Do I begin a piece of writing with an anecdote or a proposition? Do I provide examples for all of my generalizations?

Arranging ideas is easier in writing than in speaking because we can actually witness our thoughts. In writing, we have the leisure to develop a thought carefully, to work from an outline, and to review and revise until we are satisfied that the order of presentation is as strong as we can make it.


Ultimately, when we communicate in writing, style, content, and arrangement are all working together simultaneously, somehow combining to represent us. Although we modify elements of our voices from time to time, person to person, situation to situation, we are more likely to play variations on a theme than to make radical departures from some fundamental expression that has come to represent us. Yes, I can write like an impartial, dispassionate scientist if called upon to do so. Yes, I can write free-association, stream-of-consciousness mind play if I'm in certain moods. But these are not the me you'll usually find when you read what I write most often: my journal, letters, memos, articles, and books.

Your voice may be something you create consciously as you do a research paper or a poem. But more often it's what spills out whenever you talk candidly to your friends and when you write in your journal or to your mother, a classmate, or a teacher. Your voice evolves over time as you do. What I write today is basically the same as I would have written five years ago, but a little different, because I'm a little different today than yesterday. You are who you are, and when you speak or write it is reasonable to expect that your language represents you. If not your language, what does?


Another view of voice: I do have more than one voice. I can become other people when I choose. I am even capable (sometimes) of uttering thoughts in which I do not believe. In short, whenever I write, to some extent I am putting on an act, the meaning of which changes as my purpose does. In this view, each of us is also a collection of several voices, none more genuine than another.

Whether we each believe we have one or many voices may simply depend upon how we define the word voice. When I asked the students in my advanced writing class how many voices they had, their answers differed in interesting ways. For example, Jen insisted that she had only one:

My voice always maintains, if not screeches, an egocentric notion of who I am.

Carter insisted that all writers have only one:

Good writers or bad, we cannot change our voice from one moment to the next. We can disguise it with style, but our own voices will ring true.

However, Bobby and Lisa both believed they each had three distinct voices, though each described these differently:

bobby: I think I have three different writing voices: one academic, one personal, and one which lies somewhere in between. The ones I use most are the two extremes. lisa: I have three voices: the first is a writing-for-the-teacher voice, the second is a letter-writing voice, the last is a train-of-thought voice. ... I am more comfortable with the last two—they are both like a real person speaking.

And Kim believed she had many:

The writing home voice, the chemistry-lab voice, the writing-to-boyfriend voice, the writing-to-best-friend voice, the freshman English voice, the journal voice. Each one requires me to author it, but my actual presence in the piece will be stronger or lighter depending on the topic.

What may be most important in this discussion is not whether you actually have one, three, six, or more voices, but your awareness that your readers hear one whether you like it or not.

To college writers, I usually put it this way: We each have some bundle of beliefs, values, and behaviors that constitutes who we are (including our own perception of who we are). When we write, we represent some part of that self-concept on paper, unless, for certain purposes, we choose to modify it—at which time the shape of our voice becomes more problematic, less clearly us, more possibly some single quality exaggerated: the scientific me, the poetic me.

As a writer, you will be most versatile to the extent that you can assume a variety of voices, some less comfortable than others, perhaps, but possible. Learn, then, to view your voice as a powerful personal tool that you can shape as the occasion demands, recognizing that some shapes can become gross distortions of that for which you generally stand.


In one of my first-year writing classes, Stephany chose to write about her summer job on an egg farm. I watched her write several drafts, her voice getting stronger and more assertive as she wrote. If we look at the first paragraphs of three of her drafts, we will see Stephany's voice in various stages of development.


This last summer my father said I had to get a job. I got a job at a girls' camp, but I didn't dig the idea and hoped that something better would come up. Much to my distaste, I applied for a job at a nearby egg farm. I wasn't all that thrilled with the prospects of spending the summer picking eggs, but it would mean more money, so I said "what the hell" and applied.

Stephany moves in this opening paragraph from her father to the girls' camp to the egg farm in a rambling, informal adolescent voice. Yes, I hear someone talking—complaining, actually—but despite the profanity, I do not find Stephany's voice to be especially distinctive here: she tells us what she doesn't like, but nothing of what she does.

In her next draft, Stephany concentrated on the job at the egg farm from her opening and dropped the indecisive period leading up to it.


My summer job was at Arnold's Egg Farms in Lakeview, Maine. I was the candler for Complex 70s, a series of ten barns. I worked six days a week, Thursday through Tuesday.

Here Stephany has the tight focus, but has lost most of the verbal cues that told us something about her personality. I would describe the voice here as fairly objective and cautious, with no boldly distinctive qualities to make us know much of the writer herself. Her last draft started like this:


T.G.I.T. Thank God It's Tuesday. I always look forward to Tuesdays. They mean two things: Tomorrow is my day off and today is my boss's day off, so I won't be asked to pick eggs. I really hate picking eggs—I get all covered with dust, eggs, and grain. By the end of the day, I'm so tired that I just want to sack out. When I was hired, my boss told me I'd only have to pick eggs once in a while, but this week I had to pick three times. It really gets me, because my real job is candling eggs.

Stephany has changed more than her style here: she now starts fast, with a little riddle; she includes good details; she writes with new rhythm. But I would argue that the real gain in this draft is in the totality of her voice. In place of an aimless, complaining teenager or a technical report writer, we find a whole, self-assertive, mildly cocky, genuinely humorous person. After she found the story she really wanted to tell, her voice got stronger and her overall writing much better.


It's an interesting exercise to try to discover the origins and nature of your own voice. In the last assignment of the semester, I asked my first-year writing students to do just that—to reconstruct, by examining past writing, how their writing voices developed, and to locate the features that presently characterize them. Some students, such as Amy, went all the way back to their elementary school writing:

One of the earliest things I can remember writing is a story called "Bill and Frank." It was about a hot dog (Frank) who could sing and play the banjo. Bill was the hot dog vendor who discovered his talent and became his manager. I wrote this story somewhere around third grade. It was very short, simple and to the point.

As the school years passed, assignments got more and more complex. Short, simple and to the point was no longer a plausible style. Of course, page requirements often went along with these assignments also causing a change in style.

She also remembered major influences on the development of her voice:

My first taste of truly more complex writing was in my ninth-grade European history class. Mr. Page taught me how to write an essay. He taught me about making a thesis, supporting this thesis with evidence (from documented sources), and writing a conclusion.

Other students found truly negative influences on their development as writers. Here Steve remembers Mr. Higgins with some anger.

Mr. Higgins was always on our case about grammar. I don't blame him for it, but he taught it totally wrong. He forced it upon you. It is harder when you have to learn all those picky rules all at once. I think you can learn much easier by just plain writing. The more you write the more you use words. By the continuous use of sentences the learning becomes natural.

And Karen remembers not so much a single influence as her own attitude towards writing, which was well developed by the time she was a high school senior:

As I look back and review my writing habits I discover a pattern: name, date, title, one draft, spell check, done!! I handed it in and never looked at it again. My senior thesis, I sat down at the computer, typed out a draft, and as soon as the page numbers reached ten I wrote a conclusion, ran it through spell check, and handed it in. I never proofread it. I was content it didn't have any spelling errors. So, why did I get a D on it? I couldn't figure it out.

In completing this assignment to analyze their own writing voices, many college writers reported a new awareness of themselves as writers, of their voices as distinctly their own. Colleen, for example, for the first time believes she is a writer:

The important part of my growth as a writer is the fact that I have grown into a writer rather than grown as a writer. I never used to consider myself a writer and perhaps now I am being too bold by saying that I have become one. I used to be afraid of writing. I despised anything that resembled a diary. It was hard for me to get the idea into my head that writing was for your personal use. That's what I think writing is all about.

Gavin reports major growth in selecting certain topics:

My major development as a writer has occurred in the topics that I write on. Through the years I have focused on continually more powerful subjects. From violence in children's literature to the destruction of tropical rain forests to gang violence to my work this year on nursing homes and the homeless.

Wendy views her changes as a writer as closely akin to her changes as a person:

Changing one's personal voice is sort of like changing one's personality. ... I see that as I grew older, my writing matured, became more open, and developed in the same ways I did as a person.


Voice is difficult to isolate and analyze. I've chosen to write about it last because, to a large extent, voice is determined by other skills and beliefs. However, there are some things you can do that will have a positive impact on your writing voice. None will be as important as living, learning, working, loving, raising families, and growing older, but each will help the process along.

1. Speak when you are afraid. You grow fastest when you take the most risks, slowest when you remain safe. For me as an undergraduate, speaking out loud in class was as risky as anything I had ever done, but until I tested my voice and my beliefs in the arena of the class, I really didn't know who I was, what I stood for, or what I could stand for. The more you test your oral voice, literally, the more your written voice will develop.

2. Keep a log or journal. These are safer places in which to take risks than classrooms, so take advantage of that as often as you can. The more you explore who you are in your journal, the more easily you will be able to assert that identity both out loud and in your more formal writing. Use your journal to rehearse your public self.

3. Share your writing with others. Sharing is another form of risk taking, of being willing to see how others perceive you. Asking friends, roommates, classmates, and teachers to respond to your writing in general, to your voice in particular, helps you see how your voice affects others, which in turn allows you to tinker with it for this or that effect. If you hear good things back about your writing, you will be most likely to do more writing; if you hear bad things,you won't write. Pick your sharing audience carefully!

4. Notice other people's voices. One of the best means of growing in every direction at once is simply reading. The more you read, the more other voices you learn about. Read and notice how others convey this or that impression. Take reading notes in your journal to capture what you found. Notice the writers who make you keep reading and notice those who put you to sleep, and try to determine why.

5. Practice other people's voices. One of the best of the old-fashioned composition exercises was copying, word for word, the style of someone else. One day you copy a passage from Virginia Woolf, the next day you try Thomas Wolfe, then Tom Wolfe, then you try to determine which is which and why. These exercises also help you notice what features characterize your own writing.

6. Show, don't editorialize, generalize, or summarize. Practice projecting your voice without telling your reader that's what you're doing. Work so hard at noticing and describing and recreating that you don't need to explain in any obvious way what you think, believe, and value. Place your observations, overhearings, and discoveries so judiciously in your text that they make your point and project your voice in tacit rather than explicit ways.


As I've presented it here, the matter of voice is fairly complex. On the one hand, we each have a voice that is ours. On the other hand, it is also possible that we have more than one voice. While I believe that voice is something that develops over time—over one's lifetime, actually— it can also evolve over a several-week draft. As I said at the outset, the concept of voice is both important and slippery: Others perceive us as our language represents us. Some of this we don't control, at least not yet, and some we never will.


1. What influences have determined your current writing voice(s)? That is, can you think of particular teachers or a parent or an incident that influenced how you write today?

2. Describe how you vary or change your voice according to whom you are writing.


1. Write an analysis of your current writing voice. Collect as much of your recent (during the past year) writing as you can in a single folder. Consider writing you did in previous schools (for example, high school, if that was recent), in other college courses, earlier in this course, copies of letters, personal diaries, or journals. Arrange these samples one of several ways: for example, according to subject, type, or audience. Then examine each specimen and identify the features that seem to characterize your own voice—those that appear from piece to piece: style? attitude? arrangement? word choice? subject? Write a report describing that voice, using your analyzed data as evidence. (You could report the results of this study in either first or third person—try a passage of each to appreciate the difference.)

2. Describe the development of your current writing voice. Follow the procedures described above, but go back as far as you are able (middle school? elementary school?) and arrange your samples chronologically. Look from sample to sample and see if you can determine any pattern or see any evolution in the development of this voice. Write an essay describing and speculating about your personal evolution as a writer, using both samples and memories of particular influences to help you.


1. INDIVIDUAL: Research the concept of voice in the library. Start with authors such as Irving Goffman, Walker Gibson, and Loren Eiseley. Write a paper in which you examine the degree to which a writer's voices are determined by particular social influences (neighborhood, school, religion, family, friends, etc.) acting upon them.

2. COLLABORATIVE: Write a voice profile. Pair up with somebody else. Interview each other about the nature of your writing and speaking voices. In addition, you might ask to see samples of each other's writing. Write a profile describing each other's voices, using interview and written material as data to support you. Conclude each report with a response by the person interviewed: How accurately have you portrayed his or her voice?

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    How to characterize your voice in writing?
    8 years ago
  • gianetto
    What unique "voice" do you recognize in your classmate’s writing?
    7 years ago

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