The phrase ‘writer’s voice’ describes a writer’s individual style. It is unique to each writer, although it can sometimes be imitated by others. A writer’s voice makes their work recognisable. Some readers may be able to recognise particularly distinctive authors from just one or two sentences, although some authors are less obvious.
It is not always easy to either define ‘voice’, or to develop your own as a writer. This page discusses the elements that make up a writer’s voice, and explains how you can develop your own distinct style.
Defining Writer’s Voice
There are many definitions of a writer’s voice.
Definitions of ‘writer’s voice’
“Your writer’s voice is the expression of YOU on the page.”
Rachel Gardner, literary agent, quoted by Leona Brits on writingcooperative.com
“Depending on who you ask, writer’s voice can be:
A. Your style of writing
B. Your perspective
C. Your tone in writing
D. All of the above
I prefer to go with the inclusive answer: D.”
From an article on ‘How to Find Your Writer’s Voice’ published on newyorkbookeditors.com
“The author's voice refers to a writer’s style, the quality that makes their writing unique.”
Ginny Wiehardt, writing on thebalancecareers.com
In other words, a writer’s voice is unique to them.
However, this in itself means that it is not defined by one single element. Your style of writing is not enough to distinguish you. Neither, by itself, is your tone, or your perspective, or your choice of words. However, taken together, they create a distinct way of writing that is uniquely you.
Try this exercise to see if you can identify some well-known writers from lesser-known passages from one of their books—in other words, from their ‘voices’. Answers are below.
She would not speak to Anne with half the certainty she felt on the subject, she would venture on little more than hints of what might be hereafter, of a possible attachment on his side, of the desirableness of the alliance, supposing such attachment to be real, and returned.
Some ill-conditioned persons, who sneer at the life-matrimonial, may perhaps suggest in this place that the good couple would be better likened to two principals in a sparring match, who, when fortune is low and backers scarce, will chivalrously set to, for the mere pleasure of the buffeting; and in one respect indeed this comparison would hold good, for as the adventurous pair of the Fives’ Court will afterwards send round a hat, and trust to the bounty of the lookers-on for the means of regaling themselves, so Mr. Godfrey ------ and his partner, the honeymoon being over, looked wistfully out into the world, relying in no inconsiderable degree upon chance for the improvement of their means.
Old Cotter was sitting at the fire, smoking, when I came downstairs to supper. While my aunt was ladling out my stirabout he said, as if returning to some former remark of his: —No, I wouldn’t say he was exactly…but there was something queer…there was something uncanny about him. I’ll tell you my opinion… He began to puff at his pipe, no doubt arranging his opinion in his mind. Tiresome old fool! When we knew him first, he used to be rather interesting, talking of faints and worms; but I soon grew tired of him and his endless stories about the distillery. —I have my own theory about it, he said.
I looked across at the primitive sale ring: eight metres in diameter, open to the skies. A patch of rough field grass in the centre encircled by an asphalt path for the horses to walk on, and surrounding that, for the comfort of the customers, an elementary wooden shelter, backed and roofed with planks.
I was standing there with a map of Australia, surveying the emptiness and trying to absorb the ungraspable fact that if I walked north from here I wouldn’t come to a paved surface for 1,100 miles, when Trevor trotted back and told me that we had been given permission to travel for an hour in the locomotive, so that he could take some photos. This was a rare treat, and exciting news.
1. Jane Austen, Persuasion 2. Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby 3. James Joyce, Dubliners
4. Dick Francis, Knock Down 5. Bill Bryson, Down Under
The Elements of a Writer’s Voice
Most commentators generally agree that a writer’s voice can be broken down into several different elements. These include:
Choice of words
The words chosen by a writer are key to their personal style and voice.
Writers with a more ‘literary’ style tend to use longer, more complex words. Some writers prefer to use lots of adjectives. There are many ways in which writers may use particular words in particular ways—and not all of them are conventional.
For example, J.R.R Tolkien famously used ‘dwarves’ as the plural for ‘dwarf’. He was a professor of English Literature, and knew the correct term was ‘dwarfs’, but apparently chose the alternative to give his creations more dignity.
In the extract from Down Under above, the use of the word trotted is typical Bill Bryson: light and humorous, and very descriptive.
Building on choice of words, syntax is how words are put together into phrases and sentences.
You can see from the examples above how this varies between writers. The extract from Nicholas Nickleby is one of the longest—and contains just a single sentence. Older texts tend to use longer sentences, but this is not absolute.
It takes time to develop your approach to syntax. If you read all of an author’s work, you can often see how their voice developed over time.
This includes placing of commas, and use of speech marks, semi-colons and colons.
For example, one of the distinguishing features of James Joyce’s writing is his use of the em-dash to mark speech, rather than speech marks. His use (or non-use) of punctuation is famous.
Tone is how you feel about the story or events.
It therefore guides your readers to show how they should feel about those events too. It may, for example, express sympathy with the protagonists, or impatience. Tone is important because it brings your own emotions into the story. In creative writing, this really matters—because if you don’t care about the characters, your readers are not going to be bothered either.
There is more about this in our page on Creative Writing.
Perspective is your view of the events you are narrating.
Everyone sees events in a different way. Your perspective draws on your experience, including what you have read as well as what you have done and seen. This gives you a unique ‘angle’ on the story you are telling, whether it is true, or your own creation.
Subject matter is the content: what you are writing about.
It may seem odd to include subject matter in this list, which is very much about the mechanics of writing, rather than the content. However, most writers have a particular genre that defines them, and may also have a specialist subject area. In the examples, Bill Bryson is best known as a travel writer, and Dick Francis used his extensive knowledge of horse-racing in writing his thrillers.
Writer’s Voice vs. Active and Passive Voice
A writer’s voice is not the same thing is whether they use active or passive voice.
Grammatical voice is a quality of verbs, and can be either active or passive. In the first sentence below, the verb chased is in the active voice, and in the second, was chased is passive:
The dog chased the squirrel
The squirrel was chased by the dog.
The active emphasises the person or thing doing the verb action, and the passive emphasises the recipient.
There is more about this in our page Active and Passive Voice.
A Final Word
It takes time to develop your writer’s voice.
Nobody is born with their voice fully developed, and writers continue to develop their voices throughout their careers. The elements within a writer’s voice need to come together over time, reflecting your personal experience of the world.
It follows that you do not need to try to develop your voice. It will come, as you write more, and start to get comfortable with your own choice of expression. Just give it time.