A Conversation of Many: What is Voice Anyway?

Posted September 26th, 2011

Got Voice?We writers hear the term all the time: Voice. Editors want stories with a “powerful voice.” Reviewers enjoy a writer’s “fresh, unique voice.” Teachers lecture about creating “your own voice.” Fiction writers are often described as having a “storyteller’s” voice, an “authentic” voice, or a “passionate” voice. Nonfiction writers, in making their work accessible to young readers, try to create a “lively, personable voice.” Teachers, students, non-published writers, and even established writers tussle with the term.

Of course, style and voice are related but they are not necessarily the same. A writer’s style includes those familiar devices as word choices, sentence structure, description, rhythm, and so on. Rising out of these stylistic devices comes a writer’s voice. You can say style without Voice is hollow, but a voice without style is pretty darn bland! Ironically, any discussion about a writer’s voice is, in essence, metaphorical because the written word is voiceless! So, what is Voice anyways? In search of this holy grail, I asked several luminaries in the field—writers, editors, and educators—for their wisdom.

Cheryl KleinCheryl Kleinsenior editor at Arthur Levine Books/ Scholastic, explores the mechanics of Voice in her must-have book, Second Sight, where she defines Voice by using  the formula VOICE = PERSON + TENSE + PROSODY + (Diction + Syntax + Tone + Imagination + Details). Defining the imagination of Voice, Cheryl says, “[t]he imagination of a voice sets the range of subjects, images, diction, kinds of and examples of figurative language, and references that the voice can include.” For example,  a six-year old narrator wouldn’t  likely refer to ‘Titian hair’ when describing a red-headed friend.” Quoting Shakespeare, says Cheryl., “[I]magination is what is dreamt of in a voice’s philosophy, and the limits on that dreaming.”

Kathi AppeltKathi Appelt, National Book Award finalist for The Underneath, expands on Cheryl’s  formula by comparing the stylistic elements to the musicality of Voice. Voice, according to Kathi, has a lot to do with the sensibility of the characters in their place. Growing up in Houston, Texas, Kathi experienced the idioms, the slant and slur of certain phrases, of the landscape. Says Kathi, “The sounds of the tall pines brushing against the sky — there’s no other sound like it on the planet. I try to keep my ears cocked so that when my characters speak, they have those nuances in their voices and in their thoughts too.” While living in Galveston, she experienced  the alliteration and assonance found in the rolling back and forth of tides. As Kathi says, places have their own sounds. “A mountaintop sounds different from a beach. A city sounds different than a campground. An author has to tune his or her ear into the sound of the place itself because that provides the background noise. “

Dialogue  becomes another instrument  in establishing Voice. “Just as an acoustic guitar is going to sound different from a Les Paul electric guitar, a character from an urban high school in Brooklyn is going to sound different from one who lives in the Outer Banks of North Carolina,” says Kathi. And, just as in music, pitch is used to amplify this voice. “A creepy tale offers up a higher pitch, like the urgent whining of a mosquito in one’s ear. An adventure might have a thunder-like pitch, a low rumbling that keeps the tension taut,” says Kathi. In other words, a series of short sentences can elevate pitch, increasing tension. Longer, more languid sentences can lower the pitch, elongating the sounds like a meandering river.

Adam GidwitzAdam Gidwitz drew upon his experience as a second grade teacher to connect to this orality of voice. Not only did he discover those rhythms that highlight the narrative, he recreated the patterns to include the child reader in his book A Tale Dark & Grimm. Writing with his students in mind, he read his prose aloud, imagining his students sitting before him. He tailored not only the content of the book to what he thought they would enjoy, but also the text to the way he wanted to read it aloud. At times he wrote directly to his students, even addressing them by name.

One day, as Adam tells it,  the local library invited him to read anything he wanted. He chose a story from Grimm’s Tales For Young and Old, called “Faithful Johannes,” in which two kids get their heads cut off—by their parents. Says Adam, “Can I read this to second graders? Will I get fired? And then I thought, ‘Let’s find out!’ So I read it to them, making jokes as I went and explaining complicated passages and trying to relieve the tension when things got too scary and ratcheting the tension back up when things got too boring…When the story was finished, a few of the second graders collapsed in traumatic comas, but the rest gathered around me and told me that they loved the story.”

Dianne de las CasasSharing Adam’s joy of the sounds of language, Dianne de Las Casas is an author and storyteller whose “revved-up storytelling” is full of energetic audience participation. Says Dianne, “The students gave me immediate, live feedback. Stories had to be adjusted on the spot. If something didn’t work, I had to fix it. If something inadvertently worked, I used it again.” Dianne found her writing Voice through her storytelling Voice but found the two weren’t always congruent. Dianne learned to listen, literally. As she wrote her picture books, “I read them out loud, again and again. Repeating refrains that had a sing-songy quality or rhythmic chant were kept. Long descriptive phrases were eschewed for simple narrative.” As Dianne explains, “Just as the oral story is owned by the listener, the printed story is owned by the reader. This transfer of ownership is essential in penning a children’s book. Through this process, my picture books retain the quality of a story told orally yet they fit into the confines of the printed page.”

Eric A. KimmellEric Kimmel, guru and master-storyteller of over 70 books, also draws upon the storytelling event to establish Voice. Says Eric, “Everything begins with storytelling. If it’s a good story, my audience will stay to the end to find out what happens. If it’s not, they’ll get up and walk away to go play on the swings.” But, as Eric explains, the concept of Voice can be as complicated as you want to make it, but that’s what makes it interesting . “Fitzgerald is elegant, dressed up in tie and tails for a party at Gatsby’s. Hemingway is as simple as a controlled vocabulary reader until he punches you in the face with an insight or a phrasing that you can’t forget,” he says.

In fact, Eric sees himself as a lens. “The story comes through me. My personality, my beliefs, my insights, experiences, and understandings color it, but they do not create it. … Whoever tells it next will do so in another voice. It will shine through another lens.” A writer doesn’t have to explain everything. The teller doesn’t always have to be the writer. The teller can just as easily be one of the characters. Sometimes it’s more interesting to let  the reader figure out whether or not that narrator can be trusted. Similarly, what is left unsaid can often be as important as what is spoken. As Eric says, “Leave your audience with a sense of mystery. Not every story has to end with ‘and they lived happily ever after.’”

Louise HawesLouise Hawes, award-winning writer and one of the founding faculty for the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA Program for Writing for Children and Young Adults, explores point of view and its relationship to Voice. A writer can’t feel her way to a POV unless she knows all her options. As Mary Oliver says in her Poetry Handbook, “Emotional freedom, the integrity and special quality of one’s own work—these are not first things, but final things. Only the patient and diligent, as well as the inspired, get there.” As Louise says, each book has generated its own voice, born from its own particular urgency, setting, and characters’ Point of View, then,  “is often a question of how much showing and how much telling your story needs/wants. And unless you’re familiar with lots of ways to tell and even ways to do both at once, you’re limiting yourself and your work.”

In searching for the right voice, Louise free-writes with all her characters, and in these free-writes, they speak to her. For every novel, she has notebooks full of characters speaking in the first person. But often that is not what ends up in the book, unless first person works for both the internal emotional arc and the plot line. Her current work-in-progress, for example, involves the deep, platonic relationship that develops between an octogenarian poet and a sixteen year old girl. “While it’s told from the girl’s viewpoint, I want both characters to weigh in equally, and I want their interaction, not their individual lives, front and center. While I check each scene I write against their first-person free-writes, the book itself is written in third-person, and, except for occasional lines of dialogue, reflects none of these free writes directly.”

Kristiana GregoryKristiana Gregory an award-winning author of historical fiction and an original author in the Dear America series for Scholastic, says capturing the right voice is like acting or pretending. “Playing house or cowboys as a kid was easy if I could imagine the person and action. I didn’t want to be the bad guy, so that role didn’t work and I couldn’t imagine being a jet pilot so those are ‘voices’ I let others handle.” According to Kristiana, writing historic fiction is finding the part that fits and using familiar emotions such as a young girl searching for lost friends or family, a common theme in her novels. In Jenny of the Tetons, for example, she had wanted to tell it from Jenny’s POV, but soon realized that because she  wasn’t a Shoshone Indian, she couldn’t create an authentic voice. Instead,  she created a 15-year old white girl to narrate the novel. Many gifted writers can get inside of characters from different races and cultures, says Kristiana. Writers have lived among different groups or studied them closely, but she was too shy to attempt it. However, it is possible to go outside your experience. The key is authenticity of that storytelling experience.

Nathan BransfordNathan Bransford, middle grade author of Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow, and former literary agent, states that authenticity is the key to finding the Voice. For Nathan, Voice is made up of bits and pieces of you that reflect the emotional truth of the story. Nathan continued by adding that it’s “[t]hat part of you in your work [that] makes it something that no one else can duplicate.”

Monica KullingMonica Kulling, award-winning writer of biography, fiction, and poetry, specializes in capturing an authentic voice in her historical biographies. When writing in the voice of a historical person—for example, a first-person narrative of Billy the Kid—authors choose words, phrases, idioms, and inflections to reflect Billy the Kid or to come as close as possible to the times in which he lived; the ways in which people, especially those with whom Billy the Kid interacted, spoke to each other. An author would have to reflect Billy’s youth, his upbringing, and his energy. In contrast, if an author writes about Billy the Kid in a third-person informational piece, the tone, style, and voice might adopt a more formal tone, reflecting the times and the character, but from the outside looking in as opposed to a more intimate personal narrative.

Rhythm is the key for Monica. When writing biography, Monica reads and thinks and imagines the person “until a rhythm comes to me. That rhythm is a door into the person’s life; once on the inside, I can ‘see’ the character of the individual and hear his or her words, and from there I can construct a picture.”

Pam Glauber, associate editor extraordinaire at Holiday House, offers that  a successful narrative voice can be any of those and more: “lively, strong, fresh, authentic, snappy, wise, humble, inquisitive, innocent, reliable, or unreliable.” And  a good way to balance a creative narrative voice in nonfiction writing, says Pam, is to support the manuscript with solid research, cited quotes, source notes, and extensive back matter.

Darcy PattisonDarcy Pattison, award-winning writer and teacher, stresses the importance of revision in finding one’s authentic Voice. As Darcy explains, Voice is often seen as “a give and take between mysticism and conscious choice that emerges during the revision process, a function of both the conscious and subconscious—the right brain and the left brain—that combine to create something distinctive as you revise.” The best way into Voice is through style. An author can focus on matters of style while her subconscious does the other work of straightening out plot, character, dialogue, and other story elements. “[A]s I focus on matters of style, voice does emerge …What I care about is a revision strategy that helps me find the right voice for this story.”

Emma DrydenEmma Dryden, legendary children’s book editor, SCBWI board member, and  owner of drydenbks, llc, reminds authors that “Editors talk frequently about the necessity of an author staying true to their own voice in expressing the voice of their main character; a definition of ‘voice’ in this instance encompasses the word choice, sentence structure, cadence, vernacular, slang, idioms, and quirks or poetry of speech that help to identify a character within a setting. But, ‘voice’ also encompasses that which lies beneath the actual words a character expresses—namely, the emotions, motivations, doubts, desires, fears, hopes, and internal trajectory of the character. These are the elements of a ‘character’ that will turn an ‘anyone’ into a ‘someone’—an individual with whom readers might identify and in whom readers will believe.” According to Emma, voice  is not only a character’s expression through speech and thought, but also her actions, choices, and decisions. An author must know  her character intimately,  how that character behaves in any situation, what she believes in, what side that character takes in an emotional or physical challenge, and how that character evolves through each experience. When the author knows her character deeply, “the voice of that character will resonate.”

Hazel MitchellHowever, authors are not the only artists in children’s books who use Voice. Hazel Mitchell, children’s book illustrator who has worked with Charlesbridge, Kane/Miller, and Beacon Publishers, among others, explores Voice in illustration. “Just like a writer, the illustrator has a ‘voice.’ And just as in writing, finding this voice is a function of learning craft and of experimentation. In the illustrator’s world, this is known as ‘style.’ If you hang around illustrators long enough, (especially at a portfolio showcase or exhibition), you will hear illustrators lament on ‘style,’ asking why they haven’t got it, why someone else has it, and how they can get it. Just like writers.”

Bruce Black, writer, editor, and teacher who searches for words and stories on Florida’s west coast, applies the metaphor of swimming to help him find clarity in Voice. “The more I swim, the more the water silences other voices so that I can hear my own voice. With each stroke, I begin to recognize the sound of my voice as different from other voices (a parent’s critical voice, a teacher’s sharp reprimand, a lover’s sweet tone, a child’s beseeching cry).” Every writer has a Voice. Says Bruce, “Day after day, month after month, as you swim across the pages of your manuscript, you’ll begin to hear your voice rise from the depth of your heart. Listen closely. Keep swimming. Your voice will reveal itself … It’s there, waiting for you. But it will reveal itself only when you learn to summon the courage and faith to dive deeply enough to hear it.”

What you can do to capture your Voice:

  1. Listen to music and recite the lyrics to experience rhythm, alliteration, and effective use of repetition.
  2. Read poetry aloud to study the sounds and silences, the pitch and tone of language.
  3. Read to write.
  4. Pretend.
  5. Tell your story. Don’t do anything beyond holding the interest of your readers. Then tell it again. And again.
  6. Read your story aloud to get a feel for character, place, and pacing.
  7. Know your character intimately. Create a character notebook.
  8. Rewrite. Rewrite. Rewrite.
  9. Be true to your authentic self.
  10. Keep swimming.

Read the complete discussion, gathering more information, insights and references into Voice.


Bobbi MillerA storycollector,  storyteller, and a writer who teaches writing, Bobbi Miller earned her MFA in children’s writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and a MA in children’s literature at Simmons College. Her picturebooks, One Fine Trade and Davy Crockett Gets Hitched made the Bank Street College of Education List for Best Children’s Book of the Year 2010. Her third picturebook, Miss Sally Ann and the Panther, will be released in 2012.

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5 Responses to “A Conversation of Many: What is Voice Anyway?”

  1. The different comments on this are amazing to read. Yet only Nathan, by saying “t]hat part of you in your work [that] makes it something that no one else can duplicate.” hints at the danger I’ve found in trying too hard to hear or read your own voice. For it should be, I’m convinced, an intuitive thing, not something arrived at consciously, yet recognized when it’s THERE.

    Someone once asked Mozart what made his music sound so Mozartean, and he answered, “The same thing that makes my nose so large.” And who can deny that he had VOICE?

  2. Vicki Palmquist says:

    I LOVE that quote by Mozart, Anne, and I hadn’t heard it before. I am convinced that Voice is having something to say and developing the storyteller’s traits of knowing when your audience is listening or when you’re losing them.

  3. simonetta carr says:

    I heartily agree, Anne!

  4. Shutta Crum says:

    Thanks for this great write-up on Voice by many voices.

    I would add to “What you can do to capture your Voice,” go out and listen to live voices at poetry readings, etc.

    When I listen to someone read, I close my eyes. I don’t want to be distracted from the sound of his/her voice. It’s quite often a wonderful experience.

  5. Ellen Halter says:

    We all know a unique voice when we hear it or read it. How to develop it as a writer? I think it’s a rather mysterious process. I believe it’s when the most authentic part of a writer emerges from the words. Maybe it is his or her soul we are hearing.

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