6 Ways to Develop Your Voice

writing voiceA distinct voice seems to be the thing that everyone wants but no one can tell you how to get. And I have to admit this annoys me. I’m a very practical person. If you can clearly tell me how to do something, I’ll get it done for you. If it’s ooey gooey and you tell me “it just has to develop over time,” I’m going to be cheesed.

I’m also going to set out to figure out how to do whatever you’ve just told me can’t be taught and has to develop organically.

Developing your voice–like everything else in writing–takes time and discipline, but it can be done. So here are some ways you can actively work on developing your voice.

(1) Learn the Basics of Writing

Before you argue that this will only teach you to write like everyone else, hear me out.

Can an artist sculpt a lifelike statue without first learning about the features of different types of stone and without learning how to use a chisel and other tools? Can a pianist compose a sonata without first learning which notes sound good together?

One of the most important things a writer trying to develop their voice can do is to read craft books. Writing is just like any other skill, whether that be painting, woodworking, engineering, or neurosurgery. You have to be so solid on the basics that they come instinctively before you’re able to truly create something fresh and unique.

(2) Set Boundaries

In her excellent post on Ways to Develop Your Unique Writing Voice, social media maven and bestselling author Kristen Lamb pointed out how boundaries can actually free your creativity rather than limit you. She likened setting boundaries in writing to narrowing down what means of transportation want to use to take your vacation.

If you want to develop your voice more quickly, pick a point of view (first person or third person – if you’re not sure what that means, check out our post on point of view) and a genre and stick to it until you’ve mastered it.

How will this help? Each genre comes with conventions that you need to follow to write in it. POV adds structure and establishes how you can tell your story. When some of these big decisions are settled, you’re free to focus on the actual writing. In other words, you’re free to allow your voice to come out. 

(3) Read and Analyze

Read a lot is one of the few pieces of advice novelists are given for developing their voice. But reading alone isn’t enough. You need to figure out what works in these books and what doesn’t. What do you love and hate about them? It could be something big picture (like the way they weave their theme throughout the book) or it could be something more subtle (like the cadence they use in their sentences).

For each book you read, try to identify and write down three things you loved and three things you didn’t. For the things that you didn’t enjoy about the book, ask yourself why you didn’t like them and how you would have done them differently.

(4) Make A List of Words that Describe Your Personality

In her post about Author Voice Vs. Character Voice, romance writer Roni Loren describes her author voice and then points out how it directly relates to who she is as a person and how she approaches life. Your voice is you.

Sit down and make a list of 15-20 words that describe you, then elaborate on each and how you see that trait expressed in a normal day.

For example, I’m quirky, sarcastic, thoughtful, structured, and equal parts dark and optimistic. So is my voice. By identifying who I am, I can look at my writing and see what parts are true to me and what parts aren’t.

(5) Stop Reading Novels

I know. I know. Up above, I told you to read and analyze. That was one step along the path. But eventually, you’re going to need to make sure that you’re starting to sound like you rather than subconsciously copying another writer. The only sure way to do that is to stop reading other people’s work.

Take 1-2 months and use your reading time to write instead (or exchange novels for books on craft).

This isn’t meant to be maintained long-term. You only need to stay in this stage until you start hearing yourself. I made the biggest jump in developing my own voice when I stopped reading temporarily.

(6) Read Your Work Out Loud

What flows off your tongue? What comes naturally? What doesn’t?

Reading your work out loud helps you smooth out the tongue twister passages and create more realistic dialogue, but it also helps with voice. What sounds right to your ear? Could you see telling the story this way out loud to your friends?

(7) Blog to Get Comfortable Being You in Public

In a post she wrote back in November, YA author Susan Bischoff said that one of the benefits she gained from blogging was that ” I learned how to be myself. In public. I don’t think that’s something that comes naturally to most people.”

The only way you can develop your unique voice is to be proud of who you are and how you sound. As soon as you start worrying about what other people will think or whether they’ll like your voice, you’re going to start trying to change it.

Blogging helps you learn to be comfortable with who you are and with sharing who you are with readers. Writing magazine articles is another way to help develop your voice in a public forum.

What other ways have you found to develop your voice? Do you agree with me that it can be developed or do you think it needs to develop organically? What author’s voice do you love the most?


**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.

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20 comments on “6 Ways to Develop Your Voice

  1. I used to think I didn’t *have* any voice in my work. Later, once I understood that everyone’s writing has a voice, I thought mine was very bland and there wasn’t much hope for it, other than that I’ve read plenty of best sellers whose voice wasn’t anything exciting, but the stories still were. But then I started getting feedback from contests where the judges loved my voice! So maybe it just needed time to develop, or – as I suspect – it’s been there all along, and i just needed to let it out. Great post!

  2. Great post Marcy, I’m going to try some of these tips. I know what you mean about not reading for a bit– there’s been times when I’ve read someone with a really strong voice and I can hear myself forming sentences in my head in their cadence!

  3. I focus in on the character who is speaking or whose view we’re seeing. What vocabulary would that person use? Some are formal to a fault, some blather like sorority girls, some use terseness as a weapon. Voice comes from first determining the POV (which determines if it’s the author voice or the character voice) and then the dialogue in use. If the POV is 3rd Om, then it’s the author voice. If the POV is 3rd Lim, 3rd Deep, or 1st, then the character’s voice is more important. Then I move into how each character speaks and build from there.

    I watch movies with an eye towards how the actors make their characters real. What tones do they use? What turns of phrase? What unspoken mannerisms? What kinds of things does the character notice? Would this character realize that the helpful gent who held his briefcase just separated him from his possessions? Would that character care about the non-verbals of communication? Who has an advanced education? Who uses all colloquialisms? Who has a speech impediment?

    I try to see each character as a unique individual and portray them as such. Nothing bugs me more than a book full of rustics who talk like university professors or a hardened criminal talking like my sweet Gramma. Allowing each character to speak for him or herself is a big step in getting that lovely voice we hear so much and so little about.

    As for the process, it’s both deliberate and organic. We need training in it, the same as ever other part of our craft, but we also need to let it develop in each character and story. We can’t force it; I think we all know how that turns out. We need to practice it on purpose until it becomes second nature.

  4. The best advice I got, way back in high school, was to freewrite. That works as a way of curing writer’s block, but it can also tell a person a lot about their voice. When you’re just writing, with no awareness of the audience you might be writing for or who might see the words, you fall into a cadence and rhythm. If you’re forcing yourself to get the words out with no concern for how good they sound or how well they string together, they’re the words you meant to write, and you’ll figure out a lot about your style.

    That can also be accomplished through journaling, or any other writing that isn’t meant to be read by other people. When I’m writing well, it sounds like I’ve just involved someone else in my inner dialogue. When I’m doing it badly, I’m trying to have a dialogue without hearing the other side of the conversation.

    Also, I think everyone should try to write poetry at least once, or study it when you’re looking at other writing to explore. I hate writing poetry, but it taught me a lot about word choice, flow, and cadence. My writing teachers had us analyze poetry for earmarks of the poets we’d studied, and I internalized a lot about what separates one writer from another in just a few words.

  5. Ah voice. I too wrote a post on voice. But it was different. And is because it was my voice, and not yours. LOL! That’s what is so cool. We could all talk about the same thing, and yet it would come out differently because of our unique voice. ‘

    I once gave my ms to a friend to read and as she started to read it she heard my voice. And it freaked her out. She couldn’t believe it. I laughed. What can you do? It, my voice is bound to come through the writing because it is me who is creating the characters. It is kinda weird.

    Loved this post Marcy. Thank you! 🙂

  6. Great tips! I like your idea of taking a break from novel reading. I had a really hard time reading books in my genre while I was finishing my first. Now that I have a better grasp on my voice, it’s far easier.

  7. I really like #4 – hadn’t done that before. The only thing I’d add is to practice in various POVs, tenses and with different genres. Start short and build from there. Expect to play around a while until you find something that feels natural.
    Great post!

  8. Marian Keyes has the most distinctive voice in the writing world. I feel like I’m in the room listening to her when I read her books. I’m half Irish/half Scottish so she makes me cry with laughter. Her writing ‘voice’ is exactly how she speaks and muses and describes things in interviews. She also speaks very very quickly and is great at getting into the head of her male leads in her books. A bit like Nora Roberts when she’s on her game – her Irish trilogy books Born in Fire/Ice & Shame are fab. As are her Gallagher’s Irish trilogies which made me howl with laughter.

    A new writer to me, E.L James who wrote 50 Shades of Grey, writes in the 1st person present which I don’t usually like, but she sucked me right in with her distinctive voice, her characters haunt me and that doesn’t happen very often. Read the reviews before you touch it because usually the subject matter is not my thing, but she carried me through a few difficult moments beautifully. That girl can tell a story.

    I need to read a completely different genre when I’m in creative mode. Something outside my comfort zone to give my brain a break. There’s no way on earth I could go two months without reading. However, in the early days I certainly went two months without writing until I hit my stride. Although I did make copious notes so that probably doesn’t count!

    I would say that rhythm and pacing is crucial in finding your voice as is very careful word usage when it comes to descriptive writing – don’t show off your skills – always be mindful of the reader and don’t come between your characters and your reader. This is a flaw I see time and again, even in a couple of best sellers! And it seriously annoys me as a reader and pulls the reader immediately out of the story.

    Great post!

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  10. Great tips. In addition to reading out loud, I have the computer or kindle read my novels back to me. The computer voice stays flat, but lets you hear if you are repeating yourself, if the words sound odd together, and helps you hear small typos like they vs. the.
    I have it read one sentence at a time, then one paragraph, then a page. This allows me to hear the voice in different lengths.

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