Jane MacDonald


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Thoughts on Voice
                                                                  2003 Jane MacDonald
by Jane MacDonald

A member of my writing group posted a note on "voice" recently
that got a rise out of me, and I've been thinking about
it since. The word "voice," as used in literature, seems to have
several meanings, and a lot of people mix them up.

One meaning has to do with the way specific stories or novels
are written. Some stories, for example, are told in the vernacular;
others are much more formal. These different ways ought to suit
the stories being told; you don't tell a Wild West story in parlor

Another meaning involves characters. Mr. Micawber's voice is *his*
voice, and we would know who's speaking even if Dickens didn't
tell us. The voice of a sixteen-year-old ingenue is going to be
different from that of the thirty-year-old male villain, even
in print.

Finally, there's the unique writer's voice. That's what makes
it easy to tell Hemingway from Nabokov. In everything those
men wrote, they were Hemingway or Nabokov, and there is no
mistaking the difference. Part of this, I suspect, has to do with
the kinds of things they wrote, and part with their own natural ways of
handling the language.

This last definition is used by musicians and artists as well.
Liszt and Wagner were contemporaries, but nobody's going to mix
them up (unless they hear some of the stuff Wagner stole from Liszt,
and even then it's not the same). Anybody can tell Dali from
Miro, or Delvaux from Magritte. Their voices are distinct, though
they're all surrealists.

All of us have to think about the first two kinds of voice, whatever
we write. We must tell our stories in prose that befits them.
Our child characters must speak like children, our adults like adults.

But the third kind of voice we don't have to worry about, or think
about--it's who we are. Even in my writers' group the voices differ.
When I read a story by Maggie Meltzer, I know it's not one
of Susan Townsend's. I don't think anybody's ever going to mix
up Alan Goodman and Mark Kline, or Steven Hoadley and Tony
Thomas, and I doubt that any of them ever gave a lot of thought to
"developing" their voices. If they did, I suspect it would show--they
wouldn't be the unique writers they are.

Voice matters. Different readers prefer different authors, and
part of the reason is the different voices. Some voices please
me; some don't. I suspect that when "workshopped" is a
pejorative term, it means lacking in individuality; in a word, it
means bland.

Being something less than world famous, I'm hardly one to hand
down rules, but also being at least mildly obnoxious,
I'll do it anyhow. Don't worry about your voice. When you
have the essentials down pat, and know how to write what you
want to write, your voice will be there, not because
you planned it that way, but because you're you, and nobody else.

Here are, first, a dictionary definition of "voice," and then
the results of a short and cursory search for articles on the matter:

AHD4: The distinctive style or manner of expression of an author
or of a character in a book.

Mort Castle discusses "voice" in its meaning as the way to match
the tone of the narrator or a character to the story being told:

Sol Stein, an eminent editor, has a fairly confusing article that
mixes up the meanings here:

Laura Backes, writing for authors of kiddie lit, confuses us here,
too, though her article is good:

Deb Stover wrote "The Voice Fairy," the best thing I found that
concentrates on the uniqueness of a writer's voice: http://www.theromanceclub.com/writers/articles/art0029.htm