Often at writers’ conferences you hear agents and editors say, “I’m looking for an author with a distinctive voice who can tell a good story.” In today’s competitive market, having a great story isn’t good enough. You also must have a strong, distinctive voice if you hope to be published. What, then, is a writer’s voice?
When I think of writer’s voice, I think of the way an author’s voice sounds when I read it, how the words sound on the page. It’s the way an author puts words together to tell a story. I like to think of it as the author’s specific fingerprint, that thing that makes his work different from another writer’s. It’s an individual writing style that combines syntax, diction and punctuation. It can often include themes, character development and dialogue.
For example, if you read a story written by Patricia Santos Marcantonio, you will find the diction simple, filled with Latino words that attack the senses. You will also find a bit of humor, as evidenced in the opening of her short story, Red Ridin’ in the Hood.
“Inside the cardboard box, Mamá packed a tin of chicken soup, heavy on cilantro, along with a jar of peppermint tea, peppers from our garden, and a hunk of white goat cheese that smelled like Uncle Jose’s feet.”
Marcantonio’s use of words like cilantro and a hunk of white goat cheese combined with subtle humor makes up her unique writer’s voice and is one of the things that draws readers into her stories.
Another writer with a distinct voice is Earnest Hemingway. His style is simple and direct with unadorned prose, as shown in this excerpt from Islands in the Stream.
“Thomas Hudson didn’t know what the man expected to happen when he got up on the dock. No one said anything and there were all those black faces around him and he took a swing at Roger and Roger hit him in the mouth with a left and his mouth started to bleed.”
Often called a man’s man, or a man’s writer, Hemingway’s prose is sparse, to the point, and often centers around hunting or fishing. Notice the lack of adjectives and adverbs, how simple the text is.
William Faulkner, a southern writer, also has a unique voice, as shown in this excerpt from Requiem for a Nun.
“The courthouse is less old than the town, which began somewhere under the turn of the century as a Chickasaw agency trading-post and so continued for almost thirty years before it discovered, not that it lacked a depository for its records and certainly not that it needed one, but that only by creating or anyway decreeing one, could it cope with a situation which otherwise was going to cost somebody money;”
Faulkner’s style is described as stream-of-consciousness, which means that the prose flows with the character’s own inner monologue. Note seventy-one words and not one period.
Another example of writer’s voice is this excerpt from Lynda Barry’s novel, Cruddy.
“Once upon a cruddy time on a cruddy street on the side of a cruddy hill in the cruddiest part of a crudded-out town in a cruddy state, country, world, solar system, universe.”
Barry begins in a fairy-tale way but blasts the fairy-tale fast with her continued use of the title word, cruddy.
Each of the above authors has chosen certain words and styles to tell their stories. Each voice is unique and shows the author’s personality. Each voice sounds different from everyone else’s.
A distinct writing voice is as important as a compelling story. It is a powerful tool for connecting with readers. It is a sound that sticks in their heads, that thing that grabs readers and keeps them turning pages.