Writing Voice: Unteachable… Essential…. Elusive. And… Paradoxical.

hand-screamWe are writers.  We must compose the songs we sing.  We must choreograph the dances we perform.  We must design what we ultimately seek to build.

We are unique in these things.  Composers need not carry a tune.  Choreographers need not perform.  Screenwriters and directors need not be actors or set designers.  Architects need not even be present as their creation is being built.  

But we, as writers, are alone with all dimensions of our craft.  We are the sole determinants of words as we compose, choreograph and design stories.  We are judged according to both, separate and together, on how their sum exceeds the whole of their parts.

Writing voice is but one of six core competencies we must come to know and seek to master.  Deficiency in any one of them bars us from what we seek to achieve.

With regard to voice, though, this is ironic if not paradoxical.  Because many come to the craft of writing for the sound of their own voice, if not the utter joy of it.  And yet – and here is the paradox – it is at once the most likely of the elements that will bar us from the inner circle of the published, while being least among the criteria that allows us entry to it.

Allow me to explain.  It takes an agent or an editor many dozens of pages to determine the merits of your story.  It takes only a few pages to assess the rhythm and melody of your writing voice.  Those first pages expose the writing as that of a professional, someone who is publishable… or not.  If it compels, if it flows or doesn’t overwhelm, then it passes muster as acceptable.

And that’s all that is required of it.  Any allure of a stellar writing voice beyond that point is a case study in diminishing returns.

Because you don’t have to write like a poet to sell your story.  You simply need to write well enough to get through the door into a crowded hall full of storytellers.

From then on, your story is what determines your fate.  Little if nothing else matters.

So many writers focus on their words.  As they should if their writing voice has not yet matured and found its unique pitch.  If it even remotely smacks of awkwardness or the timidity of a neophyte.  If it tries too hard.  

And yet, despite that focus, such writers tread a solitary path, because voice is virtually impossible to teach.  All the grammar lectures and sentence modeling in the history of the world won’t get you there.

Writing voice must, in effect, be earned.  Discovered.  Grown into.  It must evolve into a signature cadence and tonality, with colors and nuance that imbue it with subtle energy and a textured essence of depth and humanity. 

Effortlessly.  Simply.  Cleanly.  Without the slightest hue of purple.

There is only one way to discover it.  You must write.  Practice.  Constantly.  Intensely.  Humbly and aggressively.  And you must do it for years if that’s what it takes.  Because it refuses to be rushed. 

Your writing voice will grow into its own comfortable shoes, on its own terms and in its own time.  And once there, you will know you are home.

And then, from that point forward, it’s all about your storytelling

Allow me to repeat and clarify.  You don’t have to write with the spectacular gift of a prodigy or even the seasoned wit and cynicism of a salty veteran.  You just have to be good.

And good is always a judgment call.  The paradox never ends.  Because often the harder you try to be good, the more you’ll come up short.

Good writing is effortless writing.

An adequate writing voice is your ante-in.  It’s what gets you a shot at having someone care about your story.  It’s what allows an agent or editor to read past page 3 to actually experience your story

In effect, it could be said that when they cease to notice your writing voice, you are in the game.  And your ace in that game, your best pitch, is your story.

Think of an athlete, an undrafted football player, attending a try-out.  The first thing they assess is speed.  Doesn’t matter how well you run the ball, how hard you hit or how well you catch.  If you aren’t fast, as fast as the professionals against which you will compete, you don’t stand a chance at a call-back.

If your speed is adequate, only then do your skills come into play.  And if your skills are outstanding, you can be in the starting line-up ahead of a speed demon who doesn’t get the game like you do.

While writing voice is a product of practice and maturity, seasoned by experiencing the work of others, storytelling is a product of seeking out and understanding story architecture.  And then applying fresh ideas and concept, innovative thinking and a depth of soul and spirit to bringing story ideas to life across that structural tapestry, and according to the other five core competencies.

Unlike writing voice, story architecture is actually learnable, and in relatively short order.  Which by definition means it’s teachable.

The first step in learning is awareness of a need to know.  Are you aware of the proper sequence and structural milestones of story architecture?  If you aren’t, your writing voice won’t much matter.  In fact, other than family and friends, it’s a tragic waste of talent. 

Like that gifted, fleet-of-foot athlete who just can’t seem to catch the ball when it counts. 

That answer defines you progress along the road to publication.  It has little to do with your writing voice… it has everything to do with what you know.

 Photo credit: Andrew Mason


Filed under getting published, Write better (tips and techniques)

10 Responses to Writing Voice: Unteachable… Essential…. Elusive. And… Paradoxical.

  1. Hi Larry,

    Once again you’ve constructed a compelling article for us, thank you! What I find paradoxical about this topic is that you are writing about writing voice in your signature, real, and brawny writing voice – using your own voice as an example for us. That’s deep.

    This post is also a great example to demonstrate the unique challenges of the writing craft,

    “But we, as writers, are alone with all dimensions of our craft.”

    Great stuff, Larry. 😀

  2. Shirls

    Larry, this is probably a daft question, but what about writers who are inhibited by the sound of their own writing voices? When reading what they have written plunges them into despair because the pure, lucid prose comes out muddy and artificial? Like you know how the song should sound in your head, but when you try to sing it, it comes out as a tuneless croak?

  3. Lori — thank you, a nice comment to awaken to. I tried to walk the walk with this on… notice how few adjectives are found here, yet I hope you agree the voice is, well, effective.

    One way we develop our writing voice is to notice the voice of other writers. Those we like, those we don’t.

    Shirls — I empathize. Been there. Have you considered a radical shift? Say, trying first person if its third that’s confounding you? That worked for me, I’m almost exclusively first person these days, it was like a complete voice makeover.

    Also, pay attention to the voices of writers you like and read often. There’s a reason you do. Their voices resonate with you, which could mean you are one of them.

    Another thought: get feedback on it. It may be cleaner than you think it is. And/or, you may learn specifically what muddies it up.

    Best advice: keep reading, keep writing. Pay attention to what it is about your voice that troubles you, and put that awareness in the forefront of your mind, and in context to what you know you like to read in others.

    Over time, your voice will evolve. Guaranteed. Good luck!

  4. I think I have found my voice. I’m still needing to study the architecture aspect. There are times I know I’ve got it all there and where it needs to be, but up to now it has been serendipity. I really want and need to know the terms and methodology of writing a story that sells.

    Thank you for sharing in your concise manner.


  5. I am always happiest with what I’ve written when it came out easy. Pages that almost write themselves happen more frequently now that I’ve been working at it for a while, but it’s never the norm. I’ve found that I need to “warm up” and put some thoughtful garbage down before anything really happens. So, I understand the relationship of effortless to good. What hinders prose, I believe, is the act of trying to make writing effortless.

    And I agree with Lori, your voice shines through, loud and clear.

  6. ‘Your writing voice will grow into its own comfortable shoes, on its own terms and in its own time. And once there, you will know you are home.

    And then:

    ‘And then, from that point forward, it’s all about your storytelling. ‘

    ‘That answer defines you progress along the road to publication. It has little to do with your writing voice… it has everything to do with what you know.’

    This is a bit confusing Larry so please clarify for the sake of all your followers:
    Which comes first- writing voice or what we know?

  7. Poch — sorry to hear it’s confusing, let me attempt to clarify.

    Neither comes “first,” both writing voice and storytelling must be solid to sell a novel. But… the writing voice only has to “good” while the storytelling needs to be “extraordinary.” In other words, you don’t need to write like John Updike, you only need to write like John Grisham (where “voice” is concerned). That’s what gets you into the game. If your voice is weak, doesn’t matter how good your story is.

    On the other hand, if your writing voice is strong, that’s not enough to get you published. You must tell an extraordinary story, well structured, powerful, memorable, clever and commerical enough to catch the eye of agent or editor.

    Those agents and editors aren’t looking for the next big “voice” out there. They’re looking for the next great story.

    So asking “which comes first” is the wrong question. You must develop both skills. But on a scale from 1 to 10, if 6 is publishable (in comparison to what’s out there), your voice only needs to be a 6, while your story needs to be a 10 or 11 to break into the business. Once you’re in and have a brand, that, too, can go back to a 6 (which is why so many of the novels you read don’t seem all that good… they’re not — but for new writers, you have to be BETTER than good, story-wise, to get published… yet your voice only needs to be good, adequate, or professionally average (like Grisham, and he’s the top selling author over the past 20 years).

    Hope this clarifies.

  8. This is a wonderful post, Larry, and of all of them so far, the one that has made me saddest. It’s my voice that will stop me getting published. It has a will of its own, and I’m not talking about the whole organic thing. When I write my best work, it comes from a place I can’t control. Fortunately, I love editing, hacking, trimming, rearranging then hacking some more, but more often than not, the result feels soul-less because I’m not a natural story teller. My writing voice can sometimes be mesmeric and lead folk in, make them care, but I don’t do it deliberately and most folk hate it becuse it’s not lean. But neither am I. When I remove most of my voice, I remove the humanity and poetry that folk resonate with. My writing is that place where prose (probably purple) meets poetry meets ridicule and disgust. Catch 22 – and the reason I’ll never be published.

  9. “Writing voice must, in effect, be earned. Discovered. Grown into. It must evolve into a signature cadence and tonality, with colors and nuance that imbue it with subtle energy and a textured essence of depth and humanity.

    “Effortlessly. Simply. Cleanly. Without the slightest hue of purple.

    “There is only one way to discover it. You must write. Practice. Constantly. Intensely. Humbly and aggressively. And you must do it for years if that’s what it takes. Because it refuses to be rushed. ”
    Great ideas, expertly addressed. Enjoyed reading this post, Larry!


  10. Bethany

    You’ve inspired me to practice, practice, practice! Thank you.