Monday, September 5, 2011

The Uncensored Voice

For many writers, voice is the most difficult and slippery aspect to discover and perfect. It’s a tireless war between we writer folk and industry professionals. We hear it persistently from agents/editors: It’s the first thing they noticed, it’s what jumped out at them from the very first page, it’s what compelled them to keep reading…

Being the introvert that I am, I find it rather amusing that out of the bazillion aspects that make up the craft of writing, voice is one of my strengths. Go figure, right?

So you ask, “How do I take a muted, generic voice and make it come alive with vocal flavor?” I guess that’s where I stop you. Because your natural voice is not bland and generic. The critic inside you is. Let’s face it: many beginning writers are so concerned with the rules, that free reign of their unique style is obstructed. But when you open yourself to your writing style and revel in it, those restraints are lifted. Your prose becomes richer and more vibrant, characters more three-dimensional…

Now I’m not saying a raw, creative voice results in a polished piece. The key is to first lay down the story with your unhindered voice and refine later.

But how to unleash your voice?

For me, it’s as simple as letting go of all inhibitions and writing exactly how I want to write, regardless of rules. I polish things up in revisions, but my voice is there on the page, uninhibited and uncensored.

For others, letting go of what you know is “right” may be difficult to do. So here are a few exercises that will hopefully enable you to find and/or further develop your voice. (Most of these exercises were taken from Finding Your Writer's Voice: A Guide to Creative Fiction by Thaisa Frank and Dorothy Wall)

Unfamiliar situations and a sense of urgency will bring out voice.

External stimuli: Fashion an explicit setting or mood by surrounding yourself with objects that challenge you emotionally. Try putting in front of you several things that irritate you. Or maybe things that make you sad. Utilize all five senses and, most importantly, don't hold back. Explore those difficult and intense emotions.

Internal stimuli: Use your mind to put you in different places, at different times. A cold, damp forest at night. A crowded beach. An abandoned orphanage in the middle of a monsoon. What's important is to put yourself in an unusual situation or one with some type of emotional urgency. Immerse yourself in your imaginary world, feel the culture and pressures around you.

Once in that atmosphere, whether external or internal, free-write. About anything and everything. The object is to experiment and discover what stimuli helps create that sense of urgency to unleash your voice.

Discover your natural rhythm. All of us have a natural cadence to our speech and thoughts. It's a combination of our genes and environments. For every writer, it's unique. Take a look at some of the pieces you’ve written. Your sentence length, your word choice. Alliteration, metaphors, similes. Twists of phrase, dialect. Learn to be aware of these aspects of your voice's cadence.

Learn from children. Children don't know what's acceptable to say in public versus private. They say what comes into their heads, guided by emotions. As adults we tend to edit ourselves, even when we don't think we are. There are certain things we only say to our families, or sometimes ourselves—and not just the vulgar.  Opinions, one-liners, fury, frustration, delight, pride--good things, bad things. All uncensored. But what if we didn't? What if we wrote everything—the good and the bad? What if it was just a matter of getting it all down, regardless if it made sense or that you'd never let another living soul see what you wrote? Blur the lines between the two, the way a child does, and voice can emerge.

Keep practicing. Voice is developed by writing. And writing some more. Don’t get discouraged if the exercises don’t seem to be showing flamboyant results. Often a writer’s voice comes out subtly, in waves or glimpses. Some writers’ voices are loud, others are soft and more delicate. Don’t assume you’re one or the other. Just write. And be yourself.


  1. It takes courage and authority to be yourself when you write, but you've given some great tips here. Thanks, Nicole!

  2. Nicole. What a great post! You have described what a first draft should be! From the heart and not worrying about it becoming a book. That comes later.

    I always write as if I'm telling a story to someone who hasn't heard it before and they don't know me and I get to run away as soon as I'm done.

    I really enjoy all of the post on this site. It comes from people who care about the story! You do a great job, Nicole! Thank you.

  3. Wow, Nicole. It all makes sense now. I've struggled with creating a distinct voice for some time now, but I realize I've been too worried about everything else to let it come out fully. Thanks!

  4. Lovely post, Nicole. Speaking of voice, yours shines through!

    Thanks for the prompts. Voice is something that can always use strengthening.

  5. Voice is sooooo hard to get right. Thanks for sharing these tips.

    Becca @ The Bookshelf Muse

  6. Excellent article. I completely agree with you. I think my voice comes across most clearly and my pieces are strongest when I'm writing about emotional issues.