Need Voice? Think Out Loud

by Jami Gold on February 16, 2012

in Writing Stuff

Empty speech bubbles in different styles

“The voice didn’t grab me.”

Uh-oh.  Isn’t that feedback one of a writer’s worst nightmares?  Voice is one of those things that feels like we either have it or we don’t.  And we think we can’t easily change it because our voice is so internal to us.

But all is not lost.  We can develop and strengthen our voice over time, and our writing voice can change.  Different stories might evoke different tones, different sides of us.  Each point-of-view (POV) character will bring their personality to our writing, especially in first person or deep third person stories.

What Makes a Strong Voice

First we have to understand what makes something sound voice-y.  In my post about head-hopping vs. omniscient point of view, I shared a great quote from Janice Hardy about voice:

[V]oice is that sense there’s a person behind the words.

Whether we know it or not, we all have a voice.  We just need to bring it out, strengthen it, make it sound more like us or our characters.

Strengthening our voice isn’t about being snarkier in our dialogue or more sarcastic in our internal monologues.  It’s about learning what we (or our characters) sound like in the “real” word and bringing that to the page.  Our voice encompasses everything about how we express ourselves or our characters in written words.

Creating a Strong Voice

The key for me was to think out loud.

By that, I mean to think about how I or my characters would say the thoughts to our BFF or significant other.  How would we express our emotions if we trusted the person next to us with our deepest fears?  We’ve heard that good writing is about digging deep and exposing our vulnerabilities—this is why.

If we think out loud, we can study our speaking voice (even if we’re speaking only in our head) to strengthen our writing voice.  Everyone has a speaking voice.  That voice is shaped by accents and dialects, sure, but it goes deeper than that.

Having a broad vocabulary changes how we express ourselves.  Our comfort with our emotions/reactions and our audience affects how “real” we are with our words.  Our goals with our communication change the tone we use.  Our culture affects the rhythm of our words (it’s not just the drawl that makes southern accents sound slower than northern accents in the U.S., and it’s not just the hurry-up city life that creates a fast, rapping-like speech pattern).

Comedians, actors, and oral storytellers all become sensitive to their speaking voice.  The tone, rhythm, and sound of their speaking voice controls the audience’s experience.

As writers, focusing on our speaking voice can help us become familiar with what our voice sounds like.  What are our patterns, our rhythms, our speaking mannerisms?

A Strong Voice Sounds Natural, Never Forced

Good, clear writing often sounds natural, like speech.  So making ourselves aware of our speaking habits will help our writing mimic speech.  Writing that reaches that level will make our deep POV narrative and dialogue sound more natural.

Similarly, focusing on others’ speaking habits will give us ideas for how our characters might speak or think.  We might model a character’s voice after someone we overhear at the coffee shop or a co-worker (full disclosure: that last one could be dangerous).

This idea to think out loud is yet another reason why reading our work aloud can be a good way to edit.  When we trip over words or phrases in speech, they won’t read naturally either.  Smooth reading aloud equals clear reading in our readers’ heads.

However, one side effect to creating characters with strong voices is that we could pick up our character’s speech habits.  That’s right.  In a bizarre turn, my writing voice is affecting my speaking voice.  I’m copying mannerisms from the imaginary people my brain created.  Very meta.  But let’s ignore that issue, because that’s probably just me.  *smile*

What have you done to strengthen your voice?  Do you “think out loud”?  Do you hear your characters’ voices in your head, complete with pitch, rhythm, and accent?  Have you used the “read aloud” technique to edit your work?  Have your characters or your writing influenced your speaking voice?

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47 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Angela Quarles February 16, 2012 at 7:28 am

I had a challenge with the voice of my hero, since he’s 19th century, so during first draft I wrote him as I thought he’d sound, but didn’t worry too much about it. But before starting my first round of revisions, I re-read all of Austen’s books, took copious notes on her syntax and rhythms, read some Georgette Heyer, and watched a bunch of period movies and then color-tabbed all his scenes and ONLY edited his scenes for multiple passes…

For the heroine, I try to think about how she would tell it to a friend. There was one point early in my critique phrase where I started to freak out that I was editing out her voice, but I think I’ve gotten a handle on it and luckily ignored the flagrantly bad advice I received sometimes that would have completely eviscerated her voice.

With all that said, this voice thing does intrigue me and I wonder/worry what my “voice” is and whether I have it yet :)

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Jami Gold February 16, 2012 at 8:51 am

Hi Angela,

Yes, sometimes I feel very in tune with my characters’ voices and other times, not so much. :) I’ve noticed that my voice gets stronger when I’m tired. Maybe that means my internal editor has gone to sleep. LOL!

As for critique advice, that’s a tricky line. I have one character who is very chatty, and because of her upbringing, her syntax is unusual. Some feedback tried to straighten her crooked thought process and tighten her internalization, but I couldn’t do it without messing up her voice. On the other hand, voice-y lines are often meant to convey an idea, feeling, or tone. And sometimes things feel too voice-y to readers because we’ve already made the point. We can overuse voice to the point of distraction. We have to balance using enough to get the gist across, but not so much that it’s clonk-the-reader-on-the-head overkill. So when I get advice like that, rather than trying to change the voice, I check whether I’ve accidentally repeated an idea. Think of it as voice–streamlined. :)

I wonder/worry what my “voice” is and whether I have it yet

Ah, the big question. :) I think this is one reason published authors talk about setting aside our first book and working on another one. That doesn’t mean give up on that book, just set it aside for a while. But what we discover when we write a different book (and book two in the same series doesn’t count), is that each book/series has a different voice. The characters should be different, the tone should be different, the big ideas we’re trying to get across should be different. And in those differences, we’ll see aspects of the voice that stay the same. That’s our voice. Sometimes we discover it only after we explore and expand our writing beyond one book/series.

I’m proof of this truism, as I didn’t really come into my voice until I started a story that was unrelated to my first. Now I recognize my voice. I see it in my tweets, my blog posts and comments, and my stories. And now I have the opposite problem, in that I worry whether my voice is overpowering the characters. ;) If it’s not one worry with writers, it’s another. LOL!

Hope that helps and thanks for the comment!

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Angela Quarles February 16, 2012 at 11:54 am

Hmmmm, maybe it’s time to pull out my trunk novel (a mystery) and see what I find…

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Jami Gold February 16, 2012 at 12:19 pm

Hi Angela,

It can’t hurt and it might be interesting. :)

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Eve Harris February 19, 2012 at 10:58 pm

I’m currently writing my second manuscript and instead of starting over from scratch, I use the MCs from my first book, and change the backstory and tweak their personality. I end up with a totally different characters than I had before. I also agree that we’ll usually find the voice as we write more about a character, beyond what is needed in the manuscript (say, maybe write about the character’s backstory). So now when I’m writing I often find myself thinking “Oh, this is so much easier if X is his ‘old self’ at that other book. He would totally do this, but since blahblahblah happened/didn’t happen to him in this book, he wouldn’t even think about it.”

I think the challenge is to find a balance of the character’s internalization. Sure, an action here calls an internalization there, what it means to the character, so that we can get into his/her head and ‘feel’ a person behind the voice. But how many reactions do you need? Do you need them every other sentences? Even if it’s relevant to the conflict at hand, sometimes the character’s voice can be too much.

I read a novel where the character thinks over the events and comes to a conclusion/opinion/whatever, and while it’s helping the reader to understand why and how he comes to that, it’s also tiring and bogging down the story. Yes, he only thinks of the issues relevant to the conflict. Yes, we can understand more about him, and yes, it’s making his voice more authentic, but several pages of justification of why he needs to do (or not do) something, just makes me want to stab my eyes (or, you know, just hit page down or skip those pages). :D

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Jami Gold February 20, 2012 at 1:15 pm

Hi Eve,

Interesting approach! Yes, a character’s motivation and internalization is key to how scenes play out. I did a post on “re-envisioning” a while back about my experience on how powerful that technique can be.

As for your comment about stories with pages of explanation that bog down the story, I agree with your take on that too. In fact, you might have just inspired a blog post. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Juli Page Morgan February 16, 2012 at 8:32 am

Ever since I got deep into editing I’ve been receiving odd looks everywhere I go. That’s because my book is set in 1969 in London. And I live in Arkansas. I have a wonderful “Brit-picker” who was born & raised in London and helped me tremendously in getting the British phrases correct, but unconsciously dropping them into everyday conversation in a small Arkansas town has been interesting! Add to that the 60s hippie lingo and sometimes I swear people back away from me in fear! :)

I do think aloud when I’m writing, especially for dialogue. If I can’t say it without tripping over it, then I know it’s not right. I also read aloud when editing, and that’s helped me find missed words or awkward phrases.

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Jami Gold February 16, 2012 at 8:56 am

Hi Juli,

LOL! Thanks for sharing your story. I’m glad I’m not the only one with that issue. :)

The funny thing is that I advocate the read-aloud-to-edit technique, but I don’t use it. Between my fast reading speed and my public speaking experience (where you don’t read word for word), I don’t read the words that are (or more often–aren’t, because they’re missing) on the page no matter what.

Instead I’ve read “backwards” before: starting at the end of the book and reading each sentence/paragraph independently. That helps me not be drawn into the story and forces me to look at each sentence on its own. And I’ve thought about using the text-to-speech function to have my story read to me, but I’m not sure I have that patience. LOL!

Thanks for the comment! :)

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Melinda Collins February 16, 2012 at 8:55 am

You are sooo right! Hearing a critique about the voice either not being there or strong enough is the worst!

Thinking and reading aloud is exactly why my husband not only has his headphones on in the computer room, but also why he’s got the volume turned waaaay up on his music. LOL! Reading aloud during revisions is what helps me to ensure the voice has been captured and that it is strong enough for the story.

I agree with you as well in that we *all* have a voice – we just have to ensure it’s natural-sounding….and that’s it LOUD enough! :)

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Jami Gold February 16, 2012 at 9:01 am

Hi Melinda,

LOL! So you’re probably not a candidate for writing/editing in a coffee shop then, huh? :) Thanks for the amusing visual and the comment!

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Amanda February 16, 2012 at 11:46 am

I had a co-worker read one of my more recent WIP, and she had a problem with the ending because it was so unlike me. Me, as in myself. The person. NOT the character I’d created. I guess the character sounded so much like myself co-worker started thinking it was me :)

On the other hand, I had HUGE problems with the main character of another WIP because *sigh* she’s more mature than I am. Not much older, but far, far more mature. I’m 31 going on 10. She’s 30-something and acts her age. I guess I’ve got some growing up to do.

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Jami Gold February 16, 2012 at 12:18 pm

Hi Amanda,

Oh yes, character maturity is a tough thing because every 30 year old (or 20 year old, 40 year old, etc.) has different maturity levels. What sounds “too young” to one reader might sound “just right” to another. I had one contest judge tell me a character sounded too immature. I thought she sounded about as mature as me–and I’m older than this character–so what does that say about me? LOL! Thanks for the comment!

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Julie Glover February 16, 2012 at 1:20 pm

This is well-timed since characterization is forefront in my mind as I write another YA novel. I have a good ear for accents, dialects, and speech patterns. I think I’ve always paid attention to quirks in people’s speech, and now I get to use that toward characters I create. I do read back the words I write and hear the characters’ voices in my head to check my dialog. Great post!

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Jami Gold February 16, 2012 at 1:40 pm

Hi Julie,

Yes, I can’t speak in accents (purposely), but I can hear them in my head. I have one character with a combination British cockney and Southern U.S. accent. Uh yeah, don’t ask me to read that one aloud. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Aldrea Alien February 16, 2012 at 1:44 pm

I’m often speaking aloud (or at least whispering) as I write. I’ll sit alone and have long conversations with myself to make sure the dialogue flows like it should. Occasionally, I’ll get so caught up in speaking the words that I’ll forget to write it down.
In editing, I’m definitely a fan of the “read aloud technique” to catch the hiccups. But I have to be alone. And I constantly need to remind myself I’m editing, that’s why I have the little pen with me. ^_^

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Jami Gold February 16, 2012 at 4:31 pm

Hi Aldrea,

I have long conversations with my characters and my muse too. The worst is when they try to psychoanalyze me. :)

Yes, I often get caught up in the story while editing too. That’s why I sometimes take a section and attack each sentence or paragraph in reverse order. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Heather Day Gilbert February 16, 2012 at 2:01 pm

Oooh, thought-provoking for sure. Yes, it is a feat to get out of your own voice and slip into someone else’s (actually, SEVERAL other people’s…). Even though we may THINK the characters sound different, usually critiquers can pick up on times when the characters sound too similar to one another.

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Jami Gold February 16, 2012 at 4:37 pm

Hi Heather,

Yes, I’ve found that when a scene feels flat to me, a lack of voice in the different characters might be to blame. Thanks for the comment!

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Adriana Ryan February 16, 2012 at 5:22 pm

What awesome advice. You know, I do this with dialogue unconsciously, but I bet it would work with a general scene, too. You could say what the person is thinking while something is happening to guide their behavior or thought patterns. Hmm… now you’ve got the wheels turning! What’s that burning smell?? ;)

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Jami Gold February 17, 2012 at 6:35 pm

Hi Adriana,

Yes, I’ve been working on my characters’ internalizations, and this technique works great for that. Good luck with it, and thanks for the comment!

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Fabio Bueno February 16, 2012 at 5:27 pm

Great advice, Jami! I’ve been getting better and better with voice. Picking up the character’s speech patterns happens to me too! So weird!

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Jami Gold February 17, 2012 at 6:35 pm

Hi Fabio,

I’m glad I’m not the only one. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Tahlia Newland February 16, 2012 at 7:04 pm

Good post. Reading aloud is the best advice I’ve come across on this. If it doesn’t sound right to you, then it probably isn’t.

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Jami Gold February 17, 2012 at 6:36 pm

Hi Tahlia,

Yes, we have to attune ourselves to listen for the not-quite-right message, because our conscious often tries ignoring it (the lazy bum). :) Thanks for the comment!

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Jennifer Tanner February 16, 2012 at 11:16 pm

Great post, Jami. A broad vocabulary is key to writing good dialogue. I often wonder if my male characters’ dialogues sound real. I’m a woman. I talk and think like a woman. So I study the way men talk to each other on tv shows. Lame? Maybe but it helps. I also read a few male-centric magazines.

I’ve got two Brit female characters in my current ms. Watching BBC news every night :), and reading the dialogue aloud in a bad English accent…when I’m alone, of course.

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Jami Gold February 17, 2012 at 6:38 pm

Hi Jennifer,

Yes, I have a broad vocabulary, but it’d be nice if my “working” vocabulary (those words I actually use) was bigger. :) Thanks for sharing your tips on how to capture voices for characters who are different than us, and thanks for the comment!

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Patrick Thunstrom February 17, 2012 at 10:43 am

No, it’s not just you. I think all wordsmiths, and even potential wordsmiths, have an ear for the natural sounds of things. I know I’ve picked up mannerism from around the country, and I generally do it quickly upon entering a new community.

I think voice is the last big thing I need to focus on in my writing, right after I tackle believable dialogue!

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Jami Gold February 17, 2012 at 6:41 pm

Hi Patrick,

Yes, I pay attention to the rhythm of speaking. If an editor hadn’t beaten it out of me, I’d use ellipses all the time. LOL! Good luck with your dialogue and writing voice!

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Roland D. Yeomans February 17, 2012 at 10:46 am

I am like Angela — my hero was born in 1799, though living in the present. It was a challenge to make his thoughts seemed Harvard, Jesuit, and 19th century while making him relatable to modern readers.

It is a help to remember when writing about a man/woman of the 19th century that we are not writing TO readers of the 19th century! LOL.

Your advise was insightful and helpful. Thank you, Roland

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Jami Gold February 17, 2012 at 6:43 pm

Hi Roland,

How interesting! Yes, historical romance writers balance that all the time–trying to remain true to the time period while still making the story and characters relatable. Thanks for the comment!

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Julie Hedlund February 17, 2012 at 8:55 pm

I’ve been thinking about taking acting lessons for this very reason. It terrifies me, but I really do think it would help… Great post!

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Jami Gold February 17, 2012 at 9:02 pm

Hi Julie,

Wow, that’s an interesting idea! In high school, I did some acting, and I never thought about whether I use that experience in my writing. Huh. Maybe I do. Acting definitely makes you think about how you’d emphasize certain words to get a point across. I have to restrain myself from italicizing words every paragraph with my desire to mimic that. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Nancy S. Thompson February 18, 2012 at 3:16 pm

Oh yeah, per Anne Mini’s advice, I always read every word of my stories out loud. It’s the best way to be sure it all sounds & feels natural. I even use my characters’ accents. Boy, I must sound silly to someone standing outside my office door! Another awesome post, Jami, as always!

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Jami Gold February 18, 2012 at 9:47 pm

Hi Nancy,

I don’t have a private office for my writing, so I “read aloud” inside my head. And you do accents? You’re braver than I am. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Cheryl reifsnyder February 20, 2012 at 11:55 am

Hi Jami, thanks for the great advice! I’m currently working on a rewrite, and I’ve found that reading it aloud is the absolute BEST way to get a good idea of whether the voice is working, whether I’m using too much description, whether the action is clear, etc. I guess what I’m saying is that reading aloud is great for finding your voice, but also for improving other aspects of writing. :-)

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Jami Gold February 20, 2012 at 1:16 pm

Hi Cheryl,

Good point! Yes, reading aloud catches not only voice issues, but many other issues as well. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Julie Musil February 25, 2012 at 5:11 pm

Jami, this is so great! I do read my work aloud while I’m editing, but your post takes it deeper than that. Thanks!

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Jami Gold February 26, 2012 at 8:09 am

Hi Julie,

Happy to help! I found this technique useful when I was writing a character very different from my own voice. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Serena April 9, 2012 at 8:25 pm

Hi Jami,

I have a very vague idea of what a “strong voice” is, but I’m not exactly sure.

Do you have some examples of books or articles where 1) There’s a strong author’s voice, or 2) There’s a strong character’s voice?
(I’m especially interested in the latter.)

Thanks!

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Jami Gold April 10, 2012 at 10:57 am

Hi Serena,

Oh, “what makes a strong voice” is the question of the century. :) It’s one of those things that’s very subjective, and it’s easier to know it when you see it than to describe it. Author Janice Hardy gave the best description I ever saw with her explanation of voice being the sense of a person behind the words.

Some people think POV affects voice–as in first person stories have stronger voices–but a strong voice can be found in the omniscient narrator Lemony Snicket books. A strong authorial voice would be like in the Jane Austen books (also omniscient, and non-narrator-driven), where readers get a strong sense of the author’s worldview and attitudes. A strong character voice would be along the same lines, where we get a strong sense of the character’s worldview and attitudes. I could spend all day coming up with a long list, but I’ll restrain myself to the first one that came to mind. I’m a sucker for Courtney Milan’s (and her CP, Tessa Dare’s) historical romances because of her characters. :) Thanks for the comment and I hope that helps!

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Serena April 10, 2012 at 2:14 pm

Ah Jane Austen is a fantastic example. I totally understand why you would think she has a strong voice. It’s so poised, agile, and opinionated at the same time (free indirect discourse?)–although we could say that’s because this is just Austen’s personality. A more timid, less eloquent, or less opinionated character would probably sound very different from her.

Okay I’m putting Lemony Snicket and Courtney Milan on my Amazon wishlist!

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Jami Gold April 10, 2012 at 2:49 pm

Hi Serena,

Yes, I’m sure Jane Austen’s work would sound different given different characters, but I think the omniscient POV (without a narrator) really emphasizes the strength of the author voice. We get insights into the characters with their dialogue and actions, but the omniscient POV puts the focus on Austen’s interpretation of things, whereas a deeper POV (deep 3rd person or 1st person) would focus more on the characters’ interpretations.

Lemony Snicket is a great example of an omniscent POV with a narrator. That’s not a very common POV choice, and it doesn’t work for most stories. Also, these are MG books, so they might not be a good overall example for you. But if you look through the Look Inside feature on Amazon, you’ll get a clear idea of what I mean about voice=sense of person (in this case a narrator instead of a character) from just the free sample. :) Hope that helps!

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