February 16, 2012

Need Voice? Think Out Loud

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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Comments — What do you think?

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Angela Quarles

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 🙂

Juli Page Morgan

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.

Melinda Collins

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! 🙂


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.

Julie Glover

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!

Aldrea Alien

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. ^_^

Heather Day Gilbert
Heather Day Gilbert

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.

Adriana Ryan

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?? 😉

Fabio Bueno

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!

Tahlia Newland

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.

Jennifer Tanner

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.

Patrick Thunstrom

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!

Roland D. Yeomans

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

Julie Hedlund

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!

Nancy S. Thompson

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!

Cheryl reifsnyder

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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Julie Musil

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


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.)



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