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Monday, May 18, 2009

Editing for Voice


You've heard about it. You've read the complaints. You've seen the rejection letters that say, "Sorry, but the Voice isn't strong enough."

And like the nanodemon from Discworld you stare at the page and wonder... Writing is supposed to make noise?

Voice is what makes your writing unique. It's the author's imprint, their linguistic fingerprint if you will. And it's easy to lose during editing.


MYTH- Voice is writing that sounds like the author talking.

False! This only works if you are writing a contemporary novel or biography. Your voice as an author and the Voice that comes through are your book will not be identical for other genres. The author's Voice sets the tone, but every book should have a unique Voice to set it apart.

More in the editing for Voice section.

MYTH- Not every author has a Voice.

False! Not every author has found their Voice. And some have lost their Voice. But even if you have a clone writing an identical book you will find different Voices.

MYTH- Having a strong Voice will get my manuscript accepted.

Sort of. A strong Voice in your manuscript is necessary. Letting that Voice come through in your query maximizes your chances of hooking an agent or editor. But there are other factors too, like the viability of the manuscript and the originality of the idea.

Into the trenches.....



There is a difference, and it's noticeable.

Too many authors think that they can get by on their own Voice without giving the character's their own. It can work for first person writing or books that follow only one character.

It doesn't work when you have multiple POV's and you want readers to identify a character POV or DL without a name attached.

Not giving different characters different Voices also leads to Cardboard Character Syndrome, wherein your characters all sound the same. And all of them sound equally flat.

What Your Voice Sounds Like:
Think tone. Your Voice sets you apart when you talk. It sets your blog or journal apart. And it comes through in your writing as tone. I have a sense of humor, that tends to come out in my writing. Not for every character, but just as a natural part of the writing.

What Your Book's Voice Sounds Like:
This is how each individual character talks. If your main character is a country bumpkin they should not talk like they have a college degree. If the villain has a set phrase you shouldn't find a random bellhop at the hotel ad libbing a creative curse they've never heard.

The book's Voice also has a lot to do with mood. What emotions are you evoking? Does your writing structure set up that emotion or hinder it?

How to Edit:
Get to know your characters. Really sit down with them and identify their background even if those details will never make it to the manuscript. If you view your character as a person rather than a tool you'll find you aren't confusing Voices.

It also helps to have one beta-reader who you've discussed the background with and who knows where you're going with your story. Trust me, they'll prove invaluable in keeping Voices in line.


Most authors actually start a rough draft with a very strong Voice. When you're free writing and enjoying pure creation it's easy for your Voice to shine through. (And now the picture above makes sense).

What happens is that editing flattens writing. By standardizing grammar, spelling, and word usage the author cleans a manuscript, but they also make it uniform. Cleaning a manuscript makes you lose your individual touch.

How To Edit:
First off, don't be afraid to clean. Well written manuscripts are well spelled manuscripts.

Second, don't get discouraged because you are in the editing trenches and realize the writing has gone flat. This is where so many people quit writing. They get frustrated and they throw their books in the closet.

I've heard every excuse under the sun, it doesn't change the fact that this is just a phase and it can be fixed.

Third, recognize that your Voice is what sounds natural to your inner ear. The books has a strong Voice somewhere. Drag out Draft 1 and find the chapter that resonates with you the most. The chapter that you read and go, "Wow, I did good!"
That's your book's Voice.

Print the chapter, circle the parts you love, and analyze like a high school essay. Why does it work? What did you love? What rules did you break?

Learn to love breaking those rules.


Beta-readers, family, friends, noisy neighbors, agents, editors, and PR people will all want a say in what you say in your book.

The danger here is that all these well-meaning people will out shout your Voice and the Voice of your book.

Before you know it you have chapters that sound like your book, and chapters that sound like Great-Aunt Ethel yammering at Thanksgiving dinner.

How To Edit:
Simple. Know your Voice. Know your book's Voice. And gleefully slash everything else to the floor.

Don't worry about offending someone. If they really want a book written with their Voice, they can write their own. Kindly point them in the direction of the NaNoWriMo website and keep them - at knife point if you must - away from your final draft.



  1. Very nice post, L. I've never thought much about voice. I think I have a strong one, and that my characters do as well--some more so than others.

    How do you know whether you have a strong voice or not?

    I agree about being read to death. Betas are wonderful, but it's always good to stay true to the story. Trick is in sifting through the advice that will not only stay true to the story, but make it shine through.

  2. Good points here and I like the Myth/Fact way that you put it together.

  3. Danyelle- A strong Voice is one where you can pick up a pile of papers and tell whose writing is what from a paragraph or two.

    I'd agree from what I've read of your work that you have a strong Voice.

    Tess- thanks :o)

    I didn't realize how long it was until I posted and almost chopped it into part 1 and part 2. I need to try and make my posts shorter.

  4. This is a great subject I think we often forget. I know I have! Thanks for the reminder. :)

  5. Dani, your voices are fine! :D Trust me on that one.

    Fab post, and it makes total sense to me. Something I can focus on with Termion. (which still could just be from one POV).

  6. I think you wrote this post just for me. I'll tell myself that, anyway, and just stop whining so I can get back to work on the butterfly book.

  7. Glam- You got me thinking about it, but you aren't the only one. I'm getting frustrated with UDS because some of the chapters sound flat to me. And I think this is my problem.

    When I rush my writing, I can't get the Voice right.