A Definition of Voice (Wrenched from My Guts and Served on a Platter For You) – Day 538

Why is it that we writers are always looking for absolutes? In the presence of a Published Author, we want – nay, demand – answers to questions like:

“How many hours do you write a day?”

“What kind of word processor (or typewriter or pen or quill) do you use to write?”

“What is the best appetizer to serve at my book signing?”

…and so on. The irony is, we English majors took English in the first place mostly because there aren’t any absolutes like there are in that pesky Math or purposely vexing Chemistry. Don’t know the answer? Make it up. Make it up well enough, you get an ‘A’.

So it is with a full appreciation of this irony that I’ve tried to come up with an absolute definition of voice.

It is not an easy thing to do – in fact, it is very much like trying to define theme. It’s a worthwhile exercise though because I think the better you can define a concept in writing, the better you can use it to your advantage.

So here goes:

Voice or “writing style” helps set the mood of a story, provides clues to the reader about how to digest the story, and perhaps most importantly is a key mechanism in helping suspend disbelief.

I stress this last point on purpose, because I’ve been thinking about it of late. Take for example the writing of Hunter S. Thompson. You read something like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and you can (almost) believe it actually happened because his gonzo voice is so out there that anything seems possible. If it was written in the style of Laura Ingalls Wilder on the other hand, the story would be totally unbelievable (and, I suspect, totally unreadable – after all, the good doctor just barely pulls it off himself…)

Most importantly, the voice has to be strong. The reader has to know that you as a writer are in control, and can trust you are leading them down the right garden path. Note: that doesn’t mean the narrator has to be in control – he/she can be a sloppy mess. But the reader has to know that no matter how screwed up the characters (including the narrator) are, the writer will ensure that by the end of the book that the story makes sense and the journey will have been worthwhile.

(Now that I think of it, perhaps that’s why Fear and Loathing works. Although the Thompson character is certainly random in the story, as the writer of the story he is in full control of how the story unfolds. We trust he’ll get us there – and he does.)

Voice is playing a key role in my own story, and honestly, it’s the thing that’s causing me most trouble right now. Perhaps for my first novel, I shouldn’t have taken on the now-apparent gargantuan task of creating a whole new writing style for myself… I’m slipping back and forth between my “real” voice and the effected one. That might ultimately work actually once it’s all done, but I’m still striving to get that twisted voice I have in my head and put it down on paper. Hence this definition, and hence this post.

What do you think? Is voice the most important aspect of writing? Is there something about voice I’m missing? Or is this just a ridiculous exercise to start with? Drop me a line, write us all a comment.

[Editor’s Note]

Incidentally and coincidentally, I finally got a chance to watch The Rum Diary the night before last (or more accurately, early, early yesterday morning – best time to watch it…) If you’ve seen it, you know that it’s about finding voice too, to a certain extent. Quite apropos to this post, especially considering it is essentially about Hunter S. Thompson’s early days.

At one point, Johnny Depp says, while looking over the Caribbean.

“I’ve dragged a typewriter around with me for 10 years and have written nothing… I have no voice. I don’t know how to write like me.”

What I thought was interesting though is that he doesn’t necessarily find his voice through writing, but through finding himself. He taps into a passion, a focused energy, his “imitable rage”.

I don’t quite agree with the approach. I think the only way to find your voice is by writing, writing, writing… but this is a movie we’re talking about after all. In any case, there is something romantic about the notion of searching out your voice in your heart instead of your head and fingers. It’s something I think I can work on.

Off to feel around for my novel’s own voice…


Writing Totals

Abysmal, of late. Have been pecking at it here and there, but the usual Work, Life, Dry Well (literal, not figurative), blah, blah, blah, getting in the way. Did find that I’ve made a mistake in my hourly accounting, and have completed many more than I first thought. Still not where I’d like them to be.

Whoever said writing a novel was easy was wrong.

Hours to Date: 193

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6 Responses to A Definition of Voice (Wrenched from My Guts and Served on a Platter For You) – Day 538

  1. So how does your choice of word processor affect voice?

    Good luck getting the novel back on track.

  2. Graham Strong says:

    lol – little to none. It does, however, affect my sense of irony as an English major to be searching for these absolute definitions…

    Actually, now that you mention it, perhaps the choice of writing method does affect the writing, and by extension the voice. That’s interesting — it would seem to me that you want the writing process to be as seamless as possible, but then again, perhaps it is the physical writing process itself that adds to the writing. Wouldn’t that be an amazing find?

    (Sounds like a post in itself… Not sure how the Muses feel about that one though!)


  3. Kelly says:


    First, the important bits: As many as the muse and The Kid allow me. That is usually about 1, but on a very fine (?) day I could be lost for as many as 4 or 5. Quill. May I suggest a wild turkey feather that you’ve plucked with your own hands. Chocolate-dipped strawberries.

    Next: Me, I discover my voice only by looking backwards. And I do not think that affecting an accent, if I may change your term, will obscure your voice. I think you can go in a forced direction and still have the authentic “you” shine through… in fact, I think the authentic you, for better or for worse, *will* always be visible. Think Meryl Streep in acting (or name someone else who’s great at real accents)—there’s a core strength that is MERYL. The voice isn’t the literal voice, it’s this sensitivity and perspective she brings to the work. The accents are how she changes it up so it isn’t… well, Jack Nicholson, for instance… who is fascinating but is always playing himself.

    Am I making any sense? So IMVHO… (or at least for me…) your voice is there, and will be, whether you decide to write in a very nouveau style (“accent”) or not. But it’s hard to see unless you’re looking in the rear-view mirror…

    Love, love this train of thought you started here. As always, you pose the hard questions and give great answers.

    Get that book done so I can read it already. Dying to hear your voice! 🙂



    • Hi Kelly,

      Great to hear from you!

      I love your comparison with actors, and their putting on different characters. That is exactly what I’m trying to do — although the narrator is “me” to a certain extent, to a larger extent he is not. So although you’re right, my own voice will certainly peek through (that’s not avoidable, even if I wanted to avoid it…), I guess what I’m saying is that I’m having a hard time finding “his” voice. And since voice plays such an important role in the story (doesn’t it always though…?), it is posing a major problem that I haven’t been able to nail it down.

      Wow, I’m not entirely sure that made sense. Perhaps to use your own actor analogy, I am trying to stay “in character”, but finding it hard to do so for an extended period of time. It’s like you say — voice is best looked at in the rear-view mirror. Trying to change it as I’m looking up the road is difficult…

      Ah well, it wouldn’t be any fun if it was dead easy, now would it?


  4. Evadne says:

    Hi Graham,
    Good post. I agree with your definition of voice, and its importance to the story. Also, the challenges of balancing work and family and writing. It’s so much easier when the writing is an all encompassing obsession, and I’m so thankful I had a phase like that–a brilliant flash of all-consuming creativity from March – June 2009. Now, the novel writing is a mix between a chore and a hobby, squeezed into the late hours of the night. Hope you manage to scrape together some creative time …

    • Graham Strong says:

      Thanks Evadne!

      lol – just scraping together some of that creative now… finished Dad’s chaffeur, hockey, dinner, and dishes for the night, so time to get an hour or so in with the novel.

      Great to see your comment come in to kick me off!


      PS – Hope your novel’s going well too!

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