Writing Tip #11: What Is "Writing Voice"?

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If you have ever formally studied fiction writing, or even taken a class, you have most likely heard of “writing voice.” I think of voice in two ways:

  1. A writer can have a writing voice, which is everything that characterizes that particular writer’s style. It could be very simple and spare, beautifully poetic, or written staccato with short punchy sentences that create the sense of imminent danger.
  2. A story can have a voice. Again, the voice is the style that emerges from that piece of writing. And this can reveal itself in the details, the characterization, the language chosen, the length of the sentences and so on.

What’s the difference? Well, when you think about it, writers can develop a writing style that characterizes every piece they produce, or they can develop a writing voice for each story they produce, and it can be very very different from one story to another. Let’s look at a few examples.

Examples of Writing Voice from Well-Known Writers

Ernest Hemingway was famous for his writing voice, which was pared down to only the details that mattered in the telling of his stories. There’s a great description in the Cliff Notes on For Whom the Bell Tolls:

Basically, his style is simple, direct, and unadorned, probably as a result of his early newspaper training. He avoids the adjective whenever possible, but because he is a master at transmitting emotion without the flowery prose of his Victorian novelist predecessors, the effect is far more telling.

Just as you can look at a painting by Picasso or Frida Kahlo and recognize the artist’s signature style, so can you recognize the voice and style of Hemingway. And yet it is also true that people have studied his writing voice for many years and, as the Cliff Notes say,

To explain Hemingway's style adequately in a few paragraphs is impossible. Scores of articles, and even some books, have been written on the subject, and it is to these that the serious student should go for additional, more detailed information.

That is my disclaimer to make sure I’m not accused of over-simplifying!

Let’s enjoy a passage. This is a brief excerpt from Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises:

In the morning I walked down the Boulevard to the rue Soufflot for coffee and brioche. It was a fine morning. The horse-chestnut trees in the Luxembourg gardens were in bloom. There was the pleasant early-morning feeling of a hot day. I read the papers with the coffee and then smoked a cigarette. The flower-women were coming up from the market and arranging their daily stock. Students went by going up to the law school, or down to the Sorbonne. The Boulevard was busy with trams and people going to work.

As you can see, there is no fluff, no fanfare. He describes the setting in detail, but without elaborate wording or adjectives. We get hints that it's an amazing day from "It was a fine morning," and "the pleasant early-morning feeling of a hot day," but he doesn't use adjectives that are any more elaborate than those simple words. The descriptions carry the writing.

This simple style, which characterized Hemingway's writing voice, carried throughout his works.

By comparison, as I’ve mentioned, some writers use a distinct and different voice for each story they write, which means the story itself has a voice, and the author must be diligent and deliberate in threading that voice consistently throughout the work.

One of my favorite authors, Amor Towles, comes to mind. I’ve read two of his works and I would honestly say that if I had read the two books without knowing the name of the author, I would never have guessed they were one and the same.

This first excerpt is from A Gentleman in Moscow, which is told in such depth, and in such rich and intricate detail, that one sinks deeply into the mesmerizing tone of the book in moments. And even though it is nearly a 500 page book, one is swept along on the beauty of the language.

An excerpt:

With a wistful eye, the Count approached the windows at the suite's northwest corner. How many hours had he spent before them? How many mornings dressed in his robe with his coffee in hand had he observed the new arrivals from St. Petersburg disembarking from their cabs, worn and weary from the overnight train? On how many winter eves had he watched the snow slowly descending as some lone silhouette, stocky and short, passed under a street lamp? At that very instant, at the square's northern extreme a young Red Army officer rushed up the steps of the Bolshoi, having missed the first half hour of the evening's performance.

This is just one short excerpt, and I encourage you to read the whole novel. It such a delight that I’ve read it at least three times. I would characterize the voice of A Gentleman in Moscow as very rich and descriptive. He spares nothing when it comes to elaborate descriptions and characterization. He also makes deliberate and canny use of passive voice in a captivating stylistic sense - nearly always listing things in sets of three - that comes off as masterful.

Here is an excerpt to illustrate:

Then the Count returned to the family estate in order to administer its shuttering. In quick succession came the sweeping of chimneys, the clearing of pantries, and the shrouding of furniture. It was just as if the family were returning to St. Petersburg for the season, except that the dogs were released from their kennels, the horses from their stables, and the servants from their duties.

By contrast, let’s look at a brief excerpt from Towles' earlier novel, The Rules of Civility, which takes place in the United States.

In New York it becomes so easy to assume that the city's most alluring women have flown in from Paris or Milan. But they're just a minority. A much larger covey hails from the stalwart states that begin with the letter I—like Iowa and Indiana and Illinois. Bred with just the right amount of fresh air, roughhousing, and ignorance, these primitive blondes set out from the cornfields looking like starlight with limbs. Every morning in early spring one of them skips off her porch with a sandwich wrapped in cellophane ready to flag down the first Greyhound headed to Manhattan—this city where all things beautiful are welcomed and measured and, if not immediately adopted, then at least tried on for size.

The voice here is also rich and descriptive, but far more down-to-earth, which is fitting for the novel. The more flowery language of A Gentleman in Moscow would have been a poor match for the subject and setting of The Rules of Civility.

Another author who elegantly changes her writing voice for each book she writes, is Donna Tartt. I just re-read The Goldfinch, and am amazed again at her incredible skill at penetrating deep into a character’s psyche by displaying what he sees and experiences. An excerpt from a point in the book where the narrator has self-quarantined in a hotel in Amsterdam (not for the reasons you might think, given our current pandemic):

Chaotic room-service trays; too many cigarettes; lukewarm vodka from duty free. During those restless, shut-up days, I got to know every inch of the room as a prisoner comes to know his cell. It was my first time in Amsterdam; I'd seen almost nothing of the city and yet the room itself, in its bleak, drafty, sunscrubbed beauty, gave a keen sense of Northern Europe, a model of the Netherlands in miniature: whitewash and Protestant probity, co-mingled with deep-dyed luxury brought in merchant ships from the East. I spent an unreasonable amount of time scrutinizing a tiny pair of gilt-framed oils hanging over the bureau, one of peasants skating on an ice-pond by a church, the other a sailboat flouncing on a choppy winter sea: decorative copies, nothing special, though I studied them as if they held, encrypted, some key to the secret heart of the old Flemish masters. Outside, sleet tapped at the windowpanes and drizzled over the canal; and though the brocades were rich and the carpet was soft, still the winter light carried a chilly tone of 1943, privation and austerities, weak tea without sugar and hungry to bed.

This second Donna Tartt excerpt is from her earlier novel, The Secret History:

It is difficult to believe that Henry’s modest plan could have worked so well despite these unforeseen events. We hadn’t intended to hide the body where it couldn’t be found. In fact, we hadn’t hidden it at all but had simply left it where it fell in hopes that some luckless passer-by would stumble over it before anyone even noticed he was missing. This was a tale that told itself simply and well: the loose rocks, the body at the bottom of the ravine with a clean break in the neck, and the muddy skidmarks of dug-in heels pointing the way down; a hiking accident, no more, no less, and it might have been left at that, at quiet tears and a small funeral, had it not been for the snow that fell that night; it covered him without a trace, and ten days later, when the thaw finally came, the state troopers and the FBI and the searchers from the town all saw that they had been walking back and forth over his body until the snow above it was packed down like ice.

What do you think? How would you characterize the difference in voice and style between the two excerpts?

Analyzing the voice of a writer or a particular work is a wonderful way to explore where you want to go with your own writing. What kind of descriptions seem meaningful to you? How deeply do you want to go into your character’s mind, experiences and observations? Do you like the rich sound of a writing voice that speaks to another time and place and setting? Or do you like a “just the facts” style of writers like Hemingway? Or perhaps you would like the quiet and tender storytelling of Raymond Carver, who captivated hearts by telling of the most mundane moments in his character’s lives, making us feel as though we knew them.


I hope you enjoyed these tips! Drop a note to share your thoughts, ideas, or writing hurdles.

Happy writing!

@jayna, writer and moderator at The Ink Well.

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If you're looking to up your fiction game and reach that next level, check out my past writing tips linked below.

Writing Tip #1: Writing from a Prompt

Writing Tip #2: Adding Conflict

Writing Tip #3: Writing What You Know

Writing Tip #4: Avoiding the Dreaded Info Dump

Writing Tip #5: Is ‘Show Don’t Tell’ a Writing Rule?

Writing Tip #6: How Fiction Writing Is Like Weaving

Writing Tip #7: Put It On the Page

Writing Tip #8: What Is a Story Arc?

Writing Tip #9: Should You Plot Your Story?

Writing Tip #10: Don’t Start a Story This Way!

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