Voice is the person behind the words that speaks out to the audience…
Voice is your personality and resonance flowing in print.
We learn to speak very young; even before basic language is learned, an infant will vocalize sounds that range from coos of pleasure to cries of hunger. According to scholar Ellen Dissanayake, infants are born with a predisposition toward poetic features in their mother’s voices, including “repetition, exaggeration, elaboration, dynamic variation, and manipulation of expectation.” [i] We adopt variations in our speaking voices naturally, even before we learn to read, yet when it comes to our writing, acquiring a unique voice can be a lifelong process.
Aural voice—the kind produced by breath and vocal organs—is so unique to each individual that people can be identified simply by the manner in which they speak. Peter Elbow, retired professor Emeritus of English at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, calls this distinguishing feature “voiceprints.” [ii] Much like fingerprints or the particular way someone walks or stands, voiceprints are distinct and distinguishable between individuals.
Text on a page has no physical apparatus that allows us to “hear” a voice, yet we can think about written voice in much the same way as aural voice. The author’s syntax, diction, tone, use of punctuation or pause, idioms, rhythm, and other such elements create a “voice” that is often distinguishable between writers who have their own particular style. Elbow, in the introduction to his book, Landmark Essays on Voice and Writing, describes written voice as dramatic voice, the implied character of the speaker, which might be excitable, pretentious, funny, or stuffy, for example.
Elbow explains, “Most people […] automatically project aurally some speech sounds onto the text.” [iii] He continues, “In fact, people are virtually incapable of reading without nerve activity in the throat as though to speak—usually even muscular activity.” [iv] This explains why so many of us have the urge to move our lips as we read—we’re hearing voice as we read.
Attending to our voice as we write yields great benefits. When the voice is resonant, there is some new truth shared between reader and writer. A 2012 study by Emory University found that reading descriptive metaphors like “velvet voice” roused the sensory cortex, the part of the brain responsible for touch, whereas reading clichés like “strong hands” caused the sensory cortex to remain dark. [v] Voice gives flesh to writing and creates a unique connection between writer and audience. This is what all writers strive for and what only the greatest achieve.
As you begin to cultivate your own style, consider your voice’s history. You might begin by drawing lines on a sheet of paper for each decade of your life, zero to 10, 10 to 20, etc. Thinking about the age you were when you experienced voice chiding you: your naïve voice, a weary voice, a loving voice, a silenced voice, the illusion of having voice or attempting to have a voice, an agonized or troubled voice, a critical voice, an authentic voice. Also indicate in a different colored pen what was going on in your life at the time, including any desires or conflicts you may have experienced.
You might begin to notice that there isn’t just one voice for each person, but many. If you’re familiar with the story you want to tell, you can sometimes intuitively select a voice that most clearly communicates the narrative and emotion. You may have voices that you’ve not yet discovered. Think about whether your voice has changed over time, especially during moments of healing or conflict.
Writing Prompts for Cultivating Voice
- Write an “I” poem. Dialogue with your different voices—your loud voices, the voice that insists on being heard and your reserved voice, the voice that questions itself. Can you tell the difference?
- How does your cultural background influence your voice?
- Think of someone you speak with often. Try to describe his or her voice. Is it raspy? Nasal? Smooth? What makes someone’s voice forceful, distinctive, or memorable? Describe someone’s voice that is distant or less audible.
- Observe a person’s facial movements before and after they speak—what do you notice about the pitch, volume, tone, strength, and clarity of voice? What do the eyes, mouth, and jaw say?
- Study an author’s voice that you like a lot and an author’s voice that you don’t like at all; an author who you’ve recently read who has an engaging new voice; two stories or poems by different authors on the same theme; or a piece written in first person, third person, or in a mosaic of voices such as in the poetry of Mark Halliday. Try to find what makes one voice appealing and the other not appealing. What qualities make an author’s voice distinct and accessible?
- Experiment with switching voices, writing with multiple voices or with the voice of a game show announcer or talk-show host.
- Where is your writing filled with silences? Where are silences made visible? Have you purposefully put blanks between words? Does the silence of what you are not saying speak as loudly as what you are saying?
- Imitate an author’s voice you like. Pay attention to punctuation, syntax, verb choice, paragraph length, and imagery. How would you classify the writer’s style? Floral? Bare? Conversational? Fast or slow?
- How can you break free from emulation to discover your own unique voice?
Over the course of a career, an author can experiment with varying voices, tones, and personas. Try not to worry too much about creating a definitive voice; yours will change and evolve as you discover new topics, techniques, and authors. Rather, focus on how to get in touch with what you really have to say—just as children develop voiceprints before they know what language means—the story’s voice will emerge intuitively from the story, as if by magic.
Image from: http://publicdomainreview.org/collections/high-frequency-electric-currents-in-medicine-and-dentistry-1910/
[i] Dissanayake, E. (2012). Artification: A human behavior for health (Master’s thesis). p. 47. Retrieved from http://www.academia.edu/3893938/Ellen_Dissanayakes_Artification_A_Human_Behavior_for_Health
[ii] Elbow, P. (n.d.). What do we mean when we talk about voice in texts? Retrieved from https://secure.ncte.org/library/NCTEFiles/Resources/Books/Sample/56347chap01.pdf
[iii] Elbow, P. (1995). Introduction. In Landmark essays on Voice and Writing. Mahwah, NJ: Routledge.
[v] Paul, A.M. (March 17, 2012). Your brain on fiction. The New York Times. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/18/opinion/sunday/the-neuroscience-of-your-brain-on-fiction.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&
Debbie spent 30 years as a registered nurse. She became a certified applied poetry facilitator and journal-writing instructor in 2007. She is currently a student in the Johns Hopkins Science-Medical Writing program. Her publications have appeared in Journal of Poetry Therapy, Studies in Writing: Research on Writing Approaches in Mental Health, Women on Poetry: Tips on Writing, Teaching and Publishing by Successful Women, Statement CLAS Journal, The Journal of the Colorado Language Arts Society, and Red Earth Review.