The Writers' Loop

For Readers and Writers

The Elusive Butterfly of Voice?


By SUSANNE MARIE POULETTEblue_morpho_butterfly_189907 Lately I’ve been in a bit of a quandary about the writer’s voice.  Does it elude anyone else, or am I alone with this one?  We usually define the spoken voice as audible sound produced when vocal cords interact with an exhaled airstream.  Considering it from my profession in speech pathology, voice encompasses objective, tangible parameters, such as pitch or loudness.  There it is, a short, clean explanation, and we have a decent idea what spoken voice is.

But what is written voice?  Folks seem to know, but don’t define it very well.  Before I started writing my novel, I did my research, reading what authors, agents, editors, and English professors said about the writer’s voice.  I discussed it in my writers’ group, and on my own, I followed prompts to add voice into otherwise voiceless passages—futile for this writer.  I always thought of the writer’s voice as point of view—first, third, or whatever person grammar, and of style, tone, and how I express my characters’ personalities in words.

My confusion came when I began my search for a literary agent. I sifted through about a million literary agents’ websites looking for a good match between my manuscript and the qualities they wanted.  What were they looking for?  Other than the scholarly work of a genius, what indispensable common denominator kept popping up?  Yes, voice.

Let me back up momentarily for those who may not be privy to how the publication process works (unless you’d like to self-publish, which is another story).  I jumped into writing my novel without realizing these facts: To snag a publisher, you first need to get a literary agent on board who likes your book well enough to work john twith you and try to sell it to the aforementioned publisher.  Think of it this way: a theater/dance major can’t just go into a Broadway producer’s office and hop through a number from Saturday Night Fever and immediately bag a chorus line spot in a new musical.  That dancer needs an agent. I know the feeling.

I can’t speak to the requirements for landing a dancing gig, but I do know that literary agents have a language all their own when clarifying what they look for in their next best seller.  This is where I get tripped up, on the many adjectives that agents use to describe that epitome of excellent writing and its indispensable foundation, voice.  Maybe you can determine differences in how these coveted writing voices would sound in your head.  Let’s try just a few:  authentic voice (I see this a lot), electric voice, strong voice (very popular), unique voice, fresh and distinct voice, voice-driven, voice to fall in love with, voice to champion, and fresh voice (also very popular). Any luck?

I can locate agents who seek manuscripts in my genre, including my type of story and setting, but I find it difficult to define my voice with the descriptors listed above.  I really don’t know what in this wide world they’re talking about, never mind trying to emulate any one of them.  I don’t see much precision in these descriptions, do you?  How do I know if I’m lucky enough to have one of those voices?


So, I went back to the experts for some enlightenment, and I may have found the Holy Grail of Voice.

First, there’s Donald Maass’ excellent book, Writing the Breakout Novel.  It’s chock full of essential elements that successful novels share, writing techniques and useful examples from the work of best selling authors.  Maass dedicates three pages specifically to voice in clear terminology:

“What the heck is ‘voice’? By this, do editors mean “style”? I do not think so. By voice, I think they mean not only a unique way of putting words together, but a unique sensibility, a distinctive way of looking at the world, an outlook that enriches an author’s oeuvre. They want to read an author who is like no other. An original. A standout. A voice.

How can you develop your voice? To some extent it happens all by itself. Stories come from girl writingthe subconscious. What drives you to write, to some extent, are your own unresolved inner conflicts. Have you noticed your favorite authors have character types that recur? Plot turns that feel familiar? Descriptive details that you would swear you have read before (a yellow bowl, a slant of light, an inch of cigarette ash)? That is the subconscious at work.

…You can facilitate voice by giving yourself the freedom to say things in your own unique way. You do not talk exactly like anyone else, right? Why should you write like everyone else?…

…To set your voice free, set your words free. Set your characters free. Most important, set your heart free. It is from the unknowable shadows of your subconscious that your stories will find their drive and from which they will draw their meaning. No one can loan that or teach you that. Your voice is your self in the story.”

Now, that’s something that I can work with, how about you?

I found the next one not only helpful but also encouraging.  It’s by Thaisa Frank and Dorothy Wall, co-authors of Finding Your Writer’s Voice:

“Every writer has a natural voice, and every natural voice has its own way of telling a story. It has its own rhythm, pace, sense of detail, anecdote, and—if allowed to improvise—this natural voice can discover the story’s content and form. Natural voice is like a finger pointing at the moon, but it isn’t the moon itself. It takes time, patience, and work to refine this voice into a polished voice that can tell a story. But when your natural voice is allowed to lead the way, the result is a story with fire and spirit.”

Lastly, for teachers: Barbara Mariconda, author of children’s books, professional books for teachers, and presenter of programs on writing for teachers, offers Teaching Voice in Writing, on her website:

Creative Writing ClipArt“We’ve all heard teachers talk about “voice” – how a piece of writing somehow has it – or doesn’t. Often referred to as “author’s voice, it is a frequently misunderstood concept, an illusive quality that often seems difficult, if not impossible to teach.  In fact, some people feel that authors are either blessed with the gift of “voice” or not, or they believe that writers can only discover their voice through writing a lot.  While it’s true that consistent practice in the art and craft of writing is a necessity for improvement, it is also true that an understanding and emergence of voice can be nurtured and honed through awareness, discovery and informed teaching.  In other words, teachers can, without a doubt, help in the development of “voice” in their students’ writing.”

The full article is available at as well as three free lessons for download: “Teaching Voice in Writing,”  “Setting the Tone,” and “Setting the Mood.”


quillWhether you’re more of a reader than a writer, or an avid writer, a writing teacher, a journal writer, or if you just stick to emails, texts, and shopping lists, I hope you’ll share your ideas on voice. Feel free to comment on how you found your voice, or if you’re still discovering that lovely elusive butterfly.


Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel:

Frank and Wall’s Finding Your Writer’s Voice:

Writing websites that I find useful:

The Purdue Online Writing Lab:

Wheaton College Writing Resources:




2 thoughts on “The Elusive Butterfly of Voice?

  1. Love the Neil Gaiman quote. I can hear your voice in this article, Susanne!

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