Voice Finding Techniques from Cathy Yardley

It was great to hear everybody's opinions on genre and cliche. As promised, this next post is less philosophical and more practical. My favorite chapter from Cathy Yardley's Will Write for Shoes: How to Write a Chick Lit Novel concerned voice -- that unique aspect of your writing style that differentiates your writing from others. It's sometimes hard to figure out what your voice is, and I liked Yardley's ideas for identifying it.

1. Analyze Your Writing Yourself Yardley suggests going through your writing and highlighting anything that grabs your attention. Do your characters have witty and quotable conversations? Does your narration use colorful or realistic descriptions? Do you tend to write in formal or colloquial language? Once you have things highlighted, you can look for trends. "That's going to be your voice,your best selling point.", says Yardly. "That's what you should be emphsaizing in query letters, synopses, and in your novels themselves."

2. Get Volunteers to Analyze Your Writing For You If you have trouble with part 1, try getting a group of people who enjoy your genre and have them do the same thing. You can get a group of writers and have a voice finding party! Interestingly, Yardley emphasizes that this is not a critique session. All feedback should be positive and encouraging.

3. Tape Yourself Talking Make use of modern technology and record yourself telling a story. Then go back and analyze what you hear. What kind of words do you use? How much exaggeration vs. straight out description? Do you make the listener feel peaceful and comfortable, or do you get her all riled up?

4. Priming Your Voice If you want a particular flavor in your writing, Yardley also recommends priming your voice by reading something that will influence your writing style. Recent guest blogger Peta Anderson once told me that she uses this technique. Before she works on her current work-in-progress, which has a teenage boy narrator, she reads other fiction with teenage male protagonists. Actually, Peta has a great series on her own blog on finding your voice. Go check it out!

Have you identified your voice? What makes your writing uniquely yours?



    1. As a former academic used to writing for learned journals in the social sciences, I was given a great tip from my agent after he'd read the first draft of my self-help book on public speaking and presentation ('Lend Me Your Ears'}. I was, he said, writing too much in the third person - e.g. 'If a speaker says X ...' - and it would read more easily if I addressed the reader directly - e.g. 'If you say X ...' So I went through the whole thing again changing it as he suggested - and was amazed how much more accessible it became.

    2. I also decided to use many more elided forms that are so common in spoken, but not written, English than I'd ever done before when writing books and articles - 'wouldn't' for 'would not', 'it's' for 'it is', etc. - this again made it 'sound' much less formal and stilted to the reader than when I'd used the full forms.

    The most rewarding thing about this is that I've lots of emails, reviews and comments from people saying that they found the book very readable. If you want to see what you think, I think you can 'see inside' it at Amazon without even having to buy it: http://bit.ly/3roc5I But it would be nice if you went a step further and bought it too!

  2. I found that the more I 'practiced the craft' - the more I just wrote and wrote - the more my own style and 'voice' came through; however, sometimes I see "voice" as something that morphs -- my novels are usually quite different from my short stories, although that wasn't done on purpose, it's just how it happened to be.

    People have said I have a strong and unique voice, good dialogue and will say "it's like watching a movie" and "moves quickly, but hard to put down" when they read my novel or whatever- so I consider that a great compliment!

    My weakness is I can't write from plot - everything is character-driven. My brain won't see things in "wholes" but only in "pieces" (can't picture things in my head in wholes) - so imagining plots makes my brain cramp *laugh*

  3. *blushing* Thanks, Livia!

    I really like point 1 -- analyzing your own work to find your voice. I'm interested to hear what you think of the difference between authorial voice and character voice. I think analysis helps us get a handle on what we sound like as people, but it can also make it harder to write character voices that are different from work to work.

    With regard to my own passages--I visualize a lot, then play with the words, which I find quite fun. That said, I've always adored simple prose (think Tales of Earthsea), but I can't sustain it. Short pieces can be spare; long pieces, I need to explore. I think it's because I have a trouble getting into a longer story without actually writing it. Make sense?

  4. I can't tape myself talking. I've tried it and I immediately shut up.

  5. Peta -- good point about character voice. A good argument could be made that in first person maybe you don't want to try for own voice at all -- just your character's. Hrmm, might be interesting ot think about ways to develop that.

  6. Livia - I'm not sure you can ever completely subdue your own voice. You write sparse prose, but it still sounds like your character, K. I write description heavy prose, but it sounds like my character, J. When I write another character, I may change the style of description, and use different words, but I still work with the same basic principles because that's my style, my voice--how I say what I mean.

    If I were to mimic someone else (this is an exercise we did a lot in school), it would be necessary to quiet my own voice--me sounding like Jane Austen sounding like Elizabeth Bennett doesn't work. But writing original material? Everything I write will sound like me--it can't sound any other way, even when I want it to.

  7. First, thanks Livia for using my book as a reference! I'm glad you found it helpful.

    I think that your voice will change a bit to reflect those differences, but I also think that you've got one voice at your core, one thing you tend to focus on. Maybe it's getting across emotions, maybe it's taut action and plot twisting, maybe it's sparkling dialogue. So you'll find yourself writing a really emotional suspense-thriller or wondering why your romantic comedy came out so screwball and action-filled.

    I think it's important to figure out what your voice is so you can focus on your strengths. That doesn't mean you can't be versatile. I've been watching John Lithgow on DEXTER lately, playing a serial killer. If you can remember his zany antics in THIRD ROCK FROM THE SUN, you'll know the guy has range! But I think his acting "voice," as it were, is complete commitment: he'll go farther and take more risks, really selling whatever he's playing. (Perhaps a bad example: it's hard to think of a "character writer" who has the same level of both craft and versatility.)

    Ten years in the business, I'm still trying to pinpoint my voice! :)

  8. Awesome post! Definitely something to think about and apply to my writing! I just recently tried recording myself reading my story. A bit unsettling at first, but fun and helpful overall.
    It's really great to "meet" you! :)