What is a Writer’s “Voice”?

If Douglas Adams, J. R. R. Tolkien, and J. K. Rowling wrote stories based on the same plot outline, the resulting novels would be completely different. Douglas Adams’ would be full of snark and dark humour; Tolkien’s would have beautiful descriptions and eloquent turns of phrase; and Rowling’s would feel like you’re in a conversation with her.

Why? It all comes down to the voice.

When I was taking creative writing courses in university, we would talk about the “writer’s voice.” At the time, the idea of a writer’s voice was nebulous to me: how would I know if I had one? Was I supposed to actively develop it? And how would I recognize it in others’ work?

A writer’s voice is similar to a person’s speaking voice—phrasing, word choice, cadence, and tone all impact the way they sound. When you become familiar with a specific writer, you may be able to recognize them from their voice. For example, I could read an essay written by my husband, Bryan, and recognize his voice almost instantly. Or, when I read something by my co-editor, Allison, the types of phrases she uses make me think, “yep, this is Alli’s work.”

Of course, Bryan and Alli are two people I know well. But, as an editor, I’ve had to develop the ability to find the voice when I don’t know the writer at all.

As a magazine editor, I work with new writers all the time; some are seasoned, but others aren’t. One of the pitfalls of working with someone new is that it can be easy to change the grammar and sentence structure to be technically correct, but erase the writer’s voice in the process.

Sometimes, it’s more important to ensure that the writer’s voice comes through than to have every single comma and period in its correct place. But this is a difficult lesson for editors to learn when our fingers are itching to correct that run-on sentence or adjust that awkward phrasing.

Last December, my magazine published an article by an Indigenous elder. She wrote about walking from Gatineau, Quebec, to Ottawa as part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Her writing mirrored her speaking, and, when I was editing her piece, there were many places where I thought the writing could be tighter (when we talk, we repeat ourselves and use more colloquialisms than are necessary in writing). But, while I made sure that her message was clear, I mostly left her writing the way it was because it was important to me that her voice come through.

There have been times when a writer has come back to me because they had a problem with one of my edits, and they’ve said, “I just wouldn’t say this” or “I just wouldn’t phrase it this way.” In those instances, I asked the writer for alternate suggestions, and we found a way forward together. Most writers I’ve worked with are happy to reconstruct their sentences to preserve their voice and their grammar.

One of the things I’ve come to realize is that it’s easy to be selfish when I’m editing. If I edit something until it’s technically perfect and take away the writer’s voice in the process, I’m editing for myself instead of for the writer. Similarly, if I edit to the point where it’s my voice coming through instead of the writer’s, I am doing them a disservice. Learning to preserve a writer’s voice is a hard lesson to learn, but so essential to an editor’s work.

Here’s something you can do to help you find a writer’s voice (whether it’s your own or someone else’s): come up with three to five adjectives that describe the writing. Now, how do they define the voice? If it’s your own voice, do these words reflect the kind of writer you want to be?

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