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Authorial Voice: the many hued definitions

Last week, Robin wrote a great piece on the topic of originality in fiction. There are pretty much no ideas that haven’t already been expressed but the one thing that distinguishes one work of fiction from another is voice. Yet, voice is something that is hard to define. It’s ephemeral. It is, from a definitional point of view, as hard to define as obscenity. I reached out and asked a variety of authors, editors, and bloggers what their definition of voice was. Here are the responses:

Courtney Milan, author of historical romances such as Trial by Desire:

Voice is a distinctive method of writing; it’s the way a writer deploys language to subtly reinforce character, mood, theme, and all that other good stuff. But I’m kind of a voice-rationalist. I think that a writer’s voice is rather like a singer’s voice: it can be trained, taught, examined, learned, and, yes, even altered and imitated.

From Executive Editor of Carina Press, Angela James:

“I’m looking for a great voice” is something editors say that makes authors groan and roll their eyes. What authors may not always realize is that the great voice I’m looking for, may not be the same great voice another editor is looking for, because every person is attracted to different things in writing. And what many people don’t realize is that anyone who writes–whether it’s email, blog posts, Twitter updates, articles or books has a voice. And no two voices are alike.

As an example, on Dear Author alone, there are as many individual voices as there are reviewers (and those individual voices all contribute to the overall voice of the site itself). Over time we can recognize who’s writing a review without looking at the byline, because we recognize the reviewer’s voice. An article by Janet and an article by Jane on the same topic will sound vastly different, because their voice–how they turn a phrase, their word choice, their construction of sentences, the emotional inflection and the depth of information and how they present it–their voice is unique. And perhaps one visitor to the site loves Janet’s voice, but struggles to get through Jane’s posts. Because we all relate differently to someone’s voice.

In genre fiction, voice is what makes an old concept seem fresh and new. It’s the quality of storytelling that grabs the reader by the throat and won’t let go, it’s what defines the reader’s relationship to the characters, their perception of the world and their connection to the story and plot. An author’s voice is what either gives a reader the ability to sink into a story or makes it difficult for them to connect to it.

Reader Maili:

A voice is an author’s distinctive style of expression and the core of storytelling. I feel there are five major elements of a voice: rhythm, attitude, grammar, mannerisms and style. I did wonder whether to include ‘tone’, but decided against it because I feel it’s part of a story, not the author’s voice. In short, a voice is a lot like a fingerprint, which means no two voices are ever alike.

Maili had an additional comment which I thought was very interesting:

I was talking to a friend about this the other day. She brought up a good question – what about translated works? Whose voice are we hearing – the author or the translator? Does Nora Roberts’s voice come through in a Russian or Japanese translated edition, for instance?

From Editor Esi Sogah, Avon:

This is tough, because voice is the most important thing to me when I make my acquisitions, but it’s very hard for me to give specifics. I think “voice” is best defined by its results. I know an author’s voice is working when a book stays with me, when it hangs out in the back of my brain. It’s what the author brings to the table that’s unique, and it can’t be taught. It can be refined and improved, but a strong authorial voice is, for me, the difference between a fine story and a great book.

From reader Keishon, my most trusted advisor of mystery/thriller books:

An author’s “voice” is something that comes naturally. ‘Voice’ can’t be taught/studied/copied. It is the ‘voice’ of the author that pulls me, the reader, into the story so thoroughly that it makes me forget that I’m reading a book. That is what “voice” does if you have it and not everybody has it, I’m afraid. –Keishon

Jill Myles, Author of the paranormal romance succubus series that starts with Gentlemen Prefer Succubi

Voice is basically the art of you telling a story. It’s the way you speak, your inflections, the things you emphasize because they’re interesting to you. You won’t have the same voice as someone else because they won’t tell the story the same way you do. At least, that’s how I’ve always thought about it. It’s like if you give me and Jia some fabric and tell us to make a dress, I’m going to pick a simple, straight pattern that’s going to emphasize the bust and de-emphasize the waist and avoid pleats. Maybe a zipper or an accent button. Jia might like glitter, silk and flounces. And spaghetti straps. ;) That’s voice – it’s all those things that combine to make your story have a personality.

From bloggers/reviewers Ana Grilo and Thea James at The Book Smugglers

When Jane first contacted us to answer the question, “How do you define authorial voice?” our first reaction was somewhat blasé (Ana’s reaction: "Yeah sure, easy peasy”). But, when the time came to actually write out our response, we realized that although we have an idea of what authorial voice is, actually defining it is a rather complicated business because voice is such a fluid thing. In terms of writing a book, authorial voice is the specific stamp in terms of style, language, cadence, and tone that an author places on his or her work – the implication is that an author is the “voice” behind the plot and the characters. Sometimes authorial voice is more discernible (say, in a third person-narrated novel), but, though intangible, it is always there. Authorial voice can be overt (see Cory Doctorow, whose characters feel like marionettes in a ginormous Cory Doctorow puppet show) or subtle (with Kazuo Ishiguro’s layered Never Let Me Go). At the same time, authorial voice goes beyond style because even style (and language and cadence and tone) can change from book to book for the same author (depending on story, genre etc). For example, Neil Gaiman has a very specific writing style discernible across the majority of his work – but in Stardust, the written style is markedly different (Gaiman himself has written about the change).

Perhaps it would be easier if we simply said: Authorial Voice is that quality that makes each author’s work unique.”

Nalini Singh, author of the Psy/Changeling series and the Guild Hunter series:

Voice, by nature, resists definition. It is that certain “something” that sets one writer apart from another, and is made up not only of the words the writer uses, the unique rhythm of language they create, but also, I think, of the stories they choose to tell.

One other thing I’ll say is that voice isn’t static – it changes over time, and as the author develops. However, with the strongest voices, the core remains the same, and it’s that core that keeps pulling me, as a reader, back to my favorite authors.

From Berkley Executive Editor, Cindy Hwang:

The one thing that I’m asked constantly (as is every editor) is: What are you looking for? My response? A great voice. It sounds like a cop-out, but it’s true–it’s not necessarily the story elements that draw me in, it’s the writer’s voice. I could be reading a story with story elements that feel fresh and exciting in a synopsis, but once I start reading the chapters, if the voice doesn’t draw me in, it doesn’t matter how fresh the elements are because I’ve already stopped reading. I don’t think voice can be taught, but it can be polished, and honed.

From PW Reviewer and editor of the Romance section, Rose Fox:

When I speak of an author’s distinctive voice, I usually mean the rhythm of the words, the use of similes and metaphors and pauses and repetition, everything that moves away from so-called transparent language (which often is merely boring language, and not transparent at all).

Voice is a struggle for many authors because lacking a distinctive voice can mean a book gets lost in a crowd, but having too distinctive an authorial voice, unmodulated by the topic at hand, can mean a book gets lost in the crowd of all the other books by that author. So ideally each book should have its own voice that harmonizes well with, but is not the same as, the voices of that author’s other books. Then the book will live vividly in the reader’s mind and memory.

From Bantam/Dell Senior Editor, Shauna Summers:

What voice is and means is pretty difficult to articulate, at least for me. That's because voice is a magical thing that is hard to identify in a specific or detailed way, but I know it when I see it, or should I say, read it. I do think it is what sets a writer apart more than anything else. Storytelling, character development, actual writing/use of language-‘all of these are important, but I think where they all come together is in an author's voice.

Barry Eisler, author of the John Rain series and Ben Treven series:

Voice is one of those things that’s hard to define but that you know when you see it. Another word for it is style, and it’s the quality that enables you to know you’re reading James Ellroy, whose voice is powerful, rather than, say, Michael Chricton, who was a first rate storyteller but who possessed no particular voice. If you’re not sure, a simple test for determining whether an author has voice is to try to parody the author’s style. Authors who can be parodied have voice. Authors who can’t, don’t.

What is voice to you?   Do you notice it? Does it matter to you?

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She self publishes NA and contemporaries (and publishes with Berkley and Montlake) and spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com


  1. Morgan Karpiel
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 04:24:26

    I can address Maili’s question. I’m American but I live in Poland and I read work that is translated into Polish. There’s no way an author’s voice can come through a translation. It’s simply impossible. Language is about so much more than just words. For instance, in many languages, the adjective is placed after the noun, so its “door, green” instead of “green door”. There’s no way a writer can have a voice that allows for all the different ways people think and talk. When you’re reading a translated work, you hear the translator and, if it’s your native language, you also hear the beauty that the translator lends to it.

  2. ka
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 04:46:41

    We were just discussing Robin’s post and authors’ voices at a workshop for women interested in writing. Our guest – a local blogger and published author – asked each participant to literally voice what she was interested in writing. It was a fun exercise.

    Yes, I can hear the author’s vocie and it does matter to me as I read the book.

  3. Jia
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 05:13:16

    Jill Myles, you know me all too well.

  4. Jane Lovering
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 05:31:19

    I wonder how closely written ‘voice’ correlates to spoken ‘voice’. I’ve been told I have quite a strong writing voice, and people who know me and read my books say that they can ‘hear’ me when they read. Is it just that they imagine me reading to them, or is it that my writing and my talking are so similar in rhythm and style? Perhaps people looking to refine their written ‘voice’ might be advised to record themselves speaking? Just a suggestion, but it might help them to work through how they think about and use their words.

  5. Lynne Connolly
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 06:16:09

    When I teach classes, I usually mention the two parts of writing – art and craft.
    I can teach craft. I can’t teach art, although some creative teachers can.
    Voice is art.
    It doesn’t mean that craft doesn’t contribute toward it. Knowing what you’re doing in grammar, vocabulary, research etc gives you the confidence you need to express yourself.
    Voice can be killed, can be messed with but if the author has that confidence, it will always shine through.

  6. Lynne Connolly
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 06:17:31

    @Lynne Connolly:
    Sorry, the post got away from me!
    Jane L, your voice is unmistakable (and I mean that in the best way possible!)

  7. Tee
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 06:23:24

    What you refer to as voice, I refer to as writing style. But we’re talking one and the same thing. Every author has their own distinctive writing style/voice. Every reader has their preferred reading style. The perfect match-up then is an author and reader with similar styles. It won’t be the same for everyone, obviously.

    For all those who love Judith Ivory’s flowing prose, I cannot read past the first couple chapters of her books. Her voice isn’t magic to me. However, I have authors whom I love and speak well to me, which other readers stay clear of. So I can’t tell you exactly what an author’s voice is, unless you can say it calls and pulls you into the story effortlessly and keeps you there—again, different for everyone.

  8. joanne
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 07:07:25

    For me it’s all about the rhythm of the piece I’m reading. I love rock & roll music but not all rock & roll makes me happy and so it goes with fiction.

    For me it’s most often the first few paragraphs (or bars to keep that theme that going) that make me realize this author’s work isn’t for me.

    Maybe the author has written a symphony – maybe a great piece of work to last the ages- but for me, it’s just not rock & roll and yeah, it matters a great deal to me.

  9. Bonnie Dee
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 07:30:37

    It's the way you speak, your inflections, the things you emphasize because they're interesting to you.
    That last item really hit home for me…the things you choose to emphasize because they’re interesting to you. Little details make all the difference and every writer describing a scene will pick out different aspects he/she thinks are most meaningful or telling.

  10. Bonnie Dee
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 07:33:04

    Huh, you no longer have the edit function on the blog. Half my post above was meant to be a quote, the rest my comments on the quote.

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  12. cead
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 08:06:41


    What you refer to as voice, I refer to as writing style. But we're talking one and the same thing. Every author has their own distinctive writing style/voice.

    I’m not sure I agree that they’re quite the same thing – I agree that they’re similar, but I think they vary along slightly different axes. If you change media – from essays to emails, say, or from fiction to non-fiction – you may change styles, but not voice, or vice versa. The building blocks of my prose are the same whether I’m writing academic prose, an informal essay, or an email; the styles of each are different, but the latter two are similar in voice, while the academic style is more different.

    @Lynne Connolly: What you say here rings true. I love going to the ballet, but I really don’t get Balanchine and can’t quite articulate why. I don’t hate his work; I would say, I don’t exactly mind Balanchine. There are always interesting geometric aspects to his ballets, and ordinarily I quite enjoy those. But somehow, the whole of it always falls a bit flat for me, and your art/craft distinction has a lot to do with that. Balanchine’s voice just doesn’t speak to me even though his technical components ought to appeal to me, and often do in the hands of other choreographers.

    It works in reverse, too. Most of my favourite authors have certain traits in common, from the thematic to the stylistic. Eloisa James is decidedly not a natural member of this class. And yet, I absolutely adore her. I will read anything she writes, and even when a book of hers takes a turn I was actively hoping it wouldn’t take, I’m never truly disappointed. There’s just something ineffably compelling about her voice.

  13. Anne Devereux
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 08:14:44

    I think the music analogy is on point.

    Speaking as an author, I’d like to add that I think writers need to remember that they are first and foremost storytellers. This may seem obvious, but imagine the old days of the village bard telling a story around a bonfire: he literally used his voice to nuance the tale, whether it be adventure, or romance, or tragedy. His voice engaged the audience, held their attention, drew them into the story until their minds soared and plunged with the tone of his voice and the words he chose. The audience sat mesmerized until the very last word spoken. This is storytelling, this is “voice” and I think we, as modern authors of the written word, need to remember this heritage and use it when we write. Voice is precious, it is the heart and soul of storytelling and even though stories have been told and re-told since the dawn of time, your unique voice is what makes your story belong to you and you alone.

    If I had one piece of advice for a new writer, it would be this: learn your craft, hone your skills, revise, edit, grow … but never lose your own voice.

  14. Christine M.
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 08:17:55

    @Morgan Karpiel:

    Professional, graduated translator here (should also be certified in a couple of years, too) :)

    I just want to say I disagree with you. While it’s not always the case (eg. some language pairs are tougher to render than others), the job of a literary translator is to find an author’s voice and to render it in a new language.

    One example that’s striking to me is the French translation of José Saramago’s Ensaio sobre a cegueira (L’aveuglement or Blindness, in English). While it’s translated in French, the style is purely that of the Saramago. It’s not written in a French that would comme naturally to a native speaker. Perhaps translators around the world are not all taught the same mechanics and same ethics of literary translation, but I can tell you that before I knew English, I would read Stephen King in French. I read him a lot. I loved his ‘voice’. Fast forward a couple of years, I speak/read/write English and I find that I still love Stephen King’s voice because it’s very close to the voice I read in French. While it’s true the word placement is different from one language to another, it shouldn’t impact on how the voice is translated.

    That said, I agree it doesn’t apply to every single translation produced. It entirely depends on the translator’s talent and skills. Charles Beaudelaire is a great French writer, but his translation of EA Poe’s works…. Well, in French they have Beaudelaire’s voice. Of course that was several (!) decades ago and Beaudelaire didn’t have access to the ressources today’s translators have, but still, Beaudelaire translated Poe’s works with Beaudelaire’s voice, not Poe’s.

    (And while it’s another debate entirely, there’s also the issue that in many countries, there are no “real” translation degrees/schools set up and anyone and everyone can improvise themselves translators. That and the lack of profesionnal organisations that will certify translators based on exams and evaluations. /rant)

  15. Christine M.
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 08:22:53

    @Morgan Karpiel:

    Oops, I forgot. I just wanted to add that if when you read some translated work you hear the translator’s voice rather than author’s, the translator didn’t do their job right and shame on them. :)

  16. Milena
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 08:36:58

    Another translator here… In my experience, the issue of voice is one of the key problems of translation. It’s got nothing to do with word-order, and I would even say that it’s more than just style. When I was translating Douglas Adams, for example, I often had to change entire sentences or else lose the pun and/or the intended meaning. (And don’t let me get started on Pratchett.) However, I had no problems doing this, because — to my mind at least — it is much more important to transfer the feel of the prose than to merely provide the meaning of the words. One of my best experiences as a translator was when G.G.Kay told me he was happy to have me as his “Croatian voice”.

    On the other hand, translation has become a great author-test for me: if I can still enjoy an author after I have translated them, they go on the keeper shelves. It’s amazing how very few authors survive that test, too: when translating, you notice every little thing: the (unconscious) mannerisms, the favourite adjectives, typical rhythms, but also characterisation techniques, the construction of dialogue… and all those things together make up that individual author’s voice. So I think it’s more than just style.

    And yes, there are two different and distinct schools of translation: one believes that you should stay as faithful to the original as possible, and the other that you should modify as much as you think is needed to make the translation “accessible” to the target audience. This other school often produces results that are completely different from the original, particularly as far as style and voice are concerned.
    (Apologies for hijacking the thread with translation stuff.)

  17. Sarah Morgan
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 09:04:22

    To me, when a reader says ‘I love that author' they're talking about voice. It's voice that makes a reader preorder a book, confident that they'll enjoy it no matter what the story. Often readers might express a strong dislike for a certain trope but be prepared to risk it with a favourite author because they like and trust the voice.
    It's an indefinable, quality unique to that writer.

  18. G.G. Vandagriff
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 09:27:41

    Leon Suryoian (spelling please? It’s been too long) in Techniques of Writing Fiction said that pov is the most important element of writing. I think every pov has a distinctive voice. Of my eight books (5 of them a series) voice and pov are everything. They are what makes your reader fall in love with your characters. In the 40 years it took me to write The Last Waltz ( voice and pov were wrong for 39 years. It is an epic. When I finally asked, “What would Tolstoy do?” I finally realized he would be in all my major characters’ heads. From that point on, the 101st rewrite was like a huge relief! I wasn’t confined to the voice and pov of one very young woman to chronicle the events in Austria surrounding World War I. And of course every character has his voice, seeing my heroine differently, seeing the world differently. And that, ultimately was the lynch pin of the entire saga.

  19. Rosario
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 09:32:13

    I agree with Christine M. and Milena about translations; it’s definitely possible to keep the voice, but it takes a very good translator and a lot of work. As an experiment, I once read Isabel Allende’s House of Spirits in Spanish and English simultaneously. I “heard” her voice just as much in the English translation.

    Unfortunately, I don’t think your average romance novel translation gets that much effort put into it. I used to read Harlequins in Spanish and they were appallingly badly translated***. Nora Roberts very definitely didn’t sound like Nora Roberts in those!

    **I still remember one particular example, where the translator clearly didn’t know how to translate the word “scurried” and went for the closest-sounding Spanish word: “se escurrio”, which resulted in someone “wringing themselves out” behind someone else!

  20. Tamara Hogan
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 09:41:43

    @Sarah Morgan:

    I 100% agree, Sarah. I’ll follow a writer whose voice I love on any journey he or she wants to take.

  21. sbird
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 09:43:05

    I agree with Courtney Milan that a voice can be altered and imitated–but it can never be perfectly imitated. No matter how many other authors write Sherlock Holmes stories, I’ve yet to read one (and I’ve read many) that is indistinguishable from the original works of ACD. Voice can be imitated, but the strongest voices have a flavor that other writers just won’t catch in their entirety. There will always be that elusive note that remains with the originator of the work. That’s just my impression.

  22. Courtney Milan
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 09:59:24

    Am I the only voice-rationalist that responded?

    This is probably my own near and dear to my heart pet peeve, dating from my days as a grad student when my professors told me not to bother trying to teach students because the smart ones would learn anyway, and the stupid ones… well, fuck ’em, because who cares if they learn?

    So a major pet peeve of mine is when people say that something “can’t be taught.” I firmly believe that if something can be done, it can be taught.

    Now, not everyone can actually learn everything that can be taught. And not everyone that can do something knows how to break it down into teachable components. And part of the teaching might require that someone go out and do work on their own.

    But I firmly, strongly believe that you can learn voice. I also firmly, strongly, believe that you can change your voice–that you can strengthen it, bolster it, make it better.

    Or, if you prefer, you can learn to talk like Donald Duck.

  23. DianeN
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 10:01:51

    I agree with the various commenters who said they couldn’t define voice but know it when they see it, and I think the opposite is true as well. Some writers don’t have a distinctive voice–Barry Eisler singling out Michael Crichton was dead on. Some writers like Crichton have been extremely successful because their books are all about the plot, plot, plot. Others are, to put it kindly, less successful. They may or may not write workmanlike prose, but without that unique something called voice they’re just not likely to provide me with a satisfying reading experience. Setting aside the brilliant plotters like Crichton, when I’ve finished a book without a distinctive voice it generally just disappears from my head. That isn’t true of writers with strong voices like Nora or Jenny Crusie or even J.R. Ward, whose voice began grating on my last nerve several BDB books ago! And that last makes me wonder, do the books we love (or hate) most have the most distinctive voices? For me the answer has to be yes.

  24. Lynz
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 10:18:16

    “What about translated works? Whose voice are we hearing – the author or the translator? ”

    Having read works in both the original language and the translation mainly to discover this for myself – both. A good translator will do everything possible to make the author’s voice shine through, but I’ve yet to find a book that doesn’t feel different to me. I think Milena nailed it in mentioning the two schools of translation thought – to me, if staying as faithful to the original as possible causes a loss of voice, while modifiying it can keep the voice but also injects some of the translator’s own sensibilities. But I’m totally going to read Sobre a Cegueira and L’aveuglement now, thanks to Christine! *adds the Saramago to list of things to buy in Mexico next year*

    On the topic of translation, though, I offer to you: Joanna Bourne. Annique is French-first, even when her speaking and thinking are written in English. Any author who can accomplish that can use the translation gap as an increidbly valuable tool.

  25. dick
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 10:20:08

    I agree with everybody…voice is important. But so is the story being told.
    I don’t think the “voice” of the storyteller makes a darn bit of difference if the story itself doesn’t grab us. Yes, a reader might be intrigued by the “voice” or the “style,” and be drawn in for a while just to listen to or read that voice or style, but if the story lacks draw, I think most readers would simply quit reading. And vice versa. A terrible voice/style telling a great story will hold us regardless of the terrible voice, simply because the story intrigues.

  26. Milena
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 10:21:38

    @Courtney Milan: I think that’s exactly what the translators in this thread were talking about: if you want to produce a good translation, you have to figure out what makes an author’s voice, and you have to do your best to imitate it in another language. So ye, of course it can be taught, and of course it can be learned. (That’s why I end up hating some authors I’ve translated: I learn so much of their voice, it starts getting on my nerves. Although I’m not sure that’s the case with other translators.)

    However, I think what (most?) instructors mean when they talk about voice that “can’t be taught” is the individual voice. Which needs to be built over time, either consciously or unconsciously.

  27. emmytie
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 10:22:29

    I think beyond author’s having unique voices, there are different types or sets or groups of voices. I know a bunch of male scifi writers of a certain era sound very similar. I think sometimes the fact that romance tends to get lumped together is that many of the authors have a similar voice. Its possible I’m conflating voice and style, but where do you draw that line?

    I know I tend to like writers whose styles are similar. I’ve noticed that my ability to finish a book, despite bad characters or bad plots, has a lot to do with whether I like the voice. If I’m fighting to get through the first 2 pages, despite a book generally being well regarded, it often has to do with the fact that the way the author sounds just doesn’t flow in my head.

  28. Maili
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 10:25:27

    @Morgan Karpiel, @Christine M., @Milena and @Rosario: Thank you so much for responding. I found all your comments extremely helpful as I have a dilemma that has been weighing my mind for a while. Much appreciated.

  29. Christine M.
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 10:35:29


    Just to say, I don’t read Portuguese but one of my Portuguese friends reads French fluently and she’s the one who recommended I read the French version as, in her Portuguese opinion (*g*), the translator was very careful to stayed really close to Saramago’s original version, both in style and voice.

  30. Courtney Milan
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 10:36:51

    @Milena: I don’t disagree that voice needs to be built over time, but “built over time” and “can’t be taught” are not the same thing.

    Surely a concert pianist–or a figure skater also needs to build skills over time. But just as surely, you don’t teach people to play a piano by saying “smack those keys, repeatedly, over and over again, and maybe the magic piano fairy will visit you and give you a gift; perhaps you will get a symphony!”

    I don’t deny that part of that instruction must inevitably include, “Sit at a piano. Play. Repeat for many hours.” But that is not the only thing you can say.

  31. Isobel Carr
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 10:37:03

    @Courtney Milan: I taught undergrad creative writing when I was getting my MFA. IMO, voice can’t be “taught”, but it can certainly be discovered and developed. And a good creative writing teacher or critique group can help a writer “find” their voice.

    I also think of it like signing. As long as you’re not tone deaf (and some people are), you can be taught to carry a tune. But not everyone who can carry a tune can become a great opera singer, no matter how hard they try. And sometimes the person who really wants to be an opera singer should really be singing show tunes, or the blues. They just don’t know it.

  32. Julia Braodbooks
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 10:37:48

    @Courtney Milan: I completely agree. Every author has a voice, by definition. Just reading a number of works by a single author shows how her voice can change and grow.
    So if you already have it and it can be improved, someone can teach it.

  33. cead
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 10:39:04


    A terrible voice/style telling a great story will hold us regardless of the terrible voice, simply because the story intrigues.

    There’s a lot of individual variation on this point. I’m much more likely to put down an intriguing story with poor style/voice than a less-intriguing story with a strong voice. I’ve become increasingly wary of debut authors for this reason: often debut authors have fresh, interesting ideas, but their prose style is clunky and their voice isn’t entirely developed. My tolerance for that level of craft has deteriorated as I’ve got older.

  34. Moriah Jovan
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 10:39:32

    So a major pet peeve of mine is when people say that something “can't be taught.” I firmly believe that if something can be done, it can be taught.

    Even if I agree with this (which I don’t) there’s a difference between teaching someone to do something and to do something WELL.

    I learned how to play “Claire de Lune” when I was 14. My mother kept saying, “You’re not playing that right!” I most certainly was. I hit all the notes perfectly. She said, “You’re flat.” No, I was not. The piano was tuned. Then, years later, I heard it played a particular way and had a V8 moment. All the notes were the same, but the feeling was entirely different. My “Claire de Lune” would put people to sleep. His “Claire de Lune” would make people go dance nekkid by a bonfire at midnight.

  35. Sarah Morgan
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 10:40:27

    @Courtney Milan You raise a really interesting issue. I agree that many aspects of writing can be taught, but I don't think that's true of voice. In my opinion voice is unique to the individual – it's the writer's gift. I don't agree that everything that can be done, can be taught. I love opera but no amount of professional training is going to get me a season at the Met because I just don't have that gift (sadly). A writer's voice can be improved and developed, but can it be created from nothing? Possibly, but I'm not convinced that voice created that way will ensnare the reader. You can learn to talk like Donald Duck, but then you're just a copy.

  36. Michelle
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 10:42:01

    One of the things that I think powers voice is the author’s way of looking at/thinking about/feeling/believing stuff about life. It’s the author’s passions and deepest beliefs that influence her storytelling choices. Education and their life’s journey can be part of that, but it goes beyond that.

    One of the features on DA that captures some of this was the If You Like series.

    Also, thank you to the translators who shared their experiences with capturing an author’s voice in another language. That was fascinating.

  37. Milena
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 10:44:28

    @Courtney Milan: We seem to be in violent agreement there. :)

  38. cead
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 10:59:21

    @Isobel Carr:, @Sarah Morgan: The singing analogy is brilliant. I’ve been taking voice lessons, and a huge part of it is simply learning what your voice is like, what it can do, and what its limits are. It’s a lot like physical training, in that when you work out, you discover what your body is capable of. Your body is changed by the training, but it doesn’t become anything it never could be, if that makes sense. The voice teacher’s role is very much like that of a personal fitness trainer. She can help you with techniques to bring out your voice and make it stronger, but the quality of the voice that emerges is entirely yours, and it just is what it is.

    I have an acquaintance who is an excellent singer. She’s got perfect pitch, a great range, and a great sense of rhythm; if I were putting together a choir, she’d be the first person I’d recruit for my first alto section. But I’d never give her a solo, because her voice just isn’t pleasant to listen to. It’s not her fault; it’s just the way her voice is.

  39. julia broadbooks
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 11:07:15

    @Milena: That’s so true. There’s a big difference between unique and wonderful.

    To go back to the ballet comparison, there was once a video on youtube of 11 ballerinas doing Ballanchine’s Tchiacovsky Pas de Deux variation. It was amazing to watch 11 dancers, almost all of whom were principals at major companies. They all did the same things but it was very different. I think the comparison is valid. You could try to write like Jenny Crusie or Eloisa James, but it would never really be the same.

  40. LibrarianLizy
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 11:29:10

    Voice is very difficult to define, because as everyone has said, every author’s voice is different. Some voices are much stronger than others. Give me a passage from a Nora Roberts book and even if you don’t tell me who it’s by, I could tell you NR wrote it. To me her voice is very strong.

    I think we all respond to “voice” differently too. I come back to the same authors again and again because I like them. A friend, who likes the same kind of story I like, has completely different favorite authors. We each prefer a different style voice. I think “voice” preference is a big reason why no two reviewers give the same review. A book could have received great reviews or be a fan favorite, but I don’t like it. Why? Because I didn’t respond to that authors voice.

  41. Tee
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 11:40:58

    Seems as though we’re having a difficult time pinning down explicit definitions of what voice is and when it pleases in a book? Maybe the “what” can’t be defined exactly. However, “when does it please a person?” That is a relationship between reader and author, so individual that sometimes the reader doesn’t even know why they enjoy him/her so much. Most people don’t have the background training for cultivating a writing style and voice specifically to entertain. They don’t know the logistics for the whys and wherefors. For every 100 people who say a writer rocks, another 20 may not agree. It is in the “ear” of the beholder, after all.

  42. Jill Myles
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 12:26:31

    I do think certain things can be learned (or unlearned). I tend toward long, compound sentences and multiple adjectives (eek). Oh, and parentheses (in case that was not already blindingly obvious). But these things can be un-taught or you can be trained to write them out. A lot of it is mimicry, IMO. You see what is successful and learn to do it, and see what is not successful and learn to not do it. It’s kind of like monkey-see-monkey-do. That’s why everyone is told to read read read read in their chosen genre. It’s so you can see what other people are doing and mentally pick up cues.

    But I don’t think that’s the same as voice? Or it’s not ALL of voice, I should say. You could put two people who don’t know how to write and have never written before in a series of classes to teach them to write a story. You could give them a very specific prompt (marriage of convenience in 1840!) and specific characters. You could give them a detailed plot outline. You’re still going to get back two different stories that are told in two different ways, because each author thinks differently, has a different background, and brings an entirely different set of experiences/cues/whatever to the table.

    That, to me, is voice. So I think a lot can be taught, but there is also a lot that is instinctive and distinctive because of who we are and what we have experienced, and how our minds work.

  43. sao
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 13:44:24

    Of course voice can be taught or developed. A good critique partner will help you identify weaknesses, and you can learn to avoid them.

    It requires a very close look at what you are writing and what the strengths and flaws are. It’s not a global thing, like teaching a lecture hall full of students.

  44. Courtney Milan
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 13:47:47

    @Moriah Jovan: I never said everyone can be taught to do everything well. Or even, in all ways. Someone who is an awesome blues singer may never sing opera; someone may never be a great singer at all. There are varying levels of natural talent.

    But given someone with a requisite talent, and someone else with the requisite ability to teach, you can get that person farther faster by guiding them then letting them flounder about on their own.

    I have heard so many stories of authors who wrote and wrote and wrote and finally someone looked at their work and said, “You know, you don’t really seem to have a dark thriller voice… have you tried writing humorous contemporary?” And then the person sells.

    That’s a form of teaching.

    And whether or not voice is unique is really not the question. Singing voices are probably unique at the same level that writing voices are. And yet we can train people to use them; identify strengths and weaknesses; and so forth.

    All I am trying to say is that the same is true for writing, and I don’t think voice should be treated like a delicate snowflake that will wash away if examined.

    So I’m mostly in agreement with Isobel Carr/Kalen.

    And I have to say, I think a large part of the disagreement here is about the definition of “teaching.” In my mind, this includes guided, mentored discovery, and is not limited to handing someone a list of rules that they have to follow in knee-jerk, systematized fashion.

  45. SAo
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 13:52:25

    I’ve read Harlequins in 4 different languages. I’d say that the ability of voice to flow through the translation is partially a function of the degree that the languages being translated from and to are different.

    French is closer to English than Russian, so French-English/English-French translations match the voice better than Russian-English/Russian-English.

  46. Gooseberry
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 14:06:22

    @Morgan Karpiel:

    I live in Poland too, and I’m a native speaker of Polish. And oh, how I wish that the only problem of the Polish translations was this issue of the author’s voice vs. the translator’s voice (which I agree might differ, plus there are some things that just can’t be translated properly – I will never read a translated Southern romance or a western if I can read the original – the sad lack of ain’ts bothers me to no end;))

    But there are the stupid mistakes. Sentences that look as if no editor ever bothered to look at them. Books trimmed by cutting sentences or entire scenes (I mean, why waste paper, right?)
    And of course, the publishers and/or translators who take it upon themselves to act as the censors of All That Is Too Hot (supposedly because the love scenes are boring anyway;))

    Fun (or not) fact: the only Lisa Kleypas book published here is Suddenly You. The translated title means Passion, and yet a big chunk of that very passion, which is after all Kleypas’s trademark, seems to have vanished misteriously. The dessert scene, for example, was cut almost in its entirety.

    That’s not to say that there are no good translations or that all romance novels are censored – that’s definitely not true. But there is always a certain level of risk;)

  47. Lynne Connolly
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 14:06:25

    And yet one of the strongest voices ever was little Daisy Ashford. “The Young Visiters” is a marvel, and a delight from start to finish.

  48. Milena
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 14:20:38

    @Gooseberry: I don’t know how the situation is in Poland, but here in Croatia, commercial titles are often translated by underpaid people who may or may not be fully qualified for the job, but who need to produce a certain (hair-raisingly high) number of translated pages per month if they want to live off it.

    This is how it goes with freelancers (which most literary translators are): there’s good, fast, and cheap, but you can only get two of the three. And most publishers go for the last two.

  49. Kate Pearce
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 14:36:02

    This sounds terribly ‘creative’, but I knew when I found my writing voice, I just felt all the right rhythms and sounds and motion click together and resonate. It reminded me of when I finally played something right on my violin.
    I like to read poetry and studied the versions of the Odyssey and Iliad in blank verse and that’s how I see my writing. There’s a cadence to it, a rise and fall that is uniquely my own.

    Not that everyone will like it-and, trust me, they don’t-but it is mine and it is now intrinsically part of everything I write and believe about myself as a writer.
    And I hear it in others writing and I keep buying their books just to hear it again. :)

  50. Moriah Jovan
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 15:17:00

    @Courtney Milan:

    But given someone with a requisite talent, and someone else with the requisite ability to teach, you can get that person farther faster by guiding them then letting them flounder about on their own.

    But you didn’t make that qualifier initially. You said, “If it can be done, it can be taught.”

    I don’t agree with that on its face, but I was taking the next step in the discussion as if I did.

    I don't think voice should be treated like a delicate snowflake that will wash away if examined.

    I thought we were examining it, or at least attempting to define it. Do you mean that the belief that it can’t be taught means that it can’t withstand examination?

  51. Isobel Carr
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 15:33:28

    @Courtney Milan: Yep. I think we’re saying the same thing. A writer can be guided and aided in discovering and developing their voice. And art should NEVER be treated like a snowflake.

  52. Evangeline
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 15:48:53

    I veer on the side of Courtney, though my experience has shown me that no amount of training from writing instructors, or learning through reading can develop “voice” if a writer isn’t ready to trust themselves well enough to explore storytelling from their individual perspective. I’m like a sponge when it comes to “voice”–if I spent a month reading only Judith Ivory and nothing else, I could do a fair initation of her writing style; I could understand what makes her tic, which methods she uses to convey a particular emotion, etc etc. But that isn’t my real voice and chances are my story would fall apart in the middle because more energy was spent imitating another voice/style rather than telling my story my way. This is why I agree that voice can be taught or nurtured, but a writer is only learning the mechanics of voice via the works of other authors, not discovering how to utilize these mechanics through their own unique way of telling a story.

  53. Moriah Jovan
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 16:08:48

    Hmm. I think I may be coming from a different angle. I’m thinking of people who have little or no talent, but keep plugging along.

    I was in a critique group for a long time with someone like this. She would grasp a concept one week (say, POV) and lose it the minute she grasped another concept (say, ritual death), to say nothing of her grammar. She could never pull any of them together at the same time yet she had absolute faith in her work.

    On the other hand, finding and developing voice in someone who has the basics down, who has interesting premises, is a different concept from teaching someone from the ground up.

  54. cead
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 16:12:53

    @Moriah Jovan: Maybe that kind of blindness is kind of analogous to tone-deafness? Or is it more a lack of self-awareness?

  55. Moriah Jovan
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 16:31:54

    @cead: A mixture. There are a lot of things that go with it. Hope. The idea that persistence and stick-to-it-iveness (pride?) is always a virtue.

    That’s backed up by the perennial mantra in writerville: If you (general you, anybody) keep submitting you WILL sell (with no qualifications given). Admitting defeat (essentially saying, “No, I can’t do this thing.”) after pinning all your hopes on it (whatever it is) is never easy.

    I think most reasonable people know when they’re tone deaf or when they shouldn’t try to be something they’re not capable of being. It requires time and effort and will and drive and…money. Possibly lots of it.

    However, we ALL use the language (with varying levels of competency) and have the same access to the physical tools you need to write. Presumably, people who want to write all READ, too. (How many times have you heard an author say s/he got started when: “I read this book and thought, ‘I could do better than that.'” and then…did it?)

    So writing a book seems far more accessible than, say, taking voice lessons or skating lessons. Cheaper too! Pen, paper, a love of reading, and an ability to speak/write the language make it seem like you’re 3/4 of the way there, so how hard can it be, right? Not like you have to be TRAINED.

    That’s my pet theory, anyway.

  56. Courtney Milan
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 17:50:04

    @Moriah Jovan:

    But you didn't make that qualifier initially. You said, “If it can be done, it can be taught.”

    Er. In the sentence right after the one you quoted, I also said: Now, not everyone can actually learn everything that can be taught. Isn’t that precisely the qualifier you say wasn’t present?

    But in any event, I know very, very few people who are actually truly unteachable.
    I know a lot more people who start at a low skill level due to bad luck or missing experience/skills gaps, are told they are unteachable, and then give up.

    (I also know that I would find it immensely frustrating to teach someone the basics of grammar, and so wouldn’t want the job–but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be done.)

    Like I said, this is one of those issues that pushes my buttons, hard–especially because I can think of students I had who did not do well, not because of any natural inclination or lack of smarts, but because of a lack of basic grounding, which, had it been corrected, would have made them a thousand times more productive.

    And so I apologize if anything comes out sounding accusatory–I’m trying to edit out the emotion, although I doubt it’s succeeding. Just want you to know it’s not you I’m reacting to.

  57. Robin
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 18:01:18

    @Courtney Milan: My response to your comments rests on knowing whether you think each person has a unique, individual voice, or whether you think of voice as a tool that anyone can mimic or adopt.

    I believe the first is true, although I think there is an enormous middle register in which voices are not as easily distinguished as, say, the voices of James Joyce and e.e. cummings.

    But still, I do believe that everyone has a unique voice, although I also believe that people can be taught to discover, use, strengthen, focus, disguise, gain range, or otherwise grow and adapt their voice over time. When people say, for example, that their voice changes, I see this more as an adaptation. It’s rare, IMO, for someone with a distinctive voice, to be able to disguise it completely or alter is completely.

    I have been told that I have a very distinctive writing voice. Because of the setting in which I write professionally, I have, on occasion, had people try to mimic that voice for other purposes, and I’ve yet to see anyone pass off an imitation to someone paying attention. Not everyone’s paying attention, of course. ;D

    Some people, I’d also argue, are tone deaf, or are selectively tone deaf, but IMO, like developing one’s voice in writing, one can develop one’s ear in listening, as well.

  58. Moriah Jovan
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 18:11:54

    @Courtney Milan: My apologies. I did miss that line.


    …when my professors told me not to bother trying to teach students because the smart ones would learn anyway, and the stupid ones… well, fuck ’em, because who cares if they learn?

    is not what I’m talking about, however. This is an unwillingness to try based on initial impressions–in a profession that requires the effort–so I understand your hot button and agree with you on that.

    I do believe that there are people who are truly unteachable. I’ve run into a lot of them. And you know what? I got tired of trying. Maybe I wasn’t the right teacher; maybe I’m a bad teacher. If so, it’s best I not try at all. But I’m also not in a profession that requires I make an honest attempt.

  59. Moriah Jovan
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 18:24:23

    Mmm… Another thought after a chat with a friend:

    I think voice is a manifestation of charisma. Think of a cocktail party and who is the life of it and who is not. Can you teach the people who linger on the fringes of the charismatic be taught to be charismatic? Even if that’s something they think they want?

    (Not even Eliza Doolittle becomes charismatic. In fact, at the embassy ball, she barely talks at all. Everyone’s fascination with her depends on her beauty, poise, and enunciation. Her interactions with Henry Higgins are all about their fighting. He teaches her to walk and dress and how to enunciate her words–he doesn’t teach her what to say, how to say it, or how to infuse her personality into a social situation. I doubt a litany of “Move yer bloomin arse!” and “Somebody pinched it, and what I say is, them as pinched it, done her in.” at every gathering would’ve gone over well.)

    So…hmmm. After having written all that out (thinking “out loud,” if you will), I see authorial voice as personality and charisma.

  60. Courtney Milan
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 20:05:20

    @Moriah Jovan:

    Will it shock you that I think charisma can be taught?

    If you’ve ever prepped people for job interviews–which is a grueling, awful, thankless task–about 10% of the time is spent on substance, and 90% of it is spent on things like, “Let’s practice saying that in a confident voice,” and “Make eye contact now–no, not that much!”

    This is triply true for women, who are more likely to get a thumbs-down because they “just don’t have that spark” when all that translates to is the woman speaks in a quieter voice, using a less certain tone, hedging her just-as-intelligent words about with more qualifiers.

  61. Maili
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 21:37:27

    Some of you mentioned that some authors (published or pre-published) may be ‘tone-deaf’. What do you mean by this exactly?

    I’m trying to decide whether some of you were saying that tone-deafness may be due to lack of confidence/training, or that the voice can be well-crafted but will lack no soul nor personality, e.g. no talent.

    Excuse my nosiness. Thank you.

  62. Maili
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 21:39:57

    but will lack no soul nor personality, e.g. no talent.

    Urm sorry, ‘no’ shouldn’t be in between ‘lack’ and ‘soul’.

    Boo. I want the ‘Edit’ option back.

  63. Janine
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 22:18:53

    @Maili: I’m not one of the authors who mentioned tone-deafness, but it’s a phenomenon I’ve encountered. I think what it means is that the author doesn’t have enough self-awareness when it comes to accurately assessing his or her own strengths and weaknesses as a writer. The ability to assess one’s performance at any task is helpful to improving that performance, so if you lack this ability, it will hamper your growth.

  64. Moriah Jovan
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 22:22:03

    @Courtney Milan:

    Will it shock you that I think charisma can be taught?

    LOL No.


    …that the voice can be well-crafted but will lack no soul nor personality, e.g. no talent.

    My take is that it’s possible for the writing itself to be technically fine (perfect even!), but lack soul, yes. I wouldn’t say that’s “no talent,” though. Without examples (or perhaps Michael Crichton is the example), I can only say that it’s probably just a dry read. And my belief is that you cannot teach that.

    tone-deafness may be due to lack of confidence/training

    I believe that’s also true; that a writer isn’t trusting her own personality and/or trusting that it’s appealing. I judged a slew of contest entries this past month and while they were technically adequate, I could tell who was holding back and/or didn’t know how to infuse her personality into the work.

    But the “tone-deaf” I’m referring to is by people who can’t write at all and don’t know it and can’t learn, but they keep on trying.

  65. Sunita
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 22:43:05

    @Courtney Milan:@Moriah Jovan: Wait a minute. Now we’re just throwing out the accepted definitions of widely understood and studied concepts. Charisma, definitionally, can’t be taught. It’s a gift, and you either have it or you don’t. You can discover it, but you can’t invent it, so to speak.

    I place voice in that category. I understand that you can make it better, and that authors can have it without realizing it. But you can’t endow someone with a voice they don’t already have the potential ability to produce, any more than you can turn an alto into a true soprano (to return to Mariah’s excellent analogy).

  66. illukar
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 23:14:35

    I think it’s a little more complicated than any of the definitions you’ve cited, just as I disagree with the whole “there are no new plots” premise.

    It’s certainly unlikely that we will see any/many novels which can’t be boiled down to a well-trodden plot archetype (boy meets girl, boy loses girl, whatever) BUT the execution which likes over that “archeplot” is usually what interests me about a book – the flesh over the bones. And plot progression is as much a part of an author’s voice than any grammatical choices or rhythm.

    I, for instance, aren’t tremendously interested in the tight detail of fighting, and I tend to cut around sex scenes rather than get down into hot and heavy. That tendency, that authorial choice, is as much part of my voice as word placement.

  67. Moriah Jovan
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 23:15:11


    Charisma, definitionally, can't be taught. It's a gift, and you either have it or you don't. You can discover it, but you can't invent it, so to speak.

    Yes, that’s what I believe.

  68. Courtney Milan
    Oct 27, 2010 @ 00:02:27

    @Sunita: If the definition of charisma is “the person who is the life of the party,” as Moriah says, then yes, I think that can be taught.

    If definitionally, charisma means the person who is the life of the party and definitionally charisma is also innate, that rather begs the question. Since the former was the definition actually employed, that’s what I was responding to. (And this isn’t exactly “changing” anything… that’s a valid use of the word. It might not conform to some psychological use, but that wasn’t what we were talking about.)

    I’m not denying that there are innate talents. I’m merely saying that:

    (1) Innate talents are not 0 and 1 affairs; they are sliding scales;
    (2) Innate talents, with training, can be leveraged to greater effect.

    For any area where the leverage you can get exceeds the natural variation in talent, teaching (and learning) will probably be more important than innate talent. That means you can have someone who is a 0.2 on the natural talent scale who can beat out a 0.8.

    It also means that if you may have a 0.01 in some area, you may never meet some threshold level of competence of 0.6.

    It stands to reason that things that generally constitute a lot of work to get basic competence are then things where leveraging is most important. Writing is something that takes a lot of work–and, in fact, developing a “voice” is something that takes a lot of work.

    If it didn’t take work, it would imply that natural talent was more important. Since it does, I think the way you leverage is more important than what you’re born with. You’re not born with it. You build it. And anything you build, you can teach, guide, study, and develop through mentorship.

    I do think that charisma–at least defined as “how people respond to you”–is harder to leverage than voice. In part that’s because your responses get wired at a really young age. But I also think that you can work to identify and overcome the tiny little things that make people dislike you/not trust you/think you’re wishy-washy/suspect you are secret serial killers about to snap.

    And to suggest that someone who sits on the outskirts cannot transition into being the life of the party… that is provably false. I only need one counterexample, after all, and I can think of dozens.

    So far the only proof given for the thesis that “being the life of the party” can’t be taught is an anecdote about a fictional character who was trained in elocution by someone who had zero charisma himself.

    Sorry. Against the great weight of my experience, that has zero value.

  69. Moriah Jovan
    Oct 27, 2010 @ 00:13:18

    @Courtney Milan:

    So far the only proof given for the thesis that “being the life of the party” can't be taught is an anecdote about a fictional character who was trained in elocution by someone who had zero charisma himself.

    Sorry. Against the great weight of my experience, that has zero value.

    I didn’t realize I was required to “prove” what I believe to be true (from my experience) by merely saying, “I can prove it because I’ve seen it.” I guess you’ll have to trust me on that.

  70. Milena
    Oct 27, 2010 @ 05:22:46

    Regarding the “life of the party” thing, and charisma in general: I think it’s very relative, just like liking or disliking an author’s voice is relative. Someone who is the life of one party is going to be considered annoying at another. And if we continue the parallel with the authorial voice, the same is true, since some people will love one author, and others will dislike the same author — often for the same reasons.

    This is why I think that anyone can develop a voice — but not any kind of voice. The people who can’t grasp the craft are a different story; I don’t think they can’t be taught, it just takes longer, or maybe a different method. But everything else is individual. For example, I have often heard Kubrick described as a dry director, while, for me, his films are anything but dry. I also know people who don’t find Pratchett funny at all. I think in both cases, it’s the authorial voice that’s the key; the way an author constructs the story will resonate differently with different people. You can’t teach an alto to sing soprano, true. But some people prefer altos, and can’t stand sopranos. Or Sopranos, for that matter .

  71. cead
    Oct 27, 2010 @ 07:52:26


    You can't teach an alto to sing soprano, true.

    Well, sort of. If someone is a genuine contralto, you can’t turn her into a soprano. But a lot of women who sing alto are actually mezzos or sopranos who just haven’t realised it yet. Also, most trained singers of the same gender have more or less the same range; it’s just that their area of strength is higher or lower depending on voice type. A trained contralto probably has the range to sing a soprano part (maybe not a coloratura aria, but soprano), although she might not be comfortable doing so. I know mezzos who can sing above high C; conversely, my voice is very high, but I can also sing respectably low, though I’d rather not do it much because it gets uncomfortable.

    I completely agree that anyone who tries to write will have an individual voice that is intrinsic to them, and that they’ll produce their strongest writing when they’re doing what comes naturally to them. But our authorial voice can be more versatile than we realise, and this is something that can be taught. When I was preparing my dissertation proposal two years ago, my advisor refused to accept it until I’d changed the prose. My natural academic prose style sounds kind of like a late 19th/early 20th century British philologist’s, but 21st century American generative linguists aren’t supposed to write like that (because we’re supposed to be all scientific or something). It was like pulling teeth, but eventually I figured out that even though it isn’t very natural for me, I can still find my own voice there. I’m not imitating someone else when I write that way; it’s more like singing in a lower register. I’d never have discovered this if my advisor hadn’t insisted.

  72. Jill Sorenson
    Oct 27, 2010 @ 08:17:42

    I’ve been following this discussion with interest and I think I’m going to side with Moriah. Voice is like an author’s personality. Can you teach someone how to have a personality? I don’t think so. You can instruct them to smile at an appropriate moment, but it’s not the same as smiling because you want to. This is like a nature vs. nurture debate…are there some attributes we’re born with, or more inclined towards?

    I do believe that a determined, persistent person can learn just about anything, but they must have the capacity for growth. That’s not the same as “plugging along.” So I understand the tone deaf argument. If you don’t have an ear for music, you can sing for years and never improve.

  73. cead
    Oct 27, 2010 @ 08:46:30

    @Jill Sorenson: If I’m understanding Courtney correctly, though, she’s not saying you can teach someone how to have a personality; she’s saying you can guide people to find their own and help them to bring it out, even when they didn’t realise it was there. That’s very different from creating a voice, or a personality, out of nothing. Lots of people – I was one – think they can’t sing, or are told they can’t sing, but really all they need is someone to help them find their voice, and then they realise that they can.

  74. Shannon Stacey
    Oct 27, 2010 @ 09:36:59

    I'm trying to decide whether some of you were saying that tone-deafness may be due to lack of confidence/training, or that the voice can be well-crafted but will lack soul nor personality, e.g. no talent.

    @Maili: I think confidence plays a part in developing an author’s voice. And I also think a story can be well-crafted, but lack a strong personality (voice).

    For example: Forever Again (2006, 2nd published title) and Exclusively Yours (2010, 11th published title) are both contemporary romances. Both edited by the same editor. Both enjoyed by my readers.

    But if you put Forever Again in with a selection of other short contemporary romances, my family wouldn’t be able to tell you which one I wrote. (Well, the setting might give it away, but ignore that.) If you put Exclusively Yours in a line-up, my family or people who know me well could tell you which one I wrote. Whether it’s a book or my blog or my Facebook statuses, my family says “it’s like I can hear you saying it as I read it”. That’s my voice. Both books are well-crafted, but EY definitely has more of my personality.

    I think that stems from my growth as a writer, which includes confidence. And telling a story rather than worrying about crafting a good book. If you and I were sitting together around a campfire and I told you the story of EY, it would come out very much like it did on the page.

    I think, quite often, it’s not about developing a voice. It’s about unleashing it and letting it run.

  75. Jill Sorenson
    Oct 27, 2010 @ 10:32:40

    @cead: I think Courtney is saying that voice can be taught, not just refined or developed, which to me means it can be built from the ground up. I would agree with that if I thought personality, charisma, voice etc. were skills, rather than traits. I’m not actually convinced either way, because who can know for sure, but my *feeling* is that creating a voice is more complicated than teaching a set of discrete skills, even under ideal circumstances.

  76. Sunita
    Oct 27, 2010 @ 12:23:46

    @Courtney Milan: I think we’re probably talking past each other here. I interpreted Moriah’s comment about the cocktail party as an example in which someone is charismatic, not a definition of charisma.

    I’m not working from some narrow academic discipline-specific definition of charisma, but rather the long-standing definition that is inherent in the etymology of the word. There are scholars and others who think that charisma can be taught, but when I read what they write, they seem to be talking about some of the behavioral manifestations of charisma, not the essential characteristic. Dressing up as Elvis and crooning doesn’t make people fall at your feet the way they did for Elvis, no matter how good a mimic you are; I’d argue that if they do fall at your feet, it’s because you help them access those original feelings, not develop new ones aimed at you.

    I completely agree with your and others’ comments which emphasize the extent to which innate abilities can be developed and enhanced. I just fall on the side of the argument which says that you can develop a given voice or talent, but you can’t create it if the seeds aren’t already present. To use Jill’s language, there are traits and skills, and I see authorial voice as a trait.

  77. Sunita
    Oct 27, 2010 @ 12:37:34

    The comments people have made about developing (or unleashing) their voices ring very true to me. Like Cead said, even academics have authorial voices, and the instinctive or early voice is not always the best available. Here at DA, I comment on posts and write reviews in a different style than I do for my academic reviewing and writing, but I can see the similarities. I’ve found it interesting as well that writing here has given me a fresh perspective on my academic writing, and I think the latter has been improved by it.

  78. nasanta
    Oct 27, 2010 @ 20:28:06

    @dick: Thank you for adding the comment about the draw of the story. I agree. I have become dissatisfied with the voices of several authors I used to love, but can put up with them for the stories that they tell. It’s a somewhat painful process, but with perseverance, it’s doable.

  79. cead
    Oct 28, 2010 @ 06:48:35

    @nasanta: This raises a really interesting point. All of us can think of authors who start phoning it in at some point, and often it’s hard to say exactly what is wrong because the technical aspects of their writing are as good as ever, or even better through experience. Is this an issue of voice? And does the author’s attitude towards her story affect her voice?

    For example, there’s a marked decline in quality in the last four books of L.M. Montgomery’s Anne series, and I’ve read that these books were written at her publisher’s insistence when she herself was sick of Anne and wanted to write something else.

  80. dick
    Oct 28, 2010 @ 18:02:26

    When I wrote that post, I was thinking about all the sagas, romances (think Song of Roland, etc.) which were related almost completely to listeners, most of whom could probably not read. Very little has been preserved that tells us anything about their “voice.” The evidence we have, though, suggests they were listened to with rapt attention. In fairy tales, such as Cinderella, I doubt very much whether voice has any impact at all. It’s the story itself which spellbinds.
    I think the same is true of a great deal of romance fiction. Compare, for example, the widely read and admired Putney stories “Thunder and Roses” and “Shattered Rainbows.” The voice in both is much the same, and yet many readers prefer Thunder and Roses. Because it’s a better story probably, with a better plot and structure. Probably one could point out similar contrasts for a number of romance authors. The voice in their books doesn’t vary much, but readers easily choose amongst them, preferring one over the other. The reason, I think, is the difference in story.
    I think voice–which I prefer to call style–is important too. A bad style more often than not leads to a DNF. But, if the story is good enough, like you, I’ll grit my teeth and struggle on until I become accustomed.

  81. dick
    Oct 28, 2010 @ 18:09:44


    Phoning it in? Nice image. I agree that how much a particular story interests an author affects the telling. But then, I think of such authors as Jackie Braun, who seems able to make any story interesting. Some of it has to do with voice, but perhaps some of it has to do with imaginative insight; she can just make up a good story regardless.
    Sometimes I think story-tellers have a close kinship to gossipers: Both know which items to include and which to omit to hold a reader’s/hearer’s interest.

  82. stasia
    Oct 28, 2010 @ 23:22:36

    I think of literary voice as akin to acting. Strong voice shows that the author is “in character” — is truly taking the journey with the protagonist. It’s the difference between an actor who is entertaining but clearly him/herself on stage or screen and the actor who disappears into the role. For me, the best author dissolves into the characters, description, story.

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