Keep Your Voice to Yourself

When I was in sixth grade, my English teacher had us read The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. Our homework assignment was to take a chapter from the book and write a new story mimicking Cisneros’ voice and keeping with the themes of the book. Eleven year-old me was so successful that when I stumbled across this assignment in a file of old writing samples (printed on a dot-matrix printer), I had to track down the book to see if I’d truly written it myself or just copied Cisneros for my homework. Not only did I complete the lesson in plagiarism as instructed, I repeated it with other books. I later parroted Hemingway, Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and others just for the hell of it. Just to see if I could write like them.

I could, and well.

So what did I learn from that experiment? I learned a lot about structure and pacing. But most importantly, I learned about voice.

Having a unique voice in your writing is, in my opinion, equally as important as the depth of your characters or having an interesting story to tell. It makes the author memorable and makes their work distinctively their own.

Some of my favorite writers with unique voices:

  • Hemingway- Concise and clear, his writing is language with all the flowery bullshit cut away. It’s a solitary diamond engagement ring, timeless and beautiful without needing a detailed engraved band or little bastard diamonds crowding the spotlight: “He was not in love yet but he realized that he was an attractive quantity to women, and that the fact of a woman caring for him and wanting to live with him was not simply a divine miracle. This changed him so that he was not so pleasant to have around.” (The Sun Also Rises)
  • Tom Robbins- You can’t read a Tom Robbins book without becoming completely engrossed in the world he creates. He compels your attention with all five senses, so you not only read the words, but you feel them, smell them, taste them, even when he’s describing the most mundane objects: “A zipper is where the Industrial Revolution meets the Cobra Cult [sic]. Little alligators of ecstasy, that’s what zippers are.” (Jitterbug Perfume)
  • Beverly Cleary- Her books cross generations of readers because not only does she capture the pivotal moments of childhood with incredible insight, but her voice is so vivid, the words become real, warming the tongue and heart of the reader as they pour from the page: “Ramona did not think she was a pest. No matter what others said, she never thought she was a pest. The people who called her a pest were always bigger and so they could be unfair.” (Ramona The Pest)

Since the experiments of my youth, I’ve made developing my own voice an important part of whatever writing project I’m currently working on. For a long time, I read technical books on voice, scanned multiple Google searches, asked questions of Lit and Writing teachers, only to find that as well-intentioned as these sources were, I didn’t need the help. My literary voice just is.

When I realized that, it was a definite epiphany, complete with golden rays of light and angels singing choruses on high. Hello, me!  My writing was suddenly unburdened. I was free! I used to worry that if I read books by my favorite authors while I was writing that my work would start to sound like theirs. Chapter Three would be J.R. Ward but by Chapter Seven I was Oscar Wilde and Chapter Nine was all David Sedaris (what an odd book that would be). But once I let go and allowed myself to write without focusing on what might happen I realized that my voice couldn’t belong to anyone other than me.

There’s peace in that knowledge, and I’ve come to love my unique voice for what it is. I hope other people will like it, too.



What about you? What authors do you love who have standout voices? Have you come to terms with your own unique writing voice?

To read a blogger with an extremely unique voice of his own, check out Chuck Wendig. He’s descriptive, knowledgeable, vulgar, and downright hilarious.