Advice, Characters, Dialogue, Fiction, Narrative, Tips, Voice, Writing

Whose voice is that?

Yesterday, a friend posted a link on Twitter to an article by Kurt Vonnegut (a fellow native of Indianapolis) titled “How to Write With Style” and in it he gave seven tips to improve your writing. The one that stuck out the most to me was #5 Sound like yourself. He says about writing voice:

The one most vehemently recommended by teachers has no doubt been pressed on you, as well: to write like cultivated Englishmen of a century or more ago.

Sometimes that voice creeps into my writing—when I’m trying too hard, when I’m pushing to write this scene right now, no matter what.

Vonnegut says:

I myself find that I trust my own writing most, and others seem to trust it most, too, when I sound most like a person from Indianapolis, which is what I am.

A writer I admire, Frank McCourt, died this past Sunday, and I’ve spent some time this week listening to interviews with him as well as re-reading bits of Angela’s Ashes. He wrote exactly as he spoke. Of course, he wrote memoir, though he was working on a novel, last I heard. I hope it was finished; I’d love to see how he wrote fiction.

To me, it seems easy to write my blog posts in my own voice … though I don’t write it exactly the way I speak. I’m appalled at the grammatical errors I hear come out of my mouth. But I do write the way I think.

[Hmmm … is it normal to speak differently than you think? Tell me you do the same! Please.]

Meryl Streep is one of the actors I admire. She’s praised for her command of the accents she uses for the characters she plays. I have to be a Meryl when I write dialogue. I have to speak for many people, and each has to sound like themselves, but ultimately, it’s my interpretation of their voices. It’s me acting a part.

But it’s my narrative I have to guard. I have to banish that “cultivated Englishman” and let my own “person from Indianapolis” shine through.

How are you doing with voice?

27 thoughts on “Whose voice is that?”

  1. I agree. Blogging is helping me find my voice. In a post, you are just you. Not only is there more room to be yourself, the better posts occur because the self shines through whatever you’re writing about.

    Lauren Roberts, the Editor of Bibliobuffet, wrote, “What makes blogs, in my humble and singular opinion, is the writer’s voice.” I think this is true. This is what I go back to blogs for–the voice that can conjure up the person.


    1. I agree about the voice of blogs … though it gives me pause to think what person you might conjure up from my voice. 🙂 But even though their topics are not much of interest to me, there are a couple blogs I return to just because I love the way the blogger writes. [Disclaimer: I’m not referring to any of my regular readers blogs.]


        1. Yes, that’s what I’m saying. Sometimes it’s the beautiful way they phrase things, the word choices. Sometimes it’s the way they explain something with such concise clarity. Sometimes it’s their humor. Often I stumble upon a site or blog that I know has good information that I need, but the voice of the writer “offends” me in someway and I find it difficult to read on. That’s how we find our favorite writers, I suppose.


  2. My fictional characters sound like they come from ohio. And they can use contractions and leave dangling participles…..but somehow? They just can’t swear worth a dingdang darn. :0)

    I wrote something in 11th grade english that the English teachers each read anonymously to each of their classes. They then asked the class if anyone recognized the “voice” of who wrote it. Someone in each class knew that it was me. Even the people who had only seen one other piece of mine. That was a cool day.

    I really liked this post. It was along the same lines of what I was thinking and writing about today…

    Karen :0)


  3. Oh no! I AM a cultivated Englishman from a century ago. I’ve never attended any classes on how to write but I suspect if I did I would be told to write like Kurt Vonnegut or Anne Tyler. Someone I respected more than I should have told me to write like Ernest Hemingway. Take out all the adjectives. Refer to yourself as Nick. Throw in some Spanish.

    We are all natural mimics. That’s how we learn language. If you read a lot of nineteenth century fiction, you can’t help writing in a heavy, humourless style. Henry James is bad for you. You need a dose of P.G. Wodehouse to flush him out.

    If you read very widely and write a lot every day about different topics then you can’t help developing your own voice; but I think rewriting can hold you back.

    Have you ever had a session on Skype or some other instant messaging system and found yourself trying to rewrite everything? It’s very annoying for the other person. Just spit it out and don’t rewrite it to death.


    1. Joseph, thanks for stopping by. I hope you weren’t dissing Anne Tyler because she’s my favorite writer.

      Yes, we are mimics. If I read too much Southern fiction I start slipping “y’all” into the conversations in my head. Once, after a marathon session of The Wire episodes, I automatically responded to my granddaughter’s observation with “True dat.” And if I watch too much BBC America, well, you get the picture. However, I haven’t been aware of that in my writing. But, of course, now I’ll have to watch for it.

      Since, for me, rewriting is where the magic happens, I’ll assume you’re refer to excessive rewriting. And I’m probably guilty of that at times … at least, I hope it’s only sometimes.


  4. No, I wasn’t dissing Anne Tyler. She is an excellent novelist. In fact I liked the fact that Robert J. Ray used “The Accidental Tourist” as a model in the first edition of “The Weekend Novelist,” which impressed me quite a lot. (He changed the models he used in the latest edition and I can’t remember if he kept Anne Tyler — I don’t think so.) I wasn’t dissing Henry James either. He is one of my favourite novelists. I don’t want to write like him, though. If I tried, I guess my writing wouldn’t be worth a dingdang darn.

    As for rewriting, well maybe I should take another look at this tomorrow.


    1. Ahhh, good, you appreciate Anne’s talent. I won’t challenge you to a duel at dawn, then … which would have been quite a challenge since you live in the old country.*

      *I’m tired of using so many of those stupid yellow smiley faces, so everyone just trust that if you think I might be saying something with a smile … I am!


  5. Also, that’s twice someone used “dingdang darn” here. Is that the new “in” phrase? Should I get out of the house more than once a month? Am I just not reading the right books? What?


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