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Feb 18, 2021

You’ll Know It When You See It, and Other Confusing Advice about Finding a Writer’s Voice

By Mary Keever

As a lifelong avid reader and a prolific writer of letters and tolerable business prose, I thought I might’ve had some grasp of what makes a written story engaging to readers. Nope. When I launched into what was to be my debut masterpiece, I understood nothing about the mechanics of writing a good book.
        I floundered along, learning most things the hard way, including the expectation that writing must have its own voice. Its own what, now? I had no idea what that might mean. And yet, it turns out my early work had a voice. A strong, clear, haughty voice sure to turn readers off at hello. Wanting my linguistic mastery to shine, I spelled out facts, writing to an imaginary panel of scholars ready to pass judgment on my slightest grammatical misstep. I used no contractions for this cadre of sophisticates, no shortcuts, no small words where a perfectly good multi-syllable alternative would do. Everything properly spelled out, clearly defined, hammered home. 
        The result? My novel fell flat with the friends and relatives I cajoled into reading for me. Suggestions were kind but firm: I needed to learn more about the craft before I’d find any possibility of success. So I read and listened and Googled and researched. And stumbled upon the concept of voice. says, “the author's voice refers to a writer's style, the quality that makes their writing unique.” Jane Friedman, a recognized leader in writing craft and generous poster of advice for wannabe authors, says voice shows this is who I am and this is what I care most about, and is your singular way of noticing your world. All of which seems like clear and actionable advice. Except for those of us who have trouble wrapping our minds around concepts that don’t specifically address our work. 
        I hesitated to pay for help without any certainty of a return on my investment. But I needed more personal advice, so I bit the bullet and signed up for an online class. And was disappointed to learn that instead of having a precise, measurable definition, voice is something “you’ll know when you see it.” “Keep writing,” the instructor advised. “Eventually your voice will emerge.” Good counsel, sure, but it didn’t make waiting for the magic moment any easier. 
        And then, with one comment, a kindly reader opened my eyes. Hesitantly trying to define what was wrong with my manuscript, she danced around words like “stilted,” “stuffy,” and “stiff.” Finally, she blurted out, “the voice in your emails is warm and light and funny. The writing in your book is… not.” 
        Her words stopped my brain in its tracks. My emails have a voice? Choosing words and combining them in a way that’ll amuse friends is what’s meant by voice?
        And a lightbulb went off. A grammatically perfect story told by a dispassionate observer will be nothing short of dry and boring every time. In contrast, an engaging story will include utterances, imaginings, perceptions, and reactions that immerse readers in what the writer feels. Voice isn’t something you know when you see it; it’s something you know when you feel it. Sheesh, why didn’t someone just say so?
        Now I’m off to apply this newfound inspiration as I plow forward in the quest to find a reading audience.

Author Bio:
Keever is married and has three adult children. After a lovely childhood on Long Island, she spent three years at UC Santa Barbara, then received a business degree from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro and an MBA from Wake Forest University. A competitive gymnast in high school and college, she held school records at both institutions. She also earned a black belt in Tae Kwon Do and reluctantly finished a marathon. For sixteen years after having kids, she worked as a homemaker and active volunteer at local schools and non-profits. Transitioning back into the paid workforce, she served as a financial analyst in the banking industry for thirteen years. Now retired in sunny Florida, she’s turned her energy to reading and writing. She loves pets and is currently managed by a cat and two dogs. 
Keever can be reached on Twitter: @marylizkeever