What Is the Writer’s Voice? How to Find Your Writing Voice

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Sep 27, 2019 • 6 min read

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Certain authors’ voices can be recognized in a single sentence. Novelists like Ernest Hemingway, Toni Morrison, and Joseph Conrad each have a defined narrative voice that leaps off the page—an experienced reader wouldn’t confuse Morrison for Hemingway, or any other famous author for that matter. Many poets also have clearly pronounced literary voices—from Ezra Pound to Billy Collins to even the Bard himself, William Shakespeare. Part of the timeless appeal of many famous novelists is their clearly defined literary voice.



Dan Brown Teaches Writing ThrillersDan Brown Teaches Writing Thrillers

In his first-ever online class, best-selling author Dan Brown teaches you his step-by-step process for turning ideas into page-turning novels.

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What Is the Definition of Voice in Writing?

In literature, “voice” refers to the rhetorical mixture of vocabulary, tone, point of view, and syntax that makes phrases, sentences, and paragraphs flow in a particular manner. Novels can represent multiple voices: that of the narrator and those of individual characters.

What Is the Difference Between the Author’s Voice and Character’s Voice?

A character’s voice is the unique tone a skilled author imbues upon different characters. For example, a novel’s main character might be affable and loquacious so much so that words spill from their mouth seemingly without end, perhaps to the annoyance of the other characters. This doesn’t mean that every character in the book need be equally verbose, however. In the hands of an experienced author, each character has a unique combination of personality and vocal syntax via their written dialogue, so that no two characters read alike.

An author’s voice comes through to the reader in two main ways: either through third person narration or through the point of view expressed in the novel.

  • Writers like Tony Morrison and Nathaniel Hawthorne tell their stories through an omniscient third person narration. However, both of these authors have a unique voice, set by the tone, word choice, structure of paragraphs and chapters, and pacing of their stories that sets each novelist apart.
  • An author’s voice may also refer to the overall point of view conveyed within the pages of a novel. This point of view is based less upon specific descriptions or dialogue and more about the book’s mood and worldview. For example, when considering the books of Joyce Carol Oates and those written by Margaret Atwood, a reader might note themes, character types, and writing styles that demonstrate each writer has a distinctive voice that transcends individual works.
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6 Examples of Author’s Voice From Famous Novelists

An author’s voice manifests in different ways, depending on the nature of a given novel. Here are some notable examples of voice:

  1. Mark Twain’s dry tongue-in-cheek sarcasm pervades in stories like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court despite the notable differences in those novels’ stories.
  2. Toni Morrison’s florid, almost trance-like narration cuts across individual books, including Beloved, Jazz, and The Bluest Eye.
  3. Ernest Hemingway’s terse, economical prose is instantly recognizable throughout his fiction. While some authors, like Herman Melville or a Joseph Conrad, might spend several pages describing a single boxing match, Hemingway opens Chapter IX of The Sun Also Rises with “The Lexoux-Kid Francis fight was the night of the 20th of June. It was a good fight.” From there, the narrator is on to the next topic.
  4. Joyce Carol Oates’s literary voice brilliantly incorporates those of her influences and amalgamates them into a voice that is uniquely her own. She pays homage to the American gothic storytelling of Sylvia Plath, the picayune detail of James Joyce, and the meditative narration of William Faulkner, and yet any piece of writing from Oates goes far beyond an imitation of any of those giants. Learn the principles of writing short fiction in Joyce Carol Oates’s MasterClass.
  5. Leo Tolstoy’s pet themes (distrust of anyone seeking to change the world, constant acknowledgment of life’s myriad complications) and his well-established skepticism toward academic and religious hierarchy combined to create a personal voice. He then juxtaposed this with character voices that were vastly different from his own personality.
  6. Dan Brown’s accessible language and pulpy plot twists reward his loyal readers who come for a signature style and always receive it. His bestselling novel Angels & Demons kicks off with this sentence: “Physicist Leonardo Vetra smelled burning flesh, and he knew it was his own.” This instantly communicates the kind of narrative that Brown will be sharing with his readers, along with his specific writer’s voice. Learn more about how Brown crafts compelling fiction in his MasterClass on the art of the thriller.


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What Is the Significance of Voice in Building a Character?

Because novels are simply words on a page (with the notable exception of graphic novels, which are driven by illustrations), those words must do the heavy lifting to convey characterization to readers. When a character speaks, they provide information about themselves that goes beyond the business they’re addressing in a line of dialogue, like:

  • The breadth of the character’s personal lexicon. In other words, do they have an expansive vocabulary, an average one, or a limited one? (A character’s lexicon can indicate things like their education, their worldview, or their opinions on interpersonal communication.)
  • Their regional accent and/or colloquialisms, indicating the character’s geographic origin.
  • Their way of responding to conflict. Do they take charge? Cower? Panic? Blame others?
  • Their willingness to speak openly. Are they talkative, terse, or somewhere in between?

3 Ways to Develop a Strong and Unique Voice as an Author

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In his first-ever online class, best-selling author Dan Brown teaches you his step-by-step process for turning ideas into page-turning novels.

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As a novelist becomes more practiced in their work, their voice will likely develop to the point that it is rapidly recognizable to readers. While there is no foolproof way to establish one’s authorial voice, here are three ways to jumpstart the process.

  1. Pick a consistent voice for your narrators. Some authors are famous for first person narration, while others narrate exclusively in the third person. (Consistent second person narration—which is narration that describes “you”—is highly difficult to sustain throughout an entire novel and is rarely ever used.) While plenty of famous authors toggle between first person and third person narration, you can help establish your authorial voice by picking one style and sticking to it.
  2. Decide whether you’ll write formally or colloquially. When narrating a novel, will you use grammatically perfect English? Or will you use regional phrases and colloquialisms? Will you curse? Will you drift in and out of your characters’ inner monologues? Adopting policies about word choice will further establish your distinctive voice as an author.
  3. Will your novels be driven by description or by dialogue? Some authors layer their novels with long passages of description. Actions and emotional responses are brought to life via narration, and dialogue mainly exists to reinforce a point. By contrast, other authors let dialogue drive their narrative and only interject narration when dialogue simply will not suffice. Picking one of these styles and committing to it is yet another way to establish a specific authorial voice.

Want to Become a Better Writer?

Whether you’re writing as an artistic exercise or trying to get the attention of publishing houses, learning how to craft a good mystery takes time and patience. Master of suspense and bestselling author of The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown has spent decades honing his craft. In Dan Brown’s MasterClass on the art of the thriller, he unveils his step-by-step process for turning ideas into gripping narratives and reveals his methods for researching like a pro, crafting characters, and sustaining suspense all the way to a dramatic surprise ending.

Want to become a better writer? The MasterClass All-Access Pass provides exclusive video lessons on plot, character development, creating suspense, and more, all taught by literary masters, including Dan Brown, Joyce Carol Oates, R.L. Stine, Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood, and more.