I know a thing or two about writing in multiple voices.

My day job as a feature writer and editor requires me to write in a standard journalistic voice.   Before I was hired by Working Partners to write YA novels, I wrote historicals.  The First Daughter series is heavy on contemporary teenage lingo, like, OMG yannow?.  And now I’ve been asked to provide a sample for a horror novel in a traditional voice.  Then there is the voice I use for Writer Unboxed posts.  Sometimes I feel like Sybil accessing the different voices in my head.

I don’t think I’m unique in my ability to write to fit whatever genre I’m working in.  I’m of the school you can train yourself to write in a specific voice.  Sure, it’s easier if your natural writing voice fits the genre you target, but writing is both a trainable skill and an art.  Voice is where the two meet.

How do I do it?  It doesn’t happen just like that.  It takes a little preparation.

1.  If you’re switching from say contemporary suspense to a historical, read up on the genre to get a feel for the voice. Please note that I’m not saying to imitate the voice of an author; it’s better if you read two or three books anyway.  I’m of the belief we all have our own writerly voices which end up shining through during the drafting process, so don’t worry about unconsciously being imitative at first.  Using a slick modern voice riddled with street slang is not going to work for a historical anymore than dropping more traditional words in a thriller will work when you’re going for a gritty feel.  You’ll need your brain to dial into the new voice. 

2.  Swapping voices doesn’t happen right away, at least it doesn’t for me.  Give yourself time to faff around with the new voice for at least a chapter or two.  Feeling your way through the new voice is normal, and backsliding to the old voice crops up occasionally.  Try not to get frustrated with yourself at this point.  Your new voice will eventually click in.  Promise.

3.  Have someone  who you trust read your stuff.  Many times I find an anachronism creeping into a historical, and lots of times my critique parter (oh hai, Therese!) finds stilted language in my contemporaries.

4.  I’m not gonna lie, switching voices takes time and practice.  With my feature story work, I’ve been doing it so long I can access that part of my brain instantly.  When I’d been asked to provide a sample for the First Daughter series, I read a few books to get an idea of pacing, how far the slang should go, how “chirpy” the dialogue.  Luckily that voice matches my own speaking voice pretty closely (what can I say, LOL !OMG!).  For the horror novel, I took a step back from the slang and deliberately stripped the voice to be spare with emphasis on exposition rather than dialogue, since the book is psychological.  For my historicals, I go for lushness. Keeping each voice distinct helps when you need to switch between them.

There you have it: my tips for switching voices. Do you need to write in a few different voices?  How do you make the switch?  Or are you a one-voice type of writer? Let us know in the comment section how you do (or don’t) do it.


About Kathleen Bolton

Kathleen Bolton is co-founder of Writer Unboxed. She writes under a variety of pseudonyms, including Ani Bolton. She has written two novels as Cassidy Calloway: Confessions of a First Daughter, and Secrets of a First Daughter--both books in a YA series about the misadventures of the U.S. President's teen-aged daughter, published by HarperCollins, and Tamara Blake, for the novel Slumber.