Listen to YOUR Voice

Your voice already exists, right now, every time you sit down to write. It is inescapable—your voice is you. Voices can be obscured, even buried, under avalanches of helpful advice and nudges to be more literary or more commercial or less gritty or less sexual, but it cannot be entirely lost.

I was once hiking with a multi-national group, and one of the guys was an Australian who treasured his American accent imitation. When he finally let us hear it, the two Americans burst out laughing. We didn’t mean to be cruel, but he sounded like Tony Soprano—he’d absorbed his “authentic” accent from Mafia movies. The poor Aussie was crushed.

All too often, this is what happens to the emerging voice of a writer. The perfectly natural, perfectly beautiful accent of an Australian ends up sounding like New Jersey circa 1976.

How does it happen? How do you prevent it and allow your natural voice to emerge?

Of all the craft subjects in writerdom, voice is my favorite. I’ve been teaching it online and in workshops around the world for a long time, and it never, ever gets old. I teach it as a hands-on, down and dirty, gritty and joyful exploration of…YOU. Voice is the sum of all your parts—your passions and interests, the geography that most clearly resonates with you, the cadence of your ancestors and neighbors and your education, and the major events that have shaped your life-view. Your voice already exists, right now.

It becomes thinned and anemic when you listen too much to outside influences. Like critique partners. Editors. Contest judges. Your mother. Not that there is anything wrong with that input. We all need feedback. The trouble comes in getting lost in what everybody else says.

Your voice becomes more fully your own when you listen to your inner guidance, studying yourself as much as you study craft. (Notice I did not say: abandon all studies of craft and other writers and never listen to anybody else ever again. I said, study yourself, too.) The most authentic and beautiful gift each of us has to offer the world is our own peculiar, unique view of the universe.

When you get in line with that, that’s when you start to own what editors and agents call “a strong voice.” When you develop that particularity within your work, that’s when you don’t have to be afraid of going down the wrong track with your work—because you’re listening within as well as without. Listening to your voice will tell you what genre is right for you, what settings, what kinds of characters you should be writing.

For example, I’ll use a man who isn’t a writer, but could be—my father. He was a cop and then an insurance salesman. As a very young lad, he knew a lot of death and loss. He grew up entirely in Colorado Springs, the youngest of the family because the younger brother died. He has a dark view of the world, and a practical one. He knows terrible things happen and he does his best to protect himself and his loved ones from destruction. He’s a no-nonsense kind of guy.

I’m sure you are shocked to learn he only reads mystery novels, and nothing flowery about them, either. If he were a writer, that’s what he would write.

You are as clearly defined as my father, as any writer out there who has tapped into his own voice by accident or intent. Most often, those writers who have tapped in powerfully, enough to start bidding wars and land gigantic advances, have done it because they are passionate about what they’re writing. Look at the writers you’d like to emulate and see if that isn’t true.

So how do you find your own authentic voice? It’s a big subject, but here are a few exercises to help:

1. Pay attention to the geography of your life. This is the single most formative element of your voice. Were you raised in a single place? Did you travel with the military?

What were the influential accents in those places? Write about the place(s) in timed writings (see below) and see what comes up. How might your work be better if you connect to those powerful spots?

2. What is the “music” of the voice in your head? You can find out what your natural rhythm is by using timed writings, which are 5-20 minute periods of writing as fast as you can on a given subject. It’s best done by hand, but I realize a lot of writers don’t like that. Don’t correct. Don’t stop. Just keep writing. Don’t think too much! (For a lot of great prompts, check out Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones.)

Do a number of them, say 20 or more, then take a look at the results. Do you naturally write short sentences? Long? Do you like formal language or more colloquial? Do you swear? How about the sound of the words—soft consonants, sliding like water over stones, or clattery consonants banging around? Read the pieces aloud. What do you notice?

3. The seven-year-old writer self is very authentic. Spend a 20 minute period writing as fast as you can on the prompt: “I am seven years old….” See what that seven-year-old has to say. At seven, we’ve not yet lost ourselves to what the world thinks we should be. We’re often still mighty. A healthy seven-year-old often wants to save the world. A broken or lost seven-year-old has a lot to say, too, that can help you.

4. My favorite exercise of all time: write a list of 25 things you love. Not “I love my husband and my children and my dog,” but “I love my dog’s big fuzzy black and red nose, which is as soft as velvet” and “I love my son’s extreme vanity over his abs and how much he loves being himself” and “I love dipping fresh Italian bread into roasted garlic soaked in pools of olive oil.”

On this one, go for it. Then take a look later and see if you can see any themes. What are your primary senses? What are your primary focuses?

Finally, the last thing to remember is that the more you play with your writing, the stronger your voice will become. It doesn’t show up when you’re being serious and trying to please The World. It shows up when you are being yourself, in a safe world you have created to protect your work.

I have created a voice worksheet for my workshops and you can download it at A Writer Afoot. Check it out. Maybe it will spark some illuminations for you.



About Barbara O'Neal

Barbara O'Neal has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life, which landed her in the Hall of Fame. Her latest novel, The All You Can Dream Buffet has just been released by Bantam Books in March. A complete backlist is available here.


  1. Paula R. says

    Good morning everyone. Barbara, thank you very much for this blog topic today. I think that my biggest struggle is with voice. As a newbie writer, I am still trying to figure out what my voice is, but this blog let me know…LOL! I worry so much about meeting the expectations of possible readers,family and friends, that my voice seems to just ricochet off walls of doubt. In my head, I hear it loud and clear, but when I set words to print, I just start stressing over saying things the “right” way, and writing in a certain way. The only time I feel my voice is authentic enough, is when I write poetry. I firmly believe poems are a reflection of who you are as a person and where you are in life, and I refuse to let people change that. I need to develop that sort of mentality when writing a novel. I love the idea of the seven-year old writer. These exercises are great. This blog topic is apropos for me, especially since I have several WIPs to work on, but the struggle with my voice inhibits me. I will try to remember your advice. Today’s topic is definitely one that I will print out and save with my writing files. Thank you very much.

    Peace and love,
    Paula R.

  2. Natalie Arloa says

    Unpublished writer here — just last week I realized that my 2nd ms. is not written in my authentic voice. I was trying to “do something” and it came out … not horrible, but not me. This month of posts on voice, and this one in particular, have been/will be very helpful to me.

    In other news, I finished The Secret of Everything last night and I loved it. Also, it made me need to visit New Mexico, just for the smells and the light. Thank you for writing such a wonderful world!

  3. says

    Wow. What a fabulous post. And my fave line:

    “Notice I did not say: abandon all studies of craft and other writers and never listen to anybody else ever again. I said, study yourself, too.”

    Thanks, Barbara! Sheer brilliance!
    .-= Kristan´s last blog ..All part of the process =-.

  4. says

    So far everyone else has already said it, and probably better than me, but this was very helpful. I will definitely be trying my hand at, if not all, several of these exercises.

    The last couple of weeks discussions on voice have been great. As a writer who’s, well, still learning to write, it has been so helpful. Thank you so much!
    .-= Jennifer Bailey´s last blog ..Beta Reading a Manuscript =-.

  5. says

    When you develop that particularity within your work, that’s when you don’t have to be afraid of going down the wrong track with your work—because you’re listening within as well as without.

    Very wise words, Barbara, and a gorgeous post. Thank you!

  6. says

    Thanks for this post. I enjoy reading about “voice” because of all the things we have to learn as writers, this is perhaps the most elusive. Sometimes, I can see my voice in my writing but sometimes I can’t.

    Thank you also for the worksheet, and I am off to checkout the voice workshops.
    .-= Dolly´s last blog ..Growing with Experience =-.

  7. says

    Writers, especially neophytes (that would be me), have those moments of panic where they think they’re ‘doing it wrong’. Learning to trust your voice is so difficult, especially considering the mountains of advice you mention.

    “Your voice becomes more fully your own when you listen to your inner guidance, studying yourself as much as you study craft.”

    It’s a journey of both process and self-discovery. How many other professions can offer that?

    Thanks for the post!
    .-= Jonathan´s last blog ..Writing Crossroads =-.

  8. says

    As a newbie writer who was told by someone yesterday that her voice was not Diablo Cody-esque enough, this is exactly what I needed today. I am trying to be confident about my writing and my own unique voice but it can be hard when outside voices have unhelpful things to say about it! This is a good reminder that I know what my true voice is – I may just need to reconnect with it or unearth it a bit more.

    Thanks the tips and the exercises.
    .-= Rebecca´s last blog ..Finding Your Passion or Am I Even On The Right Track? =-.

  9. says

    So glad you’re finding some encouragement in this post!

    It really is hard to keep focusing back on the work you want to do, to give your voice a chance to flower, to be patient with the process. And there are a LOT of people who are going to tell you how wrong you are, no matter how brilliant you actually are.

    Find one or two people you really trust, and let them help you find your way.
    .-= Barbara Samuel O’Neal´s last blog ..Soup to warm your cold, cold bones =-.

  10. says

    This is a wonderful article. Loving this series. I’m always afraid of editing out my voice, because I haven’t learned to identify it. I am going to try these exercises and check out that worksheet. Thank you for the great info!
    .-= Feywriter´s last blog ..Tuesday Tally and the sick saga =-.

  11. says

    Ditto to the ideas “voiced” thus far: Wonderful article, so true, I needed to hear that. :) I’ve had well-meaning critique people try to re-write my work in the way that THEY would write it. I consider their suggestions, see if their advice is sound, and do what my gut tells me to do.
    .-= Laura Droege´s last blog ..I’m Ms. Potato Head today =-.

  12. says

    This was a wonderful article. I recognize my voice in my writing–I think I know what works and what doesn’t and who I couldn’t be (i.e. a big city girl, a la NYC or anything)–but it’s always nice to have a refresher course to really define who I am so I can explain it to other people. *LOL*

    Very, very good. Thank you, Barbara!

  13. says

    Amazing article and always super helpful when there are suggested tasks – sounds fun in the least! The development of ‘voice’ appears to be the integral part of the writer ( I was just reading about it in another book); rather assuring to know that it’s essentially all about one’s self.

    Personally, having tried some ‘free-writing’ where you just write what pops into your head, it looks like I tend to lean to the formal side of language.
    .-= Komal ´s last blog ..Reading ‘Brideshead Revisited’ =-.

  14. says

    I just happened to mention something about the voice class I took with you a few years ago on our blog today, so had to go back and link to this! Nice “coincidance.” :)

    Always love it when you talk about voice, Barbara!
    .-= Julie Kibler´s last blog ..Setting as Character =-.

  15. Gina Black says

    Of all the books and all the writing classes and all the advice I’ve received in the last fifteen years, your voice workshops were the most valuable of all. Most needed too, especially after all that other advice!

    Thank you, Barbara. :)

  16. Kaye Lynne Booth says

    This is all good advice which I can relate to. And you’re right. When I’m writing an article in which I’m required to match subject to title and follow a given format, my writing comes out sounding like a technical manual, but when I write an article that I have chosen the topic for, my own voice flows more freely, and even more so with fiction.
    I have a question though. What do you do when you have a character from a background that is not in your experiences? I’m afraid that I will come out sounding like your Aussie, if I try to write the accent and other nuances in, but I really want the voice to sound authentic and tell readers something about the character? What would you suggest, Barb?

  17. says

    Natalie, I didn’t say thanks for the comments on SECRET! Thanks! (Do go visit. NM is unlike anywhere else.)

    Kaye, in that case, I’d just do my best to get the spirit of the dialogue and history right, and not get too much into the LETTER of it. If you’re worried about an accent, watch a lot of movies with it, and pick out a few spare ways to convey that on the page. That’s what I’d try, anyway.
    .-= Barbara Samuel O’Neal´s last blog ..A shy bow from her sweet petals =-.