Voice: Why Publishers Want It

Singers sing. Speakers speak. Actors act. All of them use their voices. But writers write. So why do publishers keep saying they’re looking for fresh voices?

Interesting fact: a voice print, much like a retinal scan, is unique to each person. The tone and timbre of your voice cannot be duplicated by anyone else, not even by a talented mimic. “Voicey” writing means developing an original style.

Below are examples of voice in Young Adult (YA) and Middle Grade (MG) literature. I’ve taken the liberty of rewriting each excerpt in a more generic style that conveys the same basic information but removes the voicey touches. The resultant prose, while competent, would be unlikely to captivate a reader the way the original does.

Original text from Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson (YA): "I can feel the wind fighting to break through our storm windows. I want the snow to bury our house."                                                                    

Generic rewrite: The wind is beating against our storm windows. I hope we get snowed in.

Original text from The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (YA): "We screech off, leaving chaos in the rearview mirror."

Generic rewrite: We leave as fast as we can to get away from the chaos.

Original text from Pax by Sara Pennypacker (MG): "He didn’t want to hear about duty. And he sure didn’t want to hear any more about apples and the trees they were stuck underneath."

Generic rewrite: He was bored with the conversation and wanted it to end.

These are just a few of many examples to be found in YA and MG novels. Each style is unlike the others, because the authors aren’t imitating one another; they’ve found their own voice.

There isn’t a formula for finding your own voice because, by definition, it’s unique to you. But here are a couple things that may help:

Freewriting. Write whatever comes to mind. Use good grammar or bad, be neat or very messy, write in a logical way, or make no sense at all. It’s just you and the page; you’re creating a space for imagination to run free.

Play with different points of view to bypass the critical mind. The critical mind has a place in writing, but not during the generative stage—and sometimes it needs encouragement to bow out for a while so you can get that first draft written. Signs that the critical mind is horning in on your creativity include feeling stuck, hating what you’ve written, and rewriting your beginning over and over. So if you normally write in third person, try switching to first for a little while. If first person is your go-to point of view, make a temporary move to second person in the spirit of play. When you hit a new flow, you’ll know that the critical mind has stopped running the show. Switching viewpoints can be surprisingly effective for unleashing voices that are otherwise inclined to hide.

Do what you can to cultivate the voices that are yours alone. Publishers are actively seeking fresh voices, and by finding yours, your chances of signing a book deal increase.

Victoria Hanley will be teaching our Writing the YA or MG Novel class, starting August 17.