Voice has always struck me as one of the most challenging writing topics to talk about. In comparison to areas like character development, plot, and pacing, what makes a strong voice can be harder to pinpoint and even more subjective. Instead, a strong voice is often described as “I know it when I see it” or “The writing just grabbed me.” This can make it seem as if a strong voice is something a story automatically either has or doesn’t have, rather than an area of craft like any other: one that writers can identify, develop, and strengthen.
First, let’s define what authors, agents, and editors typically mean when talking about voice in children’s and young adult fiction. Voice can refer to the voice of an individual character, such as their dialogue, internal thoughts, or first person narration. However, it’s often used more generally to refer to the overall narration of a story, encompassing a wide variety of narrative styles, perspectives, tenses, and structures.
One way to think of voice is in musical terms. Just as each musician has a unique quality to their voice or performance style, so too does each writer. In this sense, honing your voice is similar to ensuring your instrument is in tune. When an instrument is off key, the dissonant notes distract from the music and draw attention to the effort of performing. In contrast, a well-tuned instrument allows listeners to feel immersed in the music; the effort of performing fades into the background. Similarly, a strong voice can transport readers and immerse them in a story, rendering the author’s efforts nearly invisible, while a weak voice can distract readers and pull them out of a story.
As with other aspects of writing, what makes a voice stand out is often its clarity, consistency, and specificity—in language, phrasing, point of view, theme, and more. Strong voices can make two stories with a number of other similarities read completely distinctively from one another. A story’s voice can also offer an implicit promise to readers about what to expect from the reading experience. It might signal that the story will make readers feel safe and comforted; uncertain and afraid; surprised and delighted; or any other number of emotions.
As such, if you are looking to strengthen your story’s voice, consider first identifying its core theme and the primary emotions you want to incite in readers. Keep in mind that the answer to these questions may change as you write and revise. One of the authors I work with recently mentioned a quote from Katherine Paterson about writing Bridge to Terabithia that offers a great example of this evolution: “[My editor] said, ‘Is this a book about death or a book about friendship?’ Until that moment I thought it was a book about death, but as soon as she asked the question, I realized it was a book about friendship. She said, ‘That’s what I thought. Now you’ve got to go back and write it that way.’”
Reading a number of different voices and experimenting with a range of voices yourself can also help you to identify and hone your story’s voice. For instance, try reading the first page of ten books that target a similar readership. As a start, here are distinctive first lines from three picture books, three middle grade novels, and three young adult novels.
“Betty Bunny was a handful.” Betty Bunny Loves Chocolate Cake written by Michael Kaplan
“There will be times when you walk into a room and no one there is quite like you.” The Day You Begin written by Jacqueline Woodson
“That summer, they dug up the big field, and poured the foundation, and set brick on top of brick until they’d built a school.” School’s First Day of School written by Adam Rex
“They say I was born with a caul, a skin netting covering my face like a glove.” Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes
“If, standing alone on the back doorstep, Tom allowed himself to weep tears, they were tears of anger.” Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce
“Of all the kids in the seventh grade at Camillo Junior High, there was one kid that Mrs. Baker hated with heat whiter than the sun.” The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt
“Welcome to the beautiful Sinclair family.” We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
“Chloe Green is going to put her fist through a window.” I Kissed Shara Wheeler by Casey McQuiston
“From where he’s standing across the street, Justyce can see her: Melo Taylor, ex-girlfriend, slumped over beside her Benz on the damp concrete of the FarmFresh parking lot.” Dear Martin by Nic Stone
As you review these and other books in your chosen category, consider the following questions: How would you describe the voice? How does it meet or differ from your expectations? What does the opening tell you about the characters, world, or story? How does the author convey these details (word choice, sentence length, phrasing, etc.)? What is most distinctive about the voice? Are there unifying elements specific to this category, genre, or readership?
You can also complete this exercise by examining the works of an author who writes across genres and categories. How does the author’s voice differ from book to book? How does it remain the same?
Another exercise to try is writing a familiar scene (e.g. the first day of school) in a number of different voices. You might explore various perspectives (first person, third person omniscient, third person limited, etc.); tenses (past, present); or formats (journal entries, alternating perspectives, etc.). Note which versions feel the most natural to write and which versions are more challenging. When you’re done, try putting the scenes aside for a week or more and then reading them again; which voices feel the most compelling and effortless? Does this align with how you felt as you were writing?
Lastly, if you are writing in first person or working on developing an individual character’s voice, try writing down everything you know about your character that might impact how they talk. Are they uptight and formal, or more relaxed and open? How does their sense of humor come across in the way they speak? How does their dialogue differ depending on who they are with? What type of environment do they spend the most time in, and how might this impact the way they view their world? Are they reluctant to talk, or do they find it hard to stop talking? Ultimately, the more you know about your characters, their world, and the story you want to tell, the clearer your story’s voice will become.
Your Editor Friend,
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