RWA National: Finding Your Voice and Making It Yours

Friends and critique partners Jeannie Lin and Bria Quinlan led this session on identifying the elements of your writer voice and how to develop it. True voice is unique to each writer; you know you’ve found your distinctive voice when people either love it or hate it. Consider the following non-romance authors John Grisham, Jon Krakauer, and Stephen King—there’s no way you would mistake a book by one of them for anyone else. That’s what to aim for.

Your voice can be your best friend and your worst enemy. A strong voice will somethimes interfere with whether you sell, at least until the market understands it.


  • Descriptors alone don’t constitute voice.
  • Voice doesn’t just make you sound unique—it contribues to the story and gives layers to the characters, plot, etc. that would not exist without it.
  • Bria likened finding your voice to taking a jacket off you’ve been trying to wear all summer; everything becomes more natural.
  • Cherry Adair: Fear of Failure and Fear of Success –>you get so attached to something you don’t need to be writing that you block yourself.
  • Jeannie cautioned against listening to too many voices. She claims she “polished her ms to death” trying to incorporate feedback from all the contests she entered. She read all the Best First Book nominees for the RITA that year and found Joanna Bourne’s The Spymaster’s Lady and realized that even though it wasn’t perfect, she sounded right; an imperfect/flawed voice was okay. Jeannie edited her voice back in and broke up the polish she’d been doing so assiduously. Once she changed, she started placing in every contest she entered, incuding the GH, which she won.
  • It’s easier to find the stories that match your voice after you’ve identified your voice, but not the other way around.
  • Your core voice remains even though stories change.


1. Write. You have to let go and just write. Barbara Samuel has a One Minute Exercise that helps with this. For one minute, write down every single detail you experience during that moment. By doing so, you become a collector of details. Keep a series of those and you can help find your voice.

2. When writing, work with amplification. Once you find the threads of your voice, make it staand out without sticking out. Make the voice a tool rather than a crutch. Jeannie has very lyrical language but has a tendency to go too purple, which Bria helps her catch. By keeping her writing more spare in dialogue, etc. her more lyrical descriptive passages stand out and work with her.

3. Word choice. Average voice includes words anyone would choose. Words that are specific and have a lot of impact are companents of your voice. (Read Tessa Dare for great examples of precise word choice.)


  • List of onomotopoeic voice and literary devices.  Use words that are suggestive of sounds. The word has more inherent meaning, so there’s a more visceral response.
  • Color chart. Again, better descriptors are more unexpected and have more texture.
  • Poetry. Read it to collect phrasing and word use. Jeannie reads tranlations of Tung Dynasty poetry to recreate that feeling of China within the descrptions of her book. Helps build vocabulary.
  • Read other people’s work out loud. Think about why it works, what stops you, etc, for good or bad.
  • Read outside your genre. See what works for other writers. Steal until you find what works for you.
  • Does the tone have the same note? Vary rhythm and cademnce of the sentences. Vary lengths and punctuate in unusual ways. Finding your own rhythm is another way of confirming that you’ve found your voice. When you see things that pop up too often, cut it out. Repetition, echo, etc.
  • If you break a rule, break it on purpose with purpose.
  • Anchor words –  Margie Lawson’s “power words” – How can you rearrange sentences/paragraphs so that it ends on a power word?


  • Bria writes ridiculous things in the first draft. Know where too far is for you. If you’re afraid to go where you went, you haven’t gone far enough.  When you reread, if you see something that’s lazy, do better.
  • Jennifer Crusie’s Bet Me has a scene with multiple characters and very few identifiers, but you always know who’s speaking. Make sure each character has key words/phrases that are unique. Secondary characters need to be more pure essence of something, conveying an attitude. Speech cadence for each of them is important as well.
  • Don’t confuse your voice with your characters’ voices.
  • The first three pages need to be personality backstory—ease your characters into who they are (especially when a character is sarcastic, as Bria found out) because otherwise they come off wrong/mean.
  • Stephen King’s On Writing. Get the audio book, because hearing him read it is a treat in itself.
  • Margie Lawson’s Deep Editing workshop – lit services and examples to bring out voice
  • Bria and Jeannie publishing an ebook version of this workshop: Finding Your Voice coming soon!

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