The Silver Lining | Revising Voice
I’ve heard countless times in the writing industry that “voice cannot be taught.” Sure, it may be difficult to teach someone how to recognize voice, but I personally think you can teach someone how to improve their writing voice.

My first drafts look nothing like my final drafts, as they should. When I first draft, I’m more concerned with getting the story down. Part of this is because I LOVE to revise and so I speed through the first draft just to get to that stage. Part of this is because I embrace Anne Lamott’s “shitty first draft” mantra. But mostly it’s because you can’t edit a blank page. Once I have the words down on the page, it’s easier for me to see what’s wrong with them and how to fix them. When writing the first draft, I don’t worry about word choice. All my sentences are boring, and my actions are stock and cliche. My descriptions lack that spark that makes them come alive. Most importantly, my first draft is dry and lacks humor, and if you’ve read my writing, you know it’s filled with humor. Those jokes come in revisions. All the good stuff comes in revisions. What’s on the page is the story but now it’s my job to add in the voice.

Not everyone works this way, I’m sure. I wrote my latest first draft on my bus commute into work without any caffeine in my system. At the time, I was working 12 hour days. This was the only way to remain productive. But it didn’t exactly lead to brilliant writing. The story itself is still awesome (I HOPE!!!) but the voice needs work. So this is my method for doing a voice pass. It may not work for everyone but it works for me. I generally do a plot revision before the voice pass, then I send to critique partners and get feedback, do another plot revision, and ANOTHER voice pass. Sometimes I wash, rinse, and repeat these steps again. Whatever it takes.


Each and every sentence must be something only *I* could write. Because that’s what voice is, something unique to me. Even sentences like “He smiled.” Technically, there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s concise and to the point. But I knew there was a voicier way to say it. Something that evokes an image in the reader’s mind as well as revealing a piece of character. Though the sentence is something only *I* could write, it also must be something only the protagonist would think. How would she describe the love interest’s smile? That sentence became: His lips curled into the kind of killer smile orthodontists and girls like me—or maybe just any girl—would appreciate.

When I was in college, I took a creative writing course taught by Mary Gaitskill. During one particular class period, we were reading our short stories out loud. My protagonist used an art metaphor, describing something using painting techniques like chiarascuro and thinking of someone’s face in brush strokes. It was a pretty sentence but Mary rightfully pointed out something that hadn’t occurred to me before. She simply asked, “Is your main character an artist? If so, you need to weave that into the plot.” I sat there stunned. No, she wasn’t an artist. *I* was an art major, that’s why I had used painting metaphors. That’s when I realized you have to separate yourself from the character, not only describe things in a way only you as a writer can, but also in a way only your protagonist would think. So for example, Alice is an environmental vigilante. She uses a lot of metaphors related to plants and gardening. While my other protagonist, Kasey, uses a lot of water/swimming metaphors because she’s a swimmer who is afraid of fish.

Obviously the key here is that you have to know who your protagonist is. In order to write her voice well, you have to know what she thinks/would say/do. But figuring out your protagonist is another topic entirely.


Descriptive sentences.

For example, I could say “The warehouse was old and decrepit.” Or I can say something with more voice like, “Sunlight emphasizes the building’s flaws, like catching a career prostitute under the unkind halo of a streetlamp. Graffiti bruises the exterior and the entire building leans to the left as if the dented metal is caving under the weight of its own ugliness.”

Action sentences.

I’m a big fan of using unexpected verbs to pack more emotion/voice into a simple action. For example, there’s a big difference between “I slipped on my shirt” and “I punched my arms into my shirt.” One is a throw-away action, you might even skim it. It’s just there like, “okay great, now I know she’s not naked!” But the other shows emotion. That girl is angry about something if she’s punching her arms into her shirt. And unexpected verbs are a great way to use a word only the main character would. For example, in ALICE I have this sentence: Sold signs sprouted out of the manicured lawns. I could have simply said, “Sold signs stuck out of the manicured lawns.” But sprouted is a word associated with plants, it’s something only she would say. That makes it voicey.


I admit that a lot of my dialogue doesn’t change through revisions because it’s the thing that comes out most naturally to me while first drafting, especially when I write witty banter. It just flows. A lot of times, I let it flow and end up with too much and have to trim. However, in terms of voiceyness, I often give my characters wittier things to say.

For example, take a look at the first draft of this conversation, directly copied from my alphasmart where it’s impossible to go back and edit:

Want some?” He held out the foaming green liquid to me, obviously a means of distraction.

I stood on tip toes and brought my nose to it, smelling something that resembled more like forest than beverage. “I think I’ll pass, thanks.”

Compare that to the revised version:

“Want some?” Chess held out the foaming green liquid to me as we stood in front of the strange red curtain hiding a secret garden.

I stood on my tiptoes and peered over the rim. “What is it?”

“It’s what we give intruders,” he said. “Less abrasive than tying them up.”

I bit my lip. I was hoping he would forget I didn’t belong here. “Too bad. Being tied up did sound tempting.” My brain caught up with my words. “Wait, that came out wrong.”

He let out a raspy laugh. “Wrong is one interpretation.”


I admit, this part of the process takes the longest. I’m a big fan of humor and I crack jokes all the time in real life. My dad and grandpa both used jokes in every other sentence so I grew up being taught how to be funny. This is the part that’s hardest to teach since a lot of this comes naturally to me. I automatically know where to add humor and where to skip it. I don’t know how to explain it other than it’s a gut feeling. I’m reading along and I realize I need a joke to punctuate this paragraph. Or there’s a lot of serious stuff and something funny can really help it along. My jokes come in two forms. Through dialogue, which you saw above, or through inner monologue where the protagonist thinks of something funny.

Sometimes the jokes can take me hours or days to come up with. Often, I sort of know *what* I want to say but have to find the right way to say it or the right word to get it across. Other times I have no idea what I want to say which is when I turn to research (more on that below). I google things until I find the perfect idea. My novels contain a lot of puns. They are time consuming to come up with. It’s hard to just try to be funny and think of a joke out of nowhere. Sometimes I had to rework the paragraphs in order to get to a punch line. Sometimes they just came to me. Often, I spend a lot of time on finding rhymes/similar phrases for a certain word and then cross checking it on a site that lists cliches until I figure out a pun. An example of this: Aside from a few kids who still remembered my parents’ tree-hugging slip-up or my lame petition fiasco, most people at school only knew about me if they cheated off me. Luckily teenagers and goldfish had about the same memory span. New gossip erased old mistakes daily, the circle of strife.

Often I sit there trying all different things, running sentences/ideas by my CPs (thank God for gchat!), or rewriting the paragraph until I find a way to make it funny. Luckily, I can recognize when something is funny and when it isn’t thanks to my 29 years of training from my parents/grandparents.


So how do I go about revising voice?

Basically, I go sentence by sentence, combing through the manuscript and forcing myself to find a unique way to rewrite every sentence that needs it. But you have to find a balance. Not every sentence needs to change–after all, there are some voicey gems that just come naturally during the first draft, even without coffee as added brain fuel. And sometimes a simple sentence is necessary. Too much voice would be overkill.

By the time I’m done with the voice pass, I’ve pretty much rewritten the entire book from scratch.

I’m not going to lie, this process isn’t easy. It always takes me the longest. Longer than giant sweeping plot changes like adding or subtracting subplots/characters. I can do that stuff quickly (see also my previous post on outlining revisions).


I find once I start revising the voice, it comes out much easier than it does when I first start. The key is to get into the right voice mindset. There are a lot of ways to do this:

  • Re-read back the last chapter you worked on to remember the voice
  • Do some free-writing as your Main Character for a scene that’s NOT in the novel just to warm up the voice. This way by the time you get into the actual manuscript, it’ll be flowing well.
  • Only read books with a similar voice to what you’re going for. When I do this, I’m not emulating THEIR voice but simply immersing myself in the kind I want to write so I can eat, sleep, breathe it. What I mean by this is if I want to write a funny book, then I’ll only read funny books. If I want to write something that’s more poetic and literary (and yes, I’ve written both), then I’ll avoid books with humor and instead pick up ones with a similar tone. If I want to write an action scene, I’ll read a bunch of action scenes before hand.
  • Same goes for TV. If I need to get inspired, I’ll watch a few episodes of a show with a similar voice. VERONICA MARS and BUFFY are my two go-tos when it comes to humor. If I need to write a sad scene, I watch THE END OF THE AFFAIR or something similar. I find when I watch/read and try to revise, I’m more attuned to humor (or sadness) and I can write it more easily.

So basically, that’s the process. Go sentence by sentence. Rewrite each one until its unique, something ONLY you could come up with and only your character would say.

Remember it’s best when each character has their own unique voice, but again, that’s another topic.

The voice pass is usually my favorite and the most frustrating at the same time! Aren’t all the best things like that?

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6 Responses

  1. I’m in love with this post. So thorough and informative!

    I have a similar process. I’m all about getting myself in the right revising mood by watching something with a similar tone. Veronica Mars figured heavily into that for me lately.

  2. This is wonderful! I like your way of writing, I do the same. I have problems writing funny characters because I’m not funny! So, in a way, my character can’t be something I am not. May I quote you at my next writers retreat?

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