Is Writing Advice Around “Voice” Like Career Advice Around “Passion”?

Career advisors obsess about passion: Pursue your passion, do what you're passionate about, follow your bliss, love your work, etc.

I don't disagree that it's glorious to engage in work you are passionate about.

I do question the usefulness of making passion the center of work-related advice. That's because passion doesn't seem to take very well to a direct approach. That is, directly asking yourself, "What am I passionate about?" seems as often to lead to a self-delusion as a truth, and most of the time leads to, "I don't know" or "Many different things, equally" which, if the reflective cycle stops there, has produced nothing but a bit more anxiety in an anxious world. Better, for example, to first recognize that passion alone does not a happy career make, and then second, approach the idea of passion indirectly. As Gretchen Rubin says, avoid the ambiguity and overwhelmingness of "passion," and instead ask yourself what you like doing on a Saturday afternoon with nothing to do.

I wonder if there's a parallel in the writing world with all the advice around voice: Find your voice, write in your own voice, the best writing has a distinctive voice, etc.

In Louis Menand's piece on teaching the craft of creative writing, he notes:

"Show, don’t tell," which was the mantra in the nineteen-forties and fifties, to the effectively opposite mantra “Find your voice,” which took over in the nineteen-sixties and seventies.

In this informative Q&A with Farrar, Straus, and Giroux president Jonathan Galassi, he says:

All of these [great] books are different in terms of their angles of attack, but they're all very strong voices. And they don't sound like anyone else. I think the voice is the most important thing—and then the shape. … Voice is one way of looking at it but aliveness is another way. And I think voice is kind of being killed in a lot of writing today.

As with careers and passion, I don't disagree with the fundamental point here, but I do worry about the intensity with which this advice is dispensed to aspiring writers. How, exactly, are you supposed to improve the "voice" of your writing? How do you know whether the sound of the words on the page are most true to you? What is "aliveness" and can not writing have bounce in its step but still lack a singular voice that would be familiar if you heard it again? How does "find your voice" square with advice to "imitate the best"? How, exactly, are you supposed to synthesize the best of other writers you are imitating — and how do you know whether your synthesis is your own voice finally or just a pale collection of imitative gimmicks, smashed together?

Perhaps all this self-consciousness about "voice" is a good thing, but perhaps, as the questions above illustrate, it's needlessly inducing stress, and distracting from other, better focus points of writers (namely doing the thing — actually writing and putting faith in the process of constant revision).

Jesse Berrett, with whom I email about writing issues, once told me that there's hope for all of us to better approximate that voice we hear in our heads. I like the attitude built-in to this statement. "A hope for all of us" rightly highlights that approximating the voice in our heads into words is an on-going project for everyone at every stage. It is a process of continual arrival.


One suggestion oft-offered to writers in search of their "voice," especially those who produce prose that tries too hard or unintentionally comes off as pretentious, is to "write like you talk." Write like you were talking to a smart person across the table from you at dinner. I was intrigued, then, to see this snippet in Benjamin Kunkel's appreciation of David Foster Wallace:

Speaking for myself, I realized, while writing my first novel, that relaxed diction could be a tremendous strain and artifice. Afterwards I understood that I wrote more naturally and honestly when more formally.

That writing formally could be more natural is somewhat counter to conventional wisdom. Regardless of what's natural, it's definitely the case that writing like you talk — writing informally, writing conversationally — is much harder than writing formally. (That's why hacks like me tend to veer formal.) As Jesse put it to me, real life conversation contains banalities and tics that are annoying when in print, so the informal writer must eliminate those without eliminating the charm and accessibility he sought in the first place.


From the Galassi interview, there's this wisdom:

Most words put down on paper are not interesting, or don't make sense, or are stilted. You can tell within two pages that something is not going to work….Only a few people in the world are meant to be writers.

The idea is that the people who should write are the people who can't not write. I think there are a lot of people who want to write, and who want to say something, but a lot of them don't have anything to say.

The "can't not do X" is a good formulation for most people who excel at their work. Orhan Pamuk sounded a similar note on why he writes.


Here are five writing exercises, via Menand:

  • Take a simple event: A man gets off a bus, trips, looks around in embarrassment, and sees a woman smiling. . . . Describe this event, using the same characters and elements of setting, in five completely different ways.
  • Describe a lake as seen by a young man who has just committed murder. Do not mention the murder.
  • Describe a landscape as seen by a bird. Do not mention the bird.
  • Using all you know, write a short story about an animal—for instance, a cow.
29 comments on “Is Writing Advice Around “Voice” Like Career Advice Around “Passion”?
  • Great post. Agree with Chris- nothing beats work and practice.

    I spent a long time feeling baffled by people who managed to achieve a consistent “voice”, passion, set of beliefs- pretty much anything. Why didn’t they feel the same imperative to throw everything up in the air and see how it landed/ start again, that I had?

    Now I think constant change is some people’s learning styles, and the consistent part just comes from the authenticity/ honesty/ integrity of the individual concerned. It may by much clearer from outside (as external views have perspective). But many artists repeatedly transform in what they do, and sometimes finding your Big Directive (voice, passion, whatever) is the wrong way of looking at it, or just tougher when you’re not a one-track person.

    And students shouldn’t take writing/ other art-training classes too literally. Maybe the teacher’s ideas will work for you, maybe not- the teaching, like the practice, is much more experimental than in fact-based subjects.

  • A post about writing, DFW, and PW? You got me hook, line and sinker.

    I think it’s like telling athletes to keep working hard. Will it matter? Sure, if you’re one of those really talented athletes to begin with.

    As for writers, you can definitely get better, but I don’t think finding your voice will help if you’ve got nothing to say or the skills with which to say it.

    Chris is right about finding voice through writing, that’s why writing exercises like NaNoWriMo are so fantastic. That thing changed my like a few years ago.

  • I am one of those authors (5 Patterns of Extraordinary Careers, The Leap) who puts passion very high on the list of career advice. In fact, extensive research has shown that those who strongly agree their strengths and passions are engaged at work every day are statistically much more likely to achieve extraordinary things at work.

    There is a scientific reason for this. There has been much written recently by Gladwell and others about deliberate practice. it is the hours you put in that makes as much difference or more than innate talent. But not any practice – practice in which you are truly engaged, measuring yourself, not watching the clock. The things you are passionate about are the things you are most likely to stay engaged with during practice. In fact, there was a study of the top chess players in the world, and the only thing statistically similar among them was their high level of enjoyment they got out of studying chess.

    The confusion comes from the definition of the term passion. Passion is not college football, or atheletics, etc. It is not the peripheral things of a job. passion at work means what are the specific type of challanges that you are passionate about overcoming (convincing others, analytics, executing a plan, etc.) . You must identify what you are best at, and what challenges you are most passionate about overcoming. I have worked with an industrial psychologist over the last 4 years to develop an assessment that helps identify exactly this. (primary color assessment).

    Passion is not just a nice to have. it turns out it is actually a prerequisite for an extraordinary career.

    Rick Smith

  • I wonder if ‘voice’ is to editors what ‘star quality’ or ‘the X factor’ is to talent agents: no one can define what it is, exactly, or why some have it and others don’t, but it’s compelling and you know it when you see it. I’ve also heard editors and agents say that so long as the writer has ‘voice’, the manuscript has potential: other stuff can be fixed, or taught, but you can’t teach ‘voice’.

    Which I think goes to show how many aspiring writers just don’t *read* very much. You practice voice through writing, yes, but you absorb the nuances and rhythms and possibilities of language through exposing yourself to as many “voices” as possible, hearing music after music of those voices in your head. ‘Voice’ was never an issue for me, never something I thought much about. I read, I wrote, I had a voice, I got published.

    I suspect there’s a strong connection between editors’ obsessive search for fresh new ‘voices’ and those studies that show how reading is supposedly endangered.

  • The reason I think both voice and passion are the wrong things to focus on is because they are epiphenomenon. And epiphenomenon are by definition elusive if pursued directly.

    For finding passion what I’m advocating now is:

    – Try as many things as possible with as low a commitment as possible. School does a terrible job at this, you get to try a maximum 6 things, and you’re locked in. And outside of school most people don’t try many things on their own. So therein lies a big part of the problem of passion.
    – Take another step to further commit: read more in depth about one of the things you enjoyed doing, or practice it for an hour, talk with other people who like this thing too, talk with professionals who have done it for years. And assess whether you want to go further. Passion doesn’t come until you’ve put in enough hours to become hooked.
    – Then begin devoting more and more energy to this thing you enjoy, testing whether it can become one of your passions.

    I’ll chronicle my personal journey to finding my passions in a blog post soon.

  • Great, and wonderfully detailed, post. Voice is certainly what agents and publishers look for at the moment (I wish we ahd more articvles concentrating on what READERS wanted). I guest blogged on this a while ago, arguing that voice can best be understood by thinking about bands. With the very best bands, the moment you hear a song you know it’s by them, no matter what the actual tune/rhythm/melody. The same with writing.

    How do you find your voice? Like you say, lots and lots of practice – one of the problems with the publishing industry is that if you have a success too early on, you are expected to write more of the same, but you can only really discover your own real style by lots of experimentation – so there are lots of semi-matured published authors around – and my feeling is that those of us who go eight or ten books with no success will eventually overtaek them – which is a shame. And a real argument in favour of authors being allowed a proper apprenticeship.

  • When brother James was twenty-three, the literary voice he heard inside his head spoke in the dulcet tones of an eighteenth century botanist-explorer known well by the Cherokees.

    Through this otherwise benign influence of a poetic old soul he acquired the pernicious habit of adorning his prose with flowery locutions more appropriate to a mild-mannered Friend of Thomas Jefferson.

    The cure for his debilitating addiction arrived in the unlikely form of a science-fiction writer who charmed him with homegrown fishing advice and a few choice Latin phrases.

    A writer doesn’t “find” his voice the way Allan Quatermain found King Solomon’s mines.

    A writer’s voice emerges in fits and starts from within the conscious and unconscious self– he stretches and exercises his latent powers to reach the full development of his willful creative energy.

  • Can the writer *find* his voice at all? I think he’s just the blower and he just speaks his mind in the book. It’s the readers that *spot* a writer’s voice. Barring this, if a writer consciously tries to stick to a formula mistaking it for his *voice*, he begins to suck.

  • Thanks for the post. Vision is so important in many regards, but I think it is just plain important for people’s life. Who are you, what do you do for work, what is my goals? All can be accomplished better by vision. I’m sure you’re worth more than 20%!!!

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