Sounding Out The Writer’s Voice


In the Guardian’s July 2 article, “Hearing words, writing sounds: examining the author’s brain,“ writer Richard Lea discusses a study at Johns Hopkins that examines regions of the brain utilized to produce and interpret speech and the written word using, well, writers as subjects. The question at hand is what the brain is really doing while the writer is writing and “hearing” his/her words inside their head as they produce a text. It appears that the writer’s brain is mediating what the brain hears and somehow translating what it hears into words on the page. Heady stuff (pardon the pun), to be sure.

The article gets a little too dense for me in its discussion of brain function, but it provokes the concept of “voice” on the page. We all know, more or less, what we mean in craft terms when we refer to a writer’s voice, but can we define it?

Writer and UNM professor Greg Martin says this about voice: “I think this is the most elusive craft feature.  I’ve never encountered a decent definition and am not about to attempt one here.  Still, we use the term.  It has something to do with tone, but also diction, syntax, self-characterization / persona, self-implication.” What that seems to imply is that it might be the most important craft feature as well. After all, the writing voice is a signature of the writer, as unique as the writer’s speaking voice. If someone were to read a passage from Hemingway without first identifying the writer, the listener would immediately identify the author – provided they were familiar with Hemingway first.

When it comes right down to it, voice is how we recognize the writer on the page, and the marriage of speech terminology with craft terminology begs the question of just how the brain synthesizes voice in the writer’s head with writing to produce literature. When we refer to a poet, we refer to the “speaker.” The reader is an “audience.” The terms of writing are interchangeable, even synonymous with, speech. How often do we as writers think about this and its importance to our craft?

The study suggests that the connection between speech and the production of text appears to be interlinked, but not inseparable. Researchers had writers read their work aloud, to “proof read” their work i.e. listen to how it sounds while read aloud. This was when the writers heard their mistakes, noting where what they heard in their mind as they wrote differed from the text they produced. Often, this is when we find our errors of syntax or word choice; it is often when we know the piece is faltering in structure or tone. At least, that’s my experience. And if anyone out there is also teaching composition, it is one of the first tools we urge our students to use while self-editing, right?

The study concludes ambiguously, stating that writers may not even need to read aloud to truly hear what they’ve put on the page. Researchers concluded that the writer can experience their voice on the page in their head without hearing it aloud, but the two can’t be shown to be “mechanically interchangeable or wholly different.” In other words, that elusive thing we call the voice is neither in the writer’s mouth, nor the ears, nor entirely in the writer’s head – it exists solely on the page.

I think this means that we writers need readers other than ourselves at every stage of the writing process. Editors alert us to moments when the story’s structure sags, but also to moments in the text when we’ve strayed from our own voice, or made errors in syntax, or changed the tone of the piece as a whole. Ultimately, our readers are hoping to hear our voice – that elusive yet familiar signature that only we can set on the page.