My writing partner of ten years was frowning. “The voice,” she began. “It’s formal and distant.” She stared at the manuscript I’d slaved over for months. “I can’t explain—it just seems off.”

My friend had struck my literary Achilles’ heel. Voice is an aspect of writing craft I’ve struggled with for years. One of the frustrating things about being told you need to work on “voice” is that no one can really tell you what “voice” is.

Once, in a writing workshop, the instructor asked us to give our definitions of voice. Tone, style, and point of view were some of the answers offered. “Yes, it’s all of those things,” she said. “Is it innate or acquired?” Both, the class agreed. Again the instructor nodded, suggesting that if we write with our innate voice we can refine it and make it distinctly ours. I didn’t find this particularly helpful. What is one’s innate voice? And if that voice is b-o-r-i-n-g (as I suspected mine was) how does one make it less so?

Then I came across a definition of voice from memoirist Jennifer Sinor, who says things like style and tone contribute to voice. But they are not voice. She argues we know voice by its absence, by the distance we feel from the narrator and the story. “We can’t point to it on the page, pin it down, say that here, right here . . . we have voice,” she writes. This made sense to me. When voice is present, we have the sense, in the words of Philip Gerard, that we could pick the writer out of a crowd. And who couldn’t pick Brian Doyle’s voice from a crowd? Or David Sedaris’s? Or Cheryl Strayed’s?

But knowing voice by its absence isn’t helpful for cultivating it. Luckily, Sinor had a suggestion. A key to writing with voice, she says, is research and immersion in one’s subject. When we know our subject inside and out, we can’t help but speak with authority, with confidence, with a distinctive voice. Hence the old adage, “Write what you know.”

The piece that caused my writing partner to frown was a story about my grandfather who homesteaded on the Idaho desert in 1917. That harsh, blistering landscape was also my first home, but I had forgotten more about it than I remembered. Taking Sinor’s advice, I returned for a week-long stay, driving the gravel roads, walking the ditch banks, meeting with cousins and neighbors. The details began to gradually come back—the names of the weeds (nightshade, Russian thistle, lamb’s-quarter) that plagued our farm; the pith helmet my father wore every morning to set water; the German phrase (Ach, Du lieber Gott!) my aunt used to express her exasperation with us.

All of this was helpful. But I’d done research before and written “voiceless” essays. Finally, I stumbled onto this advice from Pat Schneider, founder of Amherst Writers and Artists. Asking how to find your voice, she says, is like asking “How do I find my face?” She maintains we each have an original voice from childhood—our first voice—that’s steeped in the landscape, class, heritage, and family that formed us. Over time we develop our primary voice, which is the adult voice we use when we are most relaxed. It’s infused with the “color and texture from every place we have lived, everyone with whom we have lived, and all that we have experienced.” It also retains important traces of our original voice.

My original voice is 1970s Idaho farm country. The lexicon of my childhood included words like corral, corrugate, and woodchuck. Schneider maintains that when we write in our primary voice, the writing has energy, it moves. A reader can’t help but feel the emotion, the genuine person, and experience behind the words. But too often, we write in one of our “acquired” voices—the voices we reserve for job interviews or to ask for a bank loan. The result is watered-down speech that has no color or emotion.

So how do we unearth our primary voice and get it on the page? According to Schneider, the greatest threat to voice isn’t a lack of style or research. The greatest threat to voice is tension. Our primary voice—our true voice—emerges when we lose our self-consciousness. It shows up whenever we kick the editor out of our heads and just write. 

That is why writing fast to prompts and setting a time limit can be so helpful. It’s also why Schneider recommends saving first drafts—something I scorned for years as a writer, priding myself on throwing away those clumsy attempts. Yet those clumsy attempts had gems. Beautiful moments in which my voice rose from the page in that initial urge to write.

Writers are fond of lecturing those new to the craft about revision. “Don’t expect your first draft to be your last.” But what happens for many writers is they revise their voice—the energy that moved them to write in the first place—right out of the piece. When I think of successful writing I have done, it’s not that I didn’t revise, but I didn’t revise it to death. I didn’t revise out my voice—the one thing I have as a writer that is uniquely mine because it comes from my unique experience.

After my week in rural Idaho, I wrote an essay about my grandmother who was forced to register as an enemy alien in 1918. I described the ornate mailboxes in the tiny Eden, Idaho, post office where she was fingerprinted; the names of the horses that pulled the wagon to get her there; and the hundred-year-old photograph, affixed inside her alien registration card, of her standing in a grubbed-out desert in a white dress. These details were vital. But just as vital was my voice—which came easily as I thought about her silent humiliation, my grandfather’s bitter rage as he waited outside, the postmaster’s unexpected kindness.

Beware of writers who will edit your voice away. I am guilty of this. I once had a student who wrote an incredibly moving essay about his experience in Vietnam. I encouraged him to add more, show instead of tell, etc., etc. After several revisions, the piece went flat, like the air let out of a balloon. Fortunately, we both learned from that experience. A few years later, I had another student who, in response to a timed prompt, wrote about years of verbal abuse by her husband. In the piece, she discovers that her selfless efforts to placate him had not spared her children. It moved me so much, I urged her to submit it for publication. In class, during a conversation on revision, she raised her hand and asked, “What if you get it right the first time?”

I hesitated. Then I responded that it doesn’t happen very often, but yes, it can. Now I wish I’d said, “Yes, yes, absolutely!” And when it does, protect it and return to that piece whenever you’ve lost your way. Remind yourself what your true voice sounds like. Then start there.

Susan Bruns Rowe writes and teaches in Boise, Idaho. Her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, The American Oxonian, and elsewhere. She serves on the editorial staff for Literary Mama and teaches creative writing workshops for The Cabin and the Osher Institute at Boise State University.