Voice: The Secret Power of Great Writing by James Scott Bell


It is a writer’s pet peeve. Editors and agents insist they are looking for “a fresh voice” but no one can agree on what that means. Some say it’s a writer’s personality on the page, or a unique style, or a combination of character and setting and word choice. Most people refuse to define it at all, just shoving more and more examples of “a strong voice” at a writer in hopes that she’ll intuit the rest. But without a working definition, how is a writer supposed to develop her voice?

VOICE attempts to bridge the gap between example and knowledge by providing specific exercises. Bell uses acting techniques to help an author truly inhabit the character he’s writing about. By understanding the character on a deep level, sharing the same emotional space as the character, and even assuming the character’s physical gestures, the distinct voice of the character will emerge.

Bell encourages authors to keep a voice journal, jotting down interesting turns of phrase and impressions of people. He also discusses the pros and cons of using a “voiceless voice,” which is a dispassionate narrator telling a story from an emotional distance.

Bell then takes a detour into techniques for writing itself. He talks about ways for writers to write more, more happily, and get more words onto the page. It seemed odd to have several chapters with vague cheerleading plunked into the middle of an otherwise good book full of concrete advice for writing with a more distinct voice.

Bell wraps up with examples from every type of writing including YA and literary fiction as well as the expected genres like mystery and romance. However, here, Bell makes the same mistake he complains about. He piles on the examples without analyzing them to show why they work. He breezes from one to another, barely discussing them. And while the snippets he chooses to highlight are stellar, just showing a writer what’s already been done doesn’t help her do the same.

When I finished VOICE, I turned back to the opening chapters, which are the strongest part of the book, and clearly the part that Bell is the most excited to share with writers. I’m eager to try some of the exercises he recommends, to add my own fresh voice to my prose.


VOICE can be found here.


Rating: 3 stars


This book is best for: intermediate writers


I recommend this book or Finding Your Voice by Les Edgerton


One thought on “Voice: The Secret Power of Great Writing by James Scott Bell

  1. Interesting. Voice is sort of a nebulous concept. Sometimes I love a voice, sometimes loathe, but a writer never knows exactly what a reader will like. Loving and loathing is unique to each reader. (I do know that some of us write with unique voices, while some of us copy others.)

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