Finding your voice

Vivien Horler

RW Johnson

A writer’s voice – that’s a tricky subject to tackle or even define.

Voice is the subject of the seventh module of the non-fiction writing course I’m doing under the auspices of crime writer, memoirist and biographer Mike Nicol. And even he, vastly experienced writer that he is, has some difficulty pinning down the concept of “voice”.

“What do we mean when we talk about a writer’s voice and how does this affect your writing? And then if I go on to say that this voice is largely dependent on the tone of your prose, you might say, enough now.”

Well, quite. Voice and tone, he says, are the building blocks of style.

“Voice” is the voice of someone with something to say about the world. It’s hard to figure out one’s own voice – the module assignment was to find a piece of our own writing and then analyse it.

But perhaps it’s easier when you’re reading someone else’s non-fiction. I was mildly affronted by the preface of commentator RW Johnson’s latest book Foreign Native. He had, he says, written and published, in London, a memoir about his time at Oxford University.

He then suggested his local publisher, Jonathan Ball, might like to bring out a South African edition.

This is the sentence that got me: “Jonathan read the book and liked it, but felt that Oxford was too far away from the usually more parochial concerns of South African readers.”

Well, that puts us japies in our place.

So far in the course, titled Writing Reality, we have looked at how to write stories, how to introduce characters (and make them characters), how to describe current events, how to draft scenes, and – importantly – how to write dialogue. Dialogue is what brings writing and characters to life. Or as Tom Wolfe puts it (as quoted in Nicol’s course notes: “…realistic dialogue involves the reader more completely than any other single device. It also establishes and defines character more quickly and effectively than any other single device”.

Back to voice. It emerges, says Nicol, from tone, lexicon and grammar. Sentence length is important. Voice and tone create style.

It’s all a touch nebulous – but I can recognise it when I see it, in RW Johnson’s writing at any rate. And what is Johnson’s voice?  It is smug, that’s what it is.

* For more information on Nicol’s courses (which include a fiction writing course, see or email him on






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