This question came up for me with reference to something on the EMWA e-list, and I'd love to hear what Crimespacers make of it. To cheat by repeating what I said there: Writing courses can teach the new writer about plotting and character arcs, how to use strong verbs and avoid excess adverbs, and a host of other techniques that separate the beginner from the pro. But what is voice if not something ineffable that springs from the depths of our individual creativity? It can't be faked. Can it be deliberately constructed?

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A "fresh, distinctive voice" cannot be defined, IMO. It's one of those things you just know when you see it. Since it can't be defined, I see no way it can be taught. Read a lot, write a lot. If you're lucky, and have a bit of talent, you'll develop a voice. If you're even luckier, you'll develop one that other people want to hear.
I think it's possible to teach how to begin honing a voice, but the writer has to do the actual work. I try to change voice and tone to fit the needs of the character and piece as well as any goals I might have. Still, I'm sure there's some similarity among all I've written, which would be called my voice.
Voice can't be taught. It is something that comes naturally with practice. Your own brand. Your own way of expressing yourself. Just as everyone has their own unique personality.

You can be taught to make the most of your voice. But the voice itself comes from within.
I seem to be in the minority on this one, then. I think you can give someone the help to figuring out voice, i.e., teaching them, in the same way that you can teach anything about writing. There's an innate given that it takes more than just the ability to string sentences together to be a writer, and everything else is part talent, part tenacity. Still, if someone's got the talent, a good teacher can guide that talent (and I don't limit 'good teachers' to those in the classroom, but include the finest books in each genre out there).

I guess I don't believe that voice is solely a function of my personality because I've written things so vastly different from one another, my own agent could not have told you it came from me, had I not told her and had my name on it. So unless I've got multiple personality disorder, there's more than one way to approach voice. As a function of your own personality is one. As a function of the character's world and socio-economic-cultural background is another, and there are others.

I liken it to playing a piano. When I play a ragtime piece, I'm making conscous choices on notes, rhythm, emphasis, force of how I strike the keys, etc., to make that piece of music have a ragtime feel. I make entirely different choices for Chopin or Beethoven. Same keys on the keyboard, different voice.

Then again, I just may be weird.
But you recognize Motzart when you hear it, right? You recognize Hemingway when you read it. Van Gogh when you see it.

That's voice.

We can learn to imitate the masters but, eventually, if we want to make a mark, we have to find our own unique voice.

Whenever something hits--say, The Beatles for example--dozens jump on the bandwagon. But there's no substitute for the real McCoy.

Most of us are still finding our way, and there's nothing wrong with that. The journey is exquisite. So, in a way, we're LEARNING our voice, but only through the act of doing, not from something we pick up in a classroom.
[[So, in a way, we're LEARNING our voice, but only through the act of doing, not from something we pick up in a classroom.]]

Um, how can you know for sure that something can't be picked up in the classroom? How can you know for sure that I wasn't exposed to something in the classroom that taught me what voice was, for example, or how to use intent as a writer to go about figuring out my own voice?

See, I'm not saying that I can pick out a 'voice' and teach it to someone. I'm saying that writers can be given tools to dissect the idea of 'voice' and figure out how to create one. It's not foolproof, and obviously, isn't going to work for everyone (because no teaching method could), but I've never said it would--just that there are tools that could be taught that could be useful. It is, however, the same thing a lot of writers end up doing intuitively -- they use some tools to figure out some stuff, and develop their own way of doing it from there.

And sure, I recognize Mozart, etc. And I agree with your point, the point of voice isn't to imitate. But if you see how someone else did it and you figure out some of what they used to accomplish their goal, you're developing the tools to then look at your own work and make it unique. I can't believe that we could all assert that that level of critical thinking about one's own work cannot be at least shown to a student, giving them exposure to ways of thinking that could help them as they explore how to have their own voice and not merely an imitation.

I guess what bothers me about this type of adament assertion that voice cannot be taught is that no one's leaving room for the possibility that maybe it can--it's not easy, but it's within the realm of possiblity.

I don't mean to sound cranky (it's hard to know how this comes across).
You don't sound cranky, Toni. And I hope I don't. We just have different opinions. Here's mine:

You can tell someone it's important to develop a unique voice.

Student: "But what do you mean by 'voice'?"

Teacher: "Um, you'll know it when you find it."

Student: "How do I go about finding it?"

Teacher: "Get out of this classroom, glue your ass to a chair, and write."

Class dismissed.

You can take someone with raw talent and instruct them on the basics of craft, but after that it's up to the individual as to whether they ever develop a voice or not. That is, a voice that resonates.
I definitely learned what voice was in a series of classrooms, and if I hadn't learned, I couldn't begin to find my own voice. That's what I meant earlier, when I wrote: "'s possible to teach someone how to begin honing a voice." The first step in that process is showing what voice is, and for me, the concept would have been more difficult to learn outside a classroom.
It's not voice that get's taught, it's listening. You can learn the skill of listenming, both outside you and inside you. From that voice can emerge.
I think voice can be taught, but you have to learn it through reading. The more you read, the more you realize what you want your stuff to sound like. I read a lot of Robert Parker, Robert Crais, Michael Connelly, and Dennis Lehane's PI novels and realized those voices really pulled me in. I tried to mimic that at first and eventually my own voice found it's way through. I learned to say things my own way. Now I try to write like I talk, I think.

I like the description of voice as "something ineffable that springs from the depths of our individual creativity." That holds true for me in my first published novel, Mood Swing, which I wrote in the first person. It took many years for me to tap into this voice, though. Through years of college training (not in creative writing), I developed an objective academic voice that I then had to unlearn when I started writing fiction.

Eldercide, the novel that I'm now readying for publication, is written in the third person from several points of view, including those of the victims and villain. I find it challenging to differentiate the various voices; they don't all come naturally. But I'd much rather my characters evolve through private struggle than through someone else's teaching. I endured more than enough of that in my fine arts training.
Toni, one could argue that you are writing from the empathy inside you. That supports both sides of the argument, including David's post about listening, and has the virtue of (I think) being true as well.


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