Author Voice: Listening As You Read

Author’s voice can be detected by good readers

If you could spend an hour in conversation with any writer, whom would you choose? What would lunch be like with Stephen King? Would Dave Barry be any less wacky in person than in print? Would George Will come off as engagingly erudite or as a condescending know-it-all? Would Toni Morrison be as passionate in a discussion as she is in her novels? How would it be to just sit back and listen as Annie Dillard mused about life?

For most readers, imagining meeting an admired writer is a “daydream” that flows naturally from a reading experience. You feel you get to know a writer as a person – through the prose you get a glimpse of personality. You begin to discern preferences, tastes, attitudes, beliefs. In essence, as a mature reader, you are able to “read” the writer as well as the text.

Detecting the author’s voice is a reading skill that you may find challenging. As you read, you may become so totally immersed in the “surface” of the message – the basic information, the details, the general storyline – that you lose contact with the author. An entire layer of meaning is missed when you overlook that reading is an act of communication with another person.

Teaching/Learning Activity

Author’s voice refers to qualities of writing that reveal the person behind the keyboard. When we sense the tone or mood of a piece, when we are able to gauge the author’s emotions about the topic or the story, we have detected voice. How the author undertakes to engage the reader is also a facet of voice. Experts suggest several activities to sensitize to author’s voice:

Step 1: Locate selections that can be read aloud. Typically, writing that appeals to the ear resonates with the voice and personality of the author. Select these parts, think about the emotions the writer seems to be eliciting. Does the writer seem to want the reader to laugh, to get angry, to ponder, to appreciate? What mood does the writer seem to be in: irritated, whimsical, somber, enthusiastic, sarcastic? What tone does the author attempt to strike: persuasive, informative, reflective, entertaining?

Identify clues in the writing that key them into noticing the emotional content of these selections. You will discover that word choice – the specific language selected by the author – has the effect of “coloring” a piece of writing and revealing mood and tone. Discover rich in emotional qualities and revealing of author voice.

Step 2: As a contrast, select some materials that are so bland or nondescript that voice seems totally lacking and the authors completely “hidden.” Instructions or directions, memos, bureaucratic documents, or perhaps any writing that looks like it was “created by committee” could be used. Unfortunately, some of the best examples of writing devoid of voice are your own textbooks!

You can rewrite a selection to add character and “snap” to the piece. In actuality, you are interjecting your own voice or the imagined voice of the author to the material. Rewriting a textbook passage to give it more voice could be an especially enlightening experience.

Finally, you can work with partners to remove voice from a strongly evocative selection. By making decisions that lead to the use of weaker verbs and generic adjectives, resulting in a style that does little to engage or excite the reader, you will continue to explore the elements that illustrate author’s voice.

Step 3: As you become increasingly familiar with voice, work on activities that flesh out the identity of the writer. For example, take a well-written passage and speculate on the author based on hints located in the text. Does the author seem to be male or female? Of what age, nationality, or ethnic background? What kind of experiences does this person seem to have had? What level of education?

Clearly, some assumptions about the author cannot be supported by a careful reading and analysis so you can count your blessings. Unwarranted assumptions provide an opportunity to consider how a rush to judgment, or perhaps reader prejudice, influence interpretations of the nature of the writer.

For older students, opportunities to analyze passages to identify voice will help prepare them for SAT and ACT tests. It is no accident that questions that inquire about mood, tone, and author attitude and belief are prevalent on these exams.

Step 4: You need to “write with voice” as you craft your own compositions. Rubrics that remind of the following characteristics of voice can be used to guide you in your personal writing:

  • Is engaging and interacts with the reader.
  • Shows conviction about the message.
  • Displays distinctive personality and writer’s thoughts.
  • Exhibits personal “stamp” through writing style and use of language.
  • Exudes appeal and genuine emotion rather than a monotone.


Activities that may help you detect the author behind the words have a number of advantages:

  • You will become better able to make inferences about your reading as you learn to draw on elements of the text that are suggested rather than directly stated.
  • You become sensitive to the emotional content of writing, and through your analysis of the author’s voice learn to ascertain bias, clarify intent, and identify perspective.
  • You will become more conscious of your own voice and receive practice in how to write with a personality, style, and commitment that engages a reader.