[This is excerpted from a lesson I wrote for Vault University, with a little extra commentary added.]
What is “voice”?
There are differences of opinion on this, but generally speaking a writer’s voice is that combination of style, technique, tone and subject matter that immediately identifies a piece of writing as part of a specific author’s canon of work. As a rule of thumb, if you can imagine a contest in which entrants would attempt to emulate the style of a given author (e.g., Hemingway, Poe, Shakespeare, etc.), then the author in question has a very distinctive voice.
There are those who believe voice is an inborn talent that waits to be discovered, and then there are those who believe voice can be taught. Both camps tend to agree that regardless of where voice originates, it must be cultivated in order to reach its full potential.
Many writers think of voice as something that doesn’t apply to nonfiction, but this isn’t true. Such nonfiction authors as Stephen R. Covey, Seth Godin and Chris Anderson have very distinctive voices; reading their books, one gets a sense of each author’s unique communication style.
While some authors are celebrated primarily on the basis of their unique voices (e.g., Kurt Vonnegut, William Blake, Poe, etc.), there are many, many more who’ve captured a loyal following with compelling subject matter presented in a relatively generic style. Furthermore, it’s possible to have a very distinctive voice and not attract a following.
So don’t let the matter of voice stall your writing, and don’t make the cultivation of voice your primary objective. A writer who imagines his work too run-of-the-mill attempting to consciously cultivate a distinctive voice is like a party guest who imagines his stories too boring consciously trying to make them more interesting. The effort invariably shows, and tends to result in affectation: an unnatural slant to your phrasing, and word/technique choices that draw attention to themselves—thereby pulling readers out of your book. And there’s no point in waiting to write until you’re convinced your voice has emerged, because it’s only through repeated use and exercise that a writer’s voice is discovered and developed.
Many aspiring authors equate a strong writer’s voice with quality writing and therefore assume that if they haven’t developed a strong voice, their work won’t be any good. There’s a big difference between great writing in the mechanical sense (e.g., proper sentence construction, good grammar and spelling, effective plotting, natural-sounding dialogue, etc.) and great writing in the artistic sense (e.g., work that makes the reader think or feel, or both), but there’s little doubt writers must master the former before they can aspire to the latter.
The bottom line on voice is this: the lack of a distinctive writer’s voice may prevent you from winning the Nobel prize in Literature, but it will not prevent you from having a fulfilling career in authorship. There's more than one way to reach a readership, and we're not all destined to be the next Burroughs or Hemingway. Therefore, the matter of voice isn't worth worrying about.
Focus on honing your skills and let your voice emerge when, and if, it will.