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Be a Better Writer--VOICE (PART 1)

Posted: Sat Aug 01, 2015 9:14 am
by glorybee
Imagine, please, that you are on vacation with about a dozen people who you know well. Maybe they’re your extended family, or maybe a bunch of old friends from school who get together every year. You wake up early one morning and find a note on the table—one of your party has taken off for a few days. The note has isn’t signed, and it doesn’t contain any specific details. Nevertheless, you’re certain you know who wrote it.

How did you know who wrote the note?

It’s because the note sounded just like her. You know the kinds of words your friend uses, and the way she puts them together. The note had your friend’s voice.

Kate might have written something like: So sorry. Lots on my mind. Y’all laughing together is hard on me. Because, well, you know. Taking off for a few days. Not to worry. Back soon.

While Addison might have written: Sweeties, I have to apologize; I’ve been abominable to each of you. Dwelling on the past has affected my usual enjoyment of our time together. Give me a few days to ruminate, and please don’t fret. I’ll return as soon as I’m tolerable again.

And Louise’s note might have read like this: Dang, homies! Give a girl a break! Didya ever stop to think some of us might not be feeling so chipper? And by ‘some of us,’ I mean ME! I’m outta here! Just keep on without me! I see that look on your face. Get your I’m sorry on, I’ll be back Tuesday. Save a dozen cookies for me (I’m talking to YOU)!

All three of those ladies said essentially the same thing—I’m leaving, you know why (something in the past), don’t worry, I’ll be back. But they each had a distinct voice, and this is a good place for a definition.

A writer’s voice is a combination of attributes that make her writing distinctive and recognizable. These may include her use of punctuation, favored sentence formations and syntax, word choice and vocabulary, and use of figurative language. Voice may also include, to some extent, common themes in a writer’s works, and mood (somber, brash, or light, for example).There are other items that make up a writer’s voice, but the end result is, ideally, something that communicates the story (or the content) in a way that is both effective and unique.

That might be enough for you to mull over for now. I’ll end with excerpts from a few authors who have distinctive voices. For each one, I’ll give you a brief description of their voice and a representative sample of their work.

Look online for any discussion of voice, and you’re sure to see Hemingway listed. He used simple words (many of only one syllable) and lots of long, almost run-on sentences. Here’s an example, from “A Movable Feast.”

Then I went back to writing and I entered far into the story and was lost in it. I was writing it now and it was not writing itself and I did not look up nor know anything about the time nor think where I was nor order any more rum St. James. I was tired of rum St. James without thinking about it. Then the story was finished and I was very tired. I read the last paragraph and then I looked up and looked for the girl and she had gone. I hope she's gone with a good man, I thought. But I felt sad.

The works of Sylvia Plath are sometimes described as ‘stream of consciousness.’ Here’s an example from “The Bell Jar.”

I tried to imagine what it would be like if Constantin were my husband.

It would mean getting up at seven and cooking him eggs and bacon and toast and coffee and dawdling about in my nightgown and curlers after he'd left for work to wash up the dirty plates and make the bed, and then when he came home after a lively, fascinating day he'd expect a big dinner, and I'd spend the evening washing up even more dirty plates till I fell into bed, utterly exhausted.

This seemed like a dreary and wasted life for a girl with fifteen years of straight A's, but I knew that's what marriage was like, because cook and clean and wash was just what Buddy Willard's mother did from morning till night, and she was the wife of a university professor and had been a private school teacher herself.

Once when I visited Buddy I found Mrs. Willard braiding a rug out of strips of wool from Mr. Willard's old suits. She'd spent weeks on that rug, and I had admired the tweedy browns and greens and blues patterning the braid, but after Mrs. Willard was through, instead of hanging the rug on the wall the way I would have done, she put it down in place of her kitchen mat, and in a few days it was soiled and dull and indistinguishable from any mat you could buy for under a dollar in the five and ten.

The British author P. G. Wodehouse used precise, humorous vocabulary (including an abundance of adverbs) and dry humor, as seen in this excerpt from “The Indiscretions of Archie.”

Mrs. Archie Moffam, nee Lucille Brewster, was small and slender. She had a little animated face, set in a cloud of dark hair. She was so altogether perfect that Archie had frequently found himself compelled to take the marriage-certificate out of his inside pocket and study it furtively, to make himself realise that this miracle of good fortune had actually happened to him.

"Honestly, old bean-I mean, dear old thing,--I mean, darling," said Archie, "I can't believe it!"


"What I mean is, I can't understand why you should have married a blighter like me."

Lucille's eyes opened. She squeezed his hand. "Why, you're the most wonderful thing in the world, precious!--Surely you know that?"

"Absolutely escaped my notice. Are you sure?"

"Of course I'm sure! You wonder-child! Nobody could see you without loving you!"

Archie heaved an ecstatic sigh. Then a thought crossed his mind. It was a thought which frequently came to mar his bliss.

Finally, contemporary Christian writer Lisa Samson is known for her un-tagged dialog. I’ve read several of her books, and I don’t believe there’s a “he said” or a “she said” in any of them. Here’s a bit from “The Passion of Mary-Margaret.”

I picked up the pepper shaker. “Isn’t this a little overkill? Out here and all?”

Hattie filled the kettle at the kitchen sink. The rainwater collected in a large cistern at the side of the building. “People keep giving lighthouse items to me. Can you imagine doing the same thing for a person living in a two-story colonial or a rancher?”

“No.” I folded my hands. “So. How’s everything been out here?”

She rested a surprisingly well-manicured hand on her broad hip. You just never knew with Hattie. “A calm year. Mild winter. Not much ice damage. No rescues. Good, I’d say.”

And that’s enough for your introduction, except to point out to you (if you haven’t noticed it already) that sometimes a writer’s voice is determined by the way in which she breaks (or bends) the rules. You might want to think about that for a bit.


Please add to the discussion! I’d love any examples you might have of writers with distinct voices. Feel free to post a small, representative excerpt here, along with your thoughts about what characterizes that writer’s voice.

Do you have comments about voice? I’d love to hear them.

Questions about voice? Please let me know; I’ll try to address them in the next few le

Be a Better Writer - Voice Part 2
Be a Better Writer - Voice Part 3

Re: Be a Better Writer--VOICE (PART 1)

Posted: Sat Aug 01, 2015 12:28 pm
by Granny's Pen
Just a short comment here. Voice has remained a mystery to me, for some reason. I believe my writing has a distinct voice, for others have mentioned it, and if that is the case, I don't think I am happy with my own voice. I like what I write, but it seems too simple to me. I want to be able to write the same stories, in a more complex manner. Is it possible to make a change like this, or is it better to stay with what comes naturally?

Re: Be a Better Writer--VOICE (PART 1)

Posted: Sat Aug 01, 2015 12:35 pm
by glorybee
It's definitely possible to change one's writing voice, and the Writing Challenge is a wonderful way to do it. In the next few weeks, I'll be going into more detail about things that make a writer's voice distinctive--I'd encourage you to experiment with some of those things.

When I first started writing, I'd never even heard of 'voice.' But by reading lots and lots and lots of very different writers, I began to get an idea of what that meant. I used the Challenge to try new things and to hone those that I liked.

This may or not be true for you, but it's worth saying (I meant to include it in the lesson, but I forgot)--I think too many people only READ in their comfort zone--only one genre, or only one style of writing, or even only Christian books. If you're interested in learning about different writing voices, it's important to read lots of different types of things--even those things that make you uncomfortable or that you initially dislike. You may find that after a while the new things become more appealing and that you appreciate the unique voice for the way it carries a story.

Re: Be a Better Writer--VOICE (PART 1)

Posted: Sat Aug 01, 2015 2:24 pm
by Anja
For a little more of what Jan suggested regarding reading material, see my BoB interview with Joanne Sher.

A tiny example of a writer using similar language even in vastly dissimilar works... I have read three Barbara Kingsolver novels in a row. In each one, she uses the word "earbobs," a word that makes me chuckle, both for its oddity and the fact that I use it, along with "hairbob," meaning pony tail elastic or barrette. I wonder if she uses the term in all her novels... Ms. Kingsolver also writes in a style similar to Jan's examples... Flowy (not flowery), richly textured, words exquisitely joined together in a way that leaves you breathless and hungry for more.

Re: Be a Better Writer--VOICE (PART 1)

Posted: Sat Aug 01, 2015 2:54 pm
by glorybee
Ann, could you provide a link to the BoB interview?

As always, thanks for your valuable contributions to these lessons.

Re: Be a Better Writer--VOICE (PART 1)

Posted: Sat Aug 01, 2015 4:26 pm
by Anja

Re: Be a Better Writer--VOICE (PART 1)

Posted: Mon Aug 03, 2015 4:12 pm
by zacdfox
I don't have anything to really add to the discussion. I just wanted to say :thankssign as I found this post both interesting and helpful.

One thing I would like to see explored in future posts is how to 'break or bend rules' in a way that enhances one's voice.

Great lesson! Can't wait for more.

thanks Jan

Re: Be a Better Writer--VOICE (PART 1)

Posted: Sat Aug 15, 2015 1:03 pm
by Shann
I thought I'd add to this discussion because this week, I've had a few people comment about my ability to stay true to their voices when I'm editing. When I do in-depth editing, I'll often give examples of ways the author could strengthen the piece. I never would have guessed it, but I think this is more my gift than writing fresh material. I've had several people tell me how impressed they are that I stay true to their voices (and they are all quite different). Generally, I try to still use their words, but will rearrange it to make it active not passive or make it dialog not just a retelling of what is said. I'll also encourage them to use body language. When I do this, I'll often ask questions like how does your MC look when frustrated? Does he ball up his fist, clench his teeth, or does the vein on his head pulsate as sweat beads up on his forehead? I hope this enables the writer to pull from her experiences and choose her voice. The most important thing that I stress is that the author is welcome to use or not use any of my suggestions. It won't hurt my feelings. I may disagree, but the final decision is theirs.

Re: Be a Better Writer--VOICE (PART 1)

Posted: Tue Aug 18, 2015 12:02 am
by swfdoc1
Here’s my down-and-dirty take on all Jan’s lessons on voice. It seems to me that some of what people are posting represents different CHARACTERS’ “voices” (really verbal idiosyncrasies, which is a tool of characterization), not different AUTHORS’ voices. Admittedly it can be hard to pretend to be several different authors.

In my opinion, folks may be missing Jan’s very helpful technique was from the first lesson There Jan gave examples of notes from Kate, Addison, and Louise. Now imagine an entire short story or novel written in those styles—THAT’S voice.

Here’s how voice became real to me: One night, I asked my wife to sit down on the couch and pretend to be the audience for an upcoming speech I had to give. (This was back in the days when I actually produced a full text for speeches, even if I knew I would abandon the text as I went.) As I started into my speech, she started laughing—not exactly the reaction I wanted. When I asked what was so funny, she responded, “That sounds exactly like you.” I replied, “It’s my speech; of course, it sounds like me.” She retorted, “Well, nothing else you write ever sounds like you.” She didn’t know it, but she had paid me a great compliment. I had recently been doing a great deal of ghost writing, so I explained, “Well, when I write for [televangelist A], I sound like [televangelist A]; when I write for [religious leader B], I sound like [religious leader B]; when I write for [famous lawyer C], I sound like [famous lawyer C]. But this is MY speech, so I sound like me.

I think this is the same point Jan was making with Kate, Addison, and Louise. The point is not how does character A’s POV sound different from character B’s POV, but rather how do character A AND character B sound different when written by author D than how character A AND character B sound when written by author E. And of course, how do the non-dialogue sections sound different between the 2 authors. Or how does author F’s fiction sound the same across fiction, non-fiction, devotionals, academic writing, etc. Now, of course, many of us change our voice across such categories, but the point remains.

So here’s my idea for a second take at Jan’s Kate, Addison, and Louise technique: Write a challenge-length or shorter story. Make sure to include 4 or 5 lines of dialogue from 2-3 characters. (Of course, in the future, you may be writing pieces without dialogue—whether dialogue-less fiction passages, devotionals, non-fiction, academic writing, etc.—but for now using dialogue serves a useful purpose.) Now re-write it in light of the following instructions, BUT DO NOT ALTER ONE WORD OF DIALOGUE. To repeat, dialogue is about the characters, not the author’s voice. So—implicitly—all the changes must come in other parts of the story. Here, you should write the story as you can “hear” a beloved or despised well-known politician tell it: Hillary or Bill Clinton, Donald Trump, George “Dubyah” Bush, Ronald Regan. Or your pastor, preaching a sermon. Or your spouse, parent, or child. Now write it as you would write it. Again, no change in dialogue from the first version.

I also suggest 3 ways to help determine your voice. I know one was mentioned by Jan; I can’t remember whether the others were or not:

1. Punctuation: Part of my voice is that I use more semi-colons than typical, and I use more dashes than typical and advised. I use close (not CLOSED—please!) punctuation. I use more parentheses than typical, and I sometimes use them in a very specialized way (I won’t explain here). I also tend to use nested parentheses. I’m a stickler for proper use of colons.

2. Gimmicks: Many accomplished authors switch verb tenses and/or person for different characters, e.g., Dean Koontz. Many other gimmicks constitute components of voice.

3. If you use certain constructions across various types of writing, that is part of your voice. I once had a staff attorney who frequently used inverted sentence structure—that was part of his voice. For example, instead of writing, “the Defendant could not prove [A].” he would write the following: “The Defendant needed to prove [A]. This he could not do.” He used similar constructions in emails to me.

I can identify similar tendencies in my own writing.

a. In formal writing, after an excursus or lengthy logical explication, I will often start the next paragraph with “Anyway . . .” or “Be that as it may . . . ” or “Be all that as it may . . . .” And I find that even in informal writing and in fiction, I use these TECHNIQUES, although the exactly phraseology may change, as is context appropriate. That is part of my voice.

b. The punctuation issues I mentioned above cross genre/category lines.

c. I eschew profligate adjectives and adverbs SO THAT I can SPRINKLE them with (hopefully) maximum impact.

d. I employ certain rhetorical devices consistently: parallelism, rule of three, etc.

e. I employ other rhetorical devices freely in early drafts, only to edit some out in later drafts: chiasm, passive voice, etc.

Laying aside sub-points d & e above (which use terms, perhaps not known to all), I hope most of the rest is helpful, especially the idea of re-writing a story with the “voice” of known people.

Re: Be a Better Writer--VOICE (PART 1)

Posted: Tue Aug 18, 2015 2:48 am
by Shann
Thanks Steve, I think you did a great job of explaining your take on voice. That was what I was trying to say in my post above. Like you, I felt it was a great compliment when people told me that they didn't know how I did it, but I was able to make their pieces better while staying true to their voice. Although I've only done a few total ghostwrites, I have done what I call soft rewrites. I may leave a paragraph or a sentence the same as the original, but merge the next section with parts I've written. I've done my job when people, e can't tell the difference.

I worked on a piece once where the author thought it was okay to copy and paste things from the Internet or books. I'd like to think her intentions were good and she didn't believe she was plagiarizing. I was supposedly the third or fourth editor. I wasn't far into the first chapter when something began to bother me. The more I read, the more I noticed that her voice would suddenly change. After some research, I discovered that she did take a great deal of the MS from other pieces. I was surprised to learn not one of the other editors caught it.

I wish I could share it because after Jan's suggestions and your reinforcement, I think it would be easy for people to spot it. I know when I was reading all of the challenges etc have week, I was haile to guess the author's of quite a few entries. I think one of the easier voices to spot at FW is Noel Mixta. He is a master of puns. While not all of his stories have puns (he tens to switch it for the more serious messages), I feel his voice is distinct and easy to spot.

I tend to disagree with you on one point and that is that no matter how you switch your voice, the dialog should stay the same. I've seen people not use dialog at all. The characters still may express the same sentiments, but the choice to use dialog or to leave it out can definitely be part of one's voice. I think it's harder (at least for me) to not use dialog, but I think the way the characters communicate can be a part of an author's voice.

I'm guessing you'll disagree with me, but also believe it's okay to disagree. That's how we learn, we take a little bit from one person, more from another and toss it in with our own opinions. It's pretty amazing how God created us to learn and evolve throughout our lifetimes. I agree that the heart of the character can't really be changed. In my example on lesson three, I used different characters to hopefully show two different bodies. I just couldn't use my Wrigley character and write the story in a different voice. I've probably told at least 50 Wrigley stories and while the character and her dialog changes with her age, I hope my voice remains consistent in all of my Wrigley books.

Thanks for going over the suggestions that Jan made. I think it helps to understand the same material if given in a few different voices. Even in the challenge comments, I see different voices and would guess many people could point out my comments from my voice, at least I'd like to think so. :D :thankssign :mrgreen:

Re: Be a Better Writer--VOICE (PART 1)

Posted: Tue Aug 18, 2015 7:32 am
by swfdoc1
I actually meant to put this in the last lesson on voice and may copy it there later.

As far as not changing the dialogue, I only meant that for the purposes of my suggested exercise--just to force folks to change the voice of the whole piece not just voice of the characters.

Re: Be a Better Writer--VOICE (PART 1)

Posted: Tue Aug 18, 2015 1:19 pm
by Shann
Oh that makes sense. It would be a great exercise. It's like on TV I've seen actors do a scene in two different ways. The dialog is exactly the same, but the background music, tone, and body language changes, and it totally can change the meaning of the dialog. That's a great way to show how atmosphere can impact your characters along with each author's voice. :D