Be a Better Writer -- Last lesson on VOICE

These lessons, by one of our most consistent FaithWriters' Challenge Champions, should not be missed. So we're making a permanent home for them here.

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Be a Better Writer -- Last lesson on VOICE

Post by glorybee » Sat Aug 15, 2015 10:57 am

Here’s our working definition of voice again:

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.

I’ve already done a lesson on how punctuation relates to voice—the deafening silence after that lesson tells me that I’m probably missing the mark. So here’s a brief, bulleted list of other things you might consider experimenting with as you work to create your own unique voice:

• Intentional sentence fragments

• Nice long sentences with interesting internal phrases and clauses, perhaps even taking the reader in a separate direction altogether (like that time you got lost driving to Kentycky but it was the prettiest scenery you'd ever seen) that bring the reader back to the original verb with a pleasant ahh.

• Any construction that pleases you, used often enough to become a signature but not so often that your writing becomes predictable. One of my clients used this construction a lot:

o Jan’s eyes open wide, their green-blue irises shining in the flickering candlelight.

It worked very well for her contemporary literary fiction. Similarly, you might have a particular construction that you feel drawn to writing. I tend to do lots of full sentences joined by semicolons; some writers never use semicolons at all.

• Vocabulary that is notched up one level from that of a typical reader. You don’t want to send them to their dictionaries too often, but if you (or your narrator) are particularly erudite, let your voice reflect that.

• Words that are chosen with their connotations in mind. If your piece is somber, dark, or heavy, you’ll use snort instead of giggle. If it’s light and cheerful, you’ll use traipse instead of plod. This is a common error I see in my clients—using words without regard to their connotations.

• Use similes and metaphors in your writing; these can become neon arrows to your readers, pointing to you as the writer.

• Or don’t.

I’m sorry, but that’s all I’ve got. If you have a question about any of those bullet points (each of which could be a lesson on its own), please ask. I think I do better responding to questions that I do developing new material.

[Maybe that’s a new direction this forum could take? Ask Me A Question About Writing, but Not About Grammar Because I Might Not Know.] What do you think?

Zac(h)(?) asked for homework—I can definitely do that. I’m going to give you the bare bones of a situation, and ask you to write it two ways—in two different voices. Let’s keep each to 125 words or less, please (for a total of about 250).

The prompt: Two people who disagree about something. That’s it. You can decide what their relationship is and how serious (or not) the disagreement is. But if you choose, for example, two siblings disagreeing about what they want for lunch…or a married couple disagreeing about the discipline of their child…whatever you choose, write that same situation in two different voices.

Here’s a cool idea—if there are at least 10 people who respond to this post, I’ll draw a name at random and offer that person a free critique of one of their challenge articles (or of something else of a similar length). Those 10 people don’t all have to do the homework, but the response has to be more than just “Hi, I’m responding.” Contribute to the discussion with a thought of your own, give an example of some writer you know who has a distinct voice, ask a thoughtful question—or do the homework.
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Re: Be a Better Writer -- Last lesson on VOICE

Post by Shann » Sat Aug 15, 2015 12:45 pm

I'm game for the homework. My first example will be my favorite character and genre.

Wrigley stomped across the kitchen and glared at her brother. "Camden, give it back, or I'm gonna tell Mom."

Laughing, Camden waved the diary above Wrigley's head. Each time Wrigley jumped for it, he lifted it out of her reach."What could you possibly write in a diary? You're too boring." Rifling through the pages, he started reading aloud. "Dear Jesus, today was a bad--"

Wrigley kicked him in the shins. The book sailed across the room and hit Mom's favorite vase. It crashed to the floor. Wrigley smirked at Camden, scooped up her diary, and ran from the room. "Mommy, Camden just broke your vase!"

Here's an attempt at the same story. I had to change the names because Wrigley and Camden have a mind of their own. This one has more of the type of voice I use when writing for a more mature audience. I tend to be a bit darker. Even though the audience is slightly different, hopefully the voices are too. That's one thing I try to work on when I help other writers. In my opinion, knowing your audience is an essential part of developing your voice. I can't tell you how many times, people will insist everyone is their intended readers. It's a nice thought, but not very practical. I'd love to see a lesson about writing to your audience. Perhaps it would be better to ask you how you determine your audience, and what changes you make for the different readers?
Here's take two:

The lights flickered, and then darkness engulfed the room. Annie cringed as the thunder rumbled. The lightning lit up the room. She gasped when she saw her brother holding her diary. She'd written her darkest thoughts in it. She knew she had to stop Bill from reading it.

He grinned and tossed the book on top of the refrigerator.

Before Bill could utter a word, Annie set her plan into action. She knew she had to retrieve it or Mom and Dad would come in and discover her secret. As the lightning flooded the room, she grabbed a nearby vase and chucked it at Bill's head. When he ducked to miss the projectile, she scaled his back and stood on his shoulders. She grabbed the book, jumped down, and ran out of the room before the vase smashed into smithereens.
Last edited by Shann on Wed Aug 19, 2015 7:52 pm, edited 2 times in total.

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Re: Be a Better Writer -- Last lesson on VOICE

Post by zacdfox » Sat Aug 15, 2015 12:48 pm

I love this! I'm on it:)

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Re: Be a Better Writer -- Last lesson on VOICE

Post by yvonblake » Sat Aug 15, 2015 8:10 pm

Good lessons, Jan. Finding your own voice is hard when you're a beginner. I think you have to write and write until your voice surfaces - the tone, the vocabulary, the themes that come out most often.
It's like trying to act normal. The more you think about it, the less normal you act.

Here's my replies to your assignment -

1. Ellen rattled the obstinate map. "You're going the wong way, Johnny. You missed the turn. We'll never get there in time. You always do this to me."
Johnny looked in the rearview mirror, and then glanced at his wife.
"Oh, what's the use of talking to you? You never listen. You just do what you want to do anyway."
Johnny liked the way her hair curled around her ear - just like it did fifty-three years ago.

2. The windshield wipers slapped back and forth, back and forth. John hunched over the steering wheel, trying to peer farther into the rainy gloom. We're lost, but I don't want to tell Ellen. She worries too much about me already. Mile after mile of nothing - not even a farm house. He turned the radio to some soft music to sooth his nerves.
"Shouldn't we be there by now?" Ellen opened the glove compartment and pawed through some napkins and envelopes. "Don't we have a map in here? What a mess! "
The glaring lights of an oncoming car reflected on the rain-soaked road. Johnny squinted and braked 'til the car slowed to a stop. I can't do this. I'm driving blind. I'm lost.
"What are you stopping for?" Ellen pointed into the darkness. "What don't you ask for help at that gas station up there?"

(side note - As I wrote these, I could feel different sympathies arise. It surprises me how we discover ourselves when we write.)

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Re: Be a Better Writer -- Last lesson on VOICE

Post by zacdfox » Mon Aug 17, 2015 5:37 pm

These lessons are so good for me:)

It was very challenging, but it forced me to weigh my writing on different scales. Instead of 'is it good? I have to ask more specific questions like 'Is this distinct? Does it enhance my storytelling?

Thanks for these, Jan:)

* * *
I stared down from the balcony, frowning at that wilderness called 'New York City'.

"You spoil this dog, Jerry." Sheba ignored the chicken nugget an inch from her nose.

"Jerry, you want a few?"

I shot Burt a sideways glance. "Two winters back the snow held the pass in Winnipeg closed till May - Sheba an' me took it on foot - cougar jumps me an' I thought I's a goner. Next thing I know - cougar let's me go an' I look up an' find Sheba beatin' that cat like a dirty rug."

Burt blinked. "So what?"

"I trust my dog.”

"You’d pass up a bite of meat because of your dog?"

I grinned. "Burt. Trust ol' Sheba - that ain't meat."

* * *

I looked over the balcony as some cops pinned a man to the street. “Burt, this place is a wilderness.”

Burt tossed a chicken nugget toward my dog, Sheba. She only huffed. “You spoil this dog, Jerry. You want a few?”

I grimaced at the nuggets. "Two winters back, the snow held the pass in Winnipeg closed till May. Sheba an' me took it on foot, when a cougar jumps me. Thought I's a goner, for sure. Next thing I know, cougar let's me go. I look up an' find Sheba beatin' that cat like a dirty rug."

Burt’s face wore as much sense as this crazy city he called home. “So what?”

“Is english your second language that you need everything spelled out? I take ol’ Sheba’s word over yours.”

“You’d pass up a bite of meat because of your dog?”

“Trust Sheba. That ain’t meat.”

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Re: Be a Better Writer -- Last lesson on VOICE

Post by GeraldShuler » Wed Aug 19, 2015 6:29 pm

Jan, I have loved these classes on voice. I've been told (in yellow box comments) that I have an easily recognized voice in my writing. Maybe I should stop feeling insulted and take those comments as compliments. I've been trying to NOT be so easily identified.

Here is my homework:

Jake had taken all he could take. Jessy was just plain impossible to reason with.

“Jessy, you ain't got a lick of sense in that skull of yorin!” Jake huffed, just to make sure Jessy knew how mad he was. “We been argren fur nigh on a hour now and you still ain't said a word!”

Jake paused long enough to give Jessy a chance to respond but, as always, he just stared straight ahead at something about ten million miles away.

“Ain't you got NUTHIN' to say?

Jessy turned his head slightly, looked Jake in the eyes and slowly questioned...

“Jake, what in tarnations was we fussin' 'bout?”


Jess took a long, slow breath. It helped keep him calm when his brother was so hard to handle.
It would be over soon... too soon.

“Jess, I won't let this drop until you agree to get me out of this nursing home.” Jake had nearly worked himself up to the point of tears... a place Jess had hoped to avoid. At least today Jake remembered some things... he wasn't at home; Jess was his brother; nothing was getting better. “Jess, I just want to go home.

Home had been sold, two years past. He had no home. But that was a family secret... Jake couldn't know.

“Jess... please... get me out of here! PLEASE!”

“I'm sorry, Jake.” Jess swallowed hard. Now the tear was in his own eye. “You need to stay here.”

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