Wordsmith Wednesday–Voice


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A number of years ago I participated in a writing conference in which one of the speakers–a well-known author and writing guru–tossed out a piece of advice that I never followed. He claimed that budding authors, in order to improve their writing style, should sit down with a favorite book by a writer that they admire and copy the text, word-for-word, page-by-page. I just couldn’t buy into this suggestion.

I was already facing a glaring weakness in my own first novel. At the time I had been reading a lot of mystery novels by Robert Parker and had, unconsciously, imitated his short, clipped sentences. They worked for Parker who used them to propel his readers through quick, suspenseful reads tinged with a sense of humor–the kind of books that benefited my lifestyle at the time, that of a working professional. But I was writing literary fiction and dealing with issues of life and death that demanded a bit more ponderous tone.

Voice refers to the way an author uses words, style and syntax to create a story. Each of us has a message to deliver and, for the most part, we have a specific audience hovering somewhere below the surface of our consciousness. I think it is important to ask ourselves a few questions that will help to evaluate our own voice:

Who am I? Is my narrative true to my unique personality? If I read it aloud, is it congruent with how I envision life? Example: for me to undertake writing that is full of expletives, violence or lewdness is out of character. That does not mean I will not pen occasional scenes or characters that are edgy.

Do my characters all sound alike? Have I entered into their minds enough to differentiate one from another? Does a uneducated protagonist sound like a PhD? Does a physician sound like a teenager? Take the time to learn the “language” of your characters by visiting, eaves-dropping or interviewing persons of various backgrounds if you need to. Write dialect only if you are comfortable with it and can make it sound natural. This takes considerable skill and talent. Mark Twain succeeded in writing from the point of view of Huck Finn. Not many are able to pull that off.

Who is my intended audience? A while back I worked at a University editing patient education material for a nutrition department. The original work had been written by people educated at the Master’s or Doctoral level. The intended audience was for socio-economically deprived persons. It was my job to communicate the information in such a way that it would be meaningful to those who would use it.

As a writing exercise, I’m going to suggest the opposite of what the afore-mentioned speaker advised. Take a few paragraphs of an author you admire and rewrite them…in YOUR voice.