Tag Archives: voice and style

The Author’s Voice: Word Choice and Placement #amwriting

We are drawn to the work of our favorite authors because we like their voice. An author’s voice is the unique, recognizable way they choose words and assemble them into sentences.

With practice, we become technically better at the mechanics (grammar and punctuation) but our natural speech habits shine through. Voice is how we bend the rules and is our authorly fingerprint.

When we begin the editing process with a professional editor, most will ignore the liberties we take with dialogue but will point out our habitual errors in the rest of the narrative.

Many times, what we want to say is not technically correct, but we want that visual pause in that place, in that sentence. Casual readers who leave reviews will have gained some understanding of grammar but if your voice is consistent, they will accept your choice. However, they will notice inconsistencies and illiterate writing.

This is why the process of editing is so important. Knowledge of the mechanics of writing is crucial. If you don’t understand the rules, you can’t break them with authority. (For the first part of this series, see my post Revisions: Self-Editing.)

Consider Raymond Chandler’s dismay when he discovered his grammar had been heavily edited by a line editor and then published without his input in the corrections:

“By the way, would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write in a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split, and when I interrupt the velvety smoothness of my more or less literate syntax with a few sudden words of barroom vernacular, this is done with the eyes wide open and the mind relaxed but attentive. The method may not be perfect, but it is all I have.”  – Raymond Chandler, in a letter to Edward Weeks, Editor of The Atlantic Monthly, dated 18 January 1947. (Read the letter in its entirety here.)

When we self-edit, we don’t have to wrestle for control of our work, true. But I have to be honest—I have worked with many editors over the past ten years, and only one tried to hijack my manuscript.

What is the mood you want to convey with your prose? Where you place the words in the sentence greatly affects the mood. Active prose is Noun-Verb centric. Compare these sentences, two of which are actively phrased, and two are passive. All say the same thing, and none are “wrong.”

I run toward danger, never away.

I never run away from danger.

Danger approaches, and I run to meet it.

If it’s dangerous, I run to it.

Can you tell which are passive and which are active? Which phrasing resonates with you? Could you write that idea in a different way?

Where we choose to place the core words, I run to danger, changes their voice but not their meaning. The words we choose to surround them with changes the mood but not their meaning.

Other ways to use the core concept of I run to danger:

Danger draws me. I race to embrace it, to make it mine.

If it’s dangerous or stupid, I will find it.

Danger—who cares. Running away is stupid; it always finds you. Meet it, grab it, and make it yours.

I saw him, and in that moment, I knew I’d met my destiny. He was the embodiment of danger, and I wanted him.

We could riff for half an hour on just four words, I run to danger. Each of us will write that idea with our own brand of brilliance, and none of us will sound exactly alike.

One of the things we must look at in our work is consistency. Is our narrative comprised of a smooth pattern? We don’t want our work to be jarring, so we want to think push, glide, push, glide.

Once you have established the mood you are trying to convey, look at how you have placed your verbs in the majority of your sentences.

Some are: noun – verb – modifier – noun. I run to danger when I see it. (Active)

Some are: infinitive – noun – verb –  modifier – noun. When I see danger, I run toward it. (Passive)

NOTE: PASSIVE VOICE DOES NOT MEAN WRONG!

Good writing is about balance. How we combine active and passive phrasing is part of our signature, our voice. By mixing the two, we choose where we direct the reader’s attention.

Some work you want to feel highly charged, action-packed. Genres such as scifi, political thrillers, and crime thrillers need to be verb forward in the way the words are presented. These books seek to immerse the reader so more sentences should lead off with Noun – Verb, followed by modifiers.

If you clicked on the link and read Raymond Chandler’s letter in full, you will see it is aggressive and verb-forward, just the way his prose was.

In other genres, like cozy mysteries, you want to create a sense of comfort and familiarity of place with the mood. Perhaps you want to slightly separate the reader from the action to convey a sense of safety, of being an interested observer. You want the reader to feel like they are the detective with the objective eye, yet you want them immersed in the romance of it. To do that, you balance the active and passive sentence construction, so it is leaning slightly more toward the passive than a thriller.

Weak prose makes free with all the many forms of to be (is, are, was, were).

  • He was happy.
  • They were mad.

Bald writing tells only part of the story. For the reader to see and believe the entire story, we must choose words that show the emotions that underpin the story.

To grow in the craft, we learn to convey what we see through words.

Passive voice balances Active voice. It is not weak, as weak prose holds the reader away from the immediacy of the experience, and when active prose is interspersed with passive, it does not.

Voice is defined by word choice, and Passive or Active prose is defined by word placement, not how many words are used.

Weak prose usually uses too many words to convey an idea. So, we want to avoid wordiness no matter what mood we are trying to convey.

  • One clue to look for is the overuse of forms of to be, which can lead to writing long, convoluted passages.

How many compound sentences do you use? How many words are in each sentence? Can you see ways to divide long sentences to make them more palatable?

A wall of words turns away most readers. Look at your style, as you work your way through your revisions, and see what positive changes you can make in how you consistently phrase things.

Take a short paragraph from a work in progress and rewrite it. Try to convey that thought in both passive and active voice. Then blend the two. You might learn something about how you think as a writer when you try to write in an unfamiliar style.

The following is a  list of words I habitually use in a first draft and then must look for in my own work. I look at each instance and decide if they work as they should or weaken the sentence. If they weaken the prose, I change or remove them.

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Style and Voice #amwriting

The literary voice is the way a story is told. Literary voice has been compared to  music. We’ve all noticed how a well-known song can sound so different, depending on who is performing it. The words are the same, the basic melody is there, but some performances shine while others miss the mark.

The distinctive style of each writer forms when we engage personally with a topic and impart our personality to that piece of literature. We are each islands in a vast sea of writers, and the view from our place in the universe is slightly different from that of our fellows.

Therefore, how we convey what we see and imagine has an identifiable sound that is ours alone. Phrasing, word choices, these are the recognizable sounds of our literary style. Our habitual writing style is our unique fingerprint, the author’s voice.

However, voice is often what we love or hate about a certain author’s work. Editors for publications are readers who are looking for the best work to publish in their magazine or anthology. If a story has great characters and a good story arc, voice is what will attract or repel them.

These are the holy trinity that combines to make a classic tale:

  • great characters
  • unique voice
  • gripping plot

You may have noticed plot is listed last—and it is last for a reason. If the characters are not engaging and the writer’s style isn’t to my taste, the plot alone won’t sell me that book.

What is the writer’s voice? Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge, says:  The writer’s voice is the individual writing style of an author, a combination of their common usage of syntax, diction, punctuation, character development, dialogue, etc., within a given body of text (or across several works).

Don’t confuse lazy writing with style. Lazy writers

  • Use too many quantifiers “It was really big.” “It was incredibly awesome.”
  • “Tell” the story instead of showing it: “Bert was mad.”
  • Swamp the reader with minute details: “Mary’s eyebrows drew together, her lips turned down, and her cheeks popped a dimple.”
  • Ruin the taste of their work with an avalanche of prettily written descriptors: “-ly” words
  • Have their characters natter on about nothing just to kill time. It doesn’t show them as human, it shows them as boring.

Lazy writers don’t realize how smart their readers are. We don’t have to offer up every minute detail of breakfast. Broad strokes will paint the picture.

In contrast, some enthusiastic writers go overboard in trying to create beautiful, literary prose. They’re confusing contrived writing with literary style.

Literary agent, Noah Lukeman, in his book The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide To Staying Out of the Rejection Pile, says, “All of these writers think they add a distinctive flavor, a ‘richness’ to the text, but more often than not they are just indulging themselves—thus the term ‘self-indulgent’—a common symptom of the over-styled manuscript.”

As we grow in the craft, our style becomes more cohesive, less self-indulgent, and more able to reflect our ideas. Certain habits will remain, the core of who we are and how we express ourselves. This is our voice.

It gets a little confusing when voice can also mean the tense in which the narrative is presented. English is a language where one word can have a multitude of meanings and context is critical. Some writers incorrectly use the terms voice and point of view interchangeably, so when they are talking about third voice, they mean Third Person Point of View. In this case, they are speaking of the main character’s voice, how she tells her story.

In this aspect, there are two voices to every narrative: the author’s voice, and the character’s voice.

Narration is the use of a written or spoken commentary to convey a story to an audience. Perspective and voice are components of the narrative.

Wikipedia says “Narrative point of view or narrative perspective describes the position of the narrator, that is, the character of the storyteller, in relation to the story being told. It can be thought of as a camera mounted on the narrator’s shoulder that can also look back inside the narrator’s mind.” It also explains that a narrative consists of three components:

  • Narrative point of view: the perspective (or type of personal or non-personal “lens”) through which a story is communicated.
  • Narrative voice: the format (or type presentational form) through which a story is communicated.
  • Narrative time: the grammatical placement  of the story’s time-frame in the past, the present, or the future.

Anyone who is a member of a critique group is regularly beaten over the head with certain basically good, but occasionally clichéd, rules. Improperly applied, this mindless interpretation of proper grammatical style can inhibit an author’s growth.

These rules are fundamentally sound but cannot be rigidly applied across the board to every sentence. For editing and also for writing, when I have questions about grammar I rely on The Chicago Manual of Style, but I also understand common sense.

Again it’s all about context. Sometimes a sentence that is grammatically incorrect sounds better, especially in dialogue. The bold writer sometimes breaks grammatical laws to write great books. How they habitually break those laws is their fingerprint, their style.

English is a living language. As such it is in a continual state of evolution and phrasing that made sense one-hundred years ago may not work well in today’s English. We may be writing a period piece, but we are writing it for modern readers. Nevertheless,

  • You can split an infinitive: it is acceptable to boldly go where you will.
  • You can begin a sentence with a conjunction if you so choose. And no one will die if you do.

How you apply grammar, the words you gravitate to, the point of view you work best in—these are the identifiable aspects of your voice as an author. Your writing style is a combination of how you speak through your pen or keyboard, how you craft your prose—your voice.

As Noah Lukeman’s book tells us, your author’s voice should not be so distinct and loud that it makes your prose obnoxious. Sharing your work in the early stages with an interested reader who will be honest with you can help you avoid some of the pitfalls in developing your style and voice. Find a good editor you can work with, one who will understand your stylistic choices, but who will guide you away from bad writing. This is money that is well spent.

Write something new every day, even if it is only a paragraph. Of all the advice I have to offer, this is the most important because if you don’t write, you have no voice, no style, no story.


Credits and Attributions:

Quote from The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide To Staying Out of the Rejection Pile, by Noah Lukeman, published by Simon and Shuster, © 2000.

Wikipedia contributors, “Narration,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Narration&oldid=777375141 (accessed Mar 18, 2018).

 

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