At every writer’s conference I’ve ever attended, editors say they’re looking for fiction manuscripts with a unique, distinct voice. Whenever attendees ask exactly what they mean by “voice”, editors shrug their shoulders and say it’s hard to explain, but they know it when they see it.
Meanwhile, educators generally describe voice as the “personality of the writing” or “how they writing makes the reader feel.” These definitions may help us gain a stronger sense of what voice is, but it doesn’t tell us how to craft it. That’s what writers really need to know.
|Linda Sue Park (l) and Emma Dryden (r)|
That’s why I’m so glad that I recently attended an SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) writing workshop led by uber-talented Newbery Award winning author Linda Sue Park and highly-regarded editorial and publishing consultant Emma Dyrden.
Here’s Linda Sue’s astonishingly clear, simple definition of voice:
voice = word choice + rhythm
She then broke down “rhythm” in an equally clear and simple way:
rhythm = punctuation + sentence length
Not only does this brilliant explanation apply to voice in both fiction and nonfiction, it also makes a craft move that often seems so mysterious and elusive instantly manageable. All three of these text characteristics are easy to control, easy to vary, easy to play around with.
As I’ve been saying for years, nonfiction voice options span a continuum from lively to lyrical, with many choices in between. Writers choose a voice based on their topic and their purpose for writing.
I’ve also stressed the importance of word choice and the idea that different language devices are associated with different voices. For example, repetition and opposition can make writing more lyrical, whereas puns and onomatopoeia can make writing more lively.
I’ve also pointed out that longer sentences with more dependent clauses (and commas) make writing more lyrical, while sentence fragments and embedded questions are attributes of a lively voice.
But Linda Sue’s simple word equations, and the idea that voice really boils down to a trifecta of text characteristics that are easy to revise and experiment with is mind blowing. I can’t wait to share this new way of thinking with students in writing workshops.
Thank you, Linda Sue!