Wednesday, March 6, 2019

What Is Voice?

For years, I’ve been trying to gain a deeper understanding of voice and reconcile how it applies to fiction vs. nonfiction writing. What’s the connection?

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!


  1. Thank you for this post! Finally, specific, simple info. on voice- and so, quite illuminating as I go back to revisions!

  2. I LOVE equations. These make perfect sense, although I've never thought of voice in this way. Thanks for the new perspective!

  3. Great post on voice, Melissa! Diction and rhythm/cadence are so essential to describing voice, though it has that ineffable je ne sais quoi quality.

  4. Wow! This is such a great post. Bookmarking it!

  5. We spent semesters at college chasing the elusive definition of voice. This nails it concisely!

  6. I love the breakouts, especially. Thank you for the blog - going back to spice up my PB!

  7. More talk on voice today on ReFoReMo. It was interesting using Linda Sue's formula to look at those examples of fiction for kids.

  8. This is a TERRIFIC post! I'm going to use this wonderfully succinct explanation of voice the next time I teach my class in Finding your Writer's Voice. Thanks so much.

  9. Great explanation! I'm printing this out to keep in my notes.

  10. Thinking of voice as "personality" helps me a lot...but this goes beyond and gives tools to think about as we create.

  11. Yes, this a very helpful way to define the word "voice" and its meaning. These are invaluable "how to" tools for the writer. Thank you Linda Sue Park., Emma Dryden, and Melissa Stewart.

  12. Thank you for sharing this cool definition of voice! There is so much you can do by varying word choice to give your narrative and characters voice. Each of us (and our characters!) would tell it in a different way - that's what makes voice unique.