February 4, 2021
All writing has voice, though sometimes the voice is barely noticeable and sometimes it’s even unpleasant to read. What most people mean when they talk about voice is when the way the content is written is nearly as interesting as the content itself. So when a story has noticeable voice, it's usually because the way it is written is very lively, or quite poetic, or unusually spare. But voice happens really whether we think about it or not, because voice is all about how you write, the mechanics of it. What words do you choose? How varied are your choices? How do you structure sentences?
What Words Do You Choose?
If you've ever read a writing book, attended a writing workshop, or taken a writing class, you've probably been told to choose the best, most specific, and most interesting nouns and verbs. Beyond that, you've probably been told to choose adjectives and adverbs sparingly. (Some people go so far as to tell new writers not to use adverbs, at all, especially in speech tags). A very spare writing style and voice will generally use very few adjectives and adverbs. But even with a very spare voice, the impact of the voice will be affected by things like word choice. Choosing the exactly perfect word both for meaning and for sound will lead to the strongest possible spare voice. Personally, when I have to choose between a better word (in terms of meaning) or a better sounding word, I'll often choose the word whose meaning is more specifically what I feel the sentence needs. But that's my own personal choice and one of the reasons my writing voice isn't lyrical, though it is lively.
Now, it could be argued that simple reflective sentences are also examples of spare writing if they avoid adjectives or adverbs. Sentences like "He is a scoundrel" or "Miriam is a shopaholic." Neither contain any modifiers (beyond the article "a" which really doesn't count), but they also do not contain strong verbs. The verb in each sentence is "is," which is a being verb, and thus the absolute horror of many writers who try to avoid being verbs altogether. But being verbs aren't evil, and they don't wreck your voice as long as every sentence isn't packed with them and as long as your other word choices are strong. "Jack is scum" is a short sentence with only a being verb, but no one could argue that it's a weak sentence. Short sentences can be very strong and impactful as long as they are used in a measured, purposeful way. Never let anyone tell you a specific type of word is forbidden. The key is to make all choices purposeful, and you'll end up with the strongest voice. So choose your words with intent and be prepared to polish those choices in your revision process to make them even more impactful. But never disallow anything simply because someone told you not to ever do it. Writing has no rule that simply cannot be broken as long as it is done with intent and reason.
Sentence can be as short as a single word. "Stop!" or "Hush!" are both complete sentences because they are imperative verbs. With an imperative verb, the noun is implied in the verb. That's how you can have a complete sentence with one word. But you can also have perfectly respectable two word sentences. "Mason froze" or "Mom died." are two word sentences that would be strong and impactful. Sometimes really short sentences have a unique power because they are so short. They stand out. They grab attention. This power however is lost when rarity is lost. If you tried to write a whole story with only two word sentences, the power of each sentence would be lost. The voice of such a thing would be staccato and unusual, but would run the risk of being so repetitive that it grew dull. Still, it might be a lively exercise for flash fiction. What could be a stronger story than "I came. I saw. I conquered?"
Most of the time, though, writers actually seek to use a variety of sentence lengths. This allows super short sentences to pop, and long, rambling sentences to give us a chance to slow down and enjoy the scenery. Consider the following:
The smell that hung on the air made Red think of something long dead, past the time of bloat and flies. He stood unmoving in the black darkness. He breathed in. Bones. It was bones. Not for the first time, he wished for a light, even the feeble flashlight that dangled from his mom's keychain would answer the question that nudged him toward panic. What kind of bones did he smell? Had an animal wandered into the cave, perhaps seeking peace for its last hours? Or had someone like Red strode boldly in, hoping for treasure and finding death instead? "Badger," he whispered, his voice barely a breath. "Be a badger, please?"
If you look closely at the passage, you'll see a minimum of modifiers (long, unmoving, black, first, feeble, Mother's, last, boldly), but I didn't try to avoid them completely. I did try to choose strong verbs and nouns, but I didn't look for challenging vocabulary. I chose words that were readily available to me without a thesaurus. Still, even without seeking out unique words, the passage has voice. But it also has variety. the long sentences give us slow moments, the first reflects the slower action of examining the setting with a sense beyond sight. The next really long sentence takes us inside Red's head as he had a memory of this little flashlight, clearly something he would usually scorn. This slowing down gives us almost a feeling of longing, not just because he wants a flashlight but because the flashlight is also linked to home; it's his mom's flashlight. It ups the disquiet of the scene slightly as a result.
In the passage we also have medium sentences, more of a normal pacing. He stands still, but the choice of two words "stood unmoving" rather than one "froze" softens the sentence purposefully. Someone who freezes is responding to a sudden fearful moment, but Red's standing still is contemplative at this point. However, it progresses to strong, shorter, sentences as he has a complete revelation. It's not enough to send him careening away in panic, but the short sentences allow up to experience how startling it is for Red to be in total darkness with the smell of old bones. To let us know that he's not ready to bolt yet, we go into a slower sentence, then some medium, normal length sentences, then the harder hitting wording of his spoken dialogue. At each point, the choices are made with intent. The intent may fall short for the reader, but it won't be because I didn't try.
Sentence structure plays both into voice and into reader age. Part of voice is sound and sound is often influenced by sentence structure. Sometimes a sentence that is presented in a less direct form has a better sound when read aloud (or even a better sound in our heads when we read silently.) Poetry and even picture books may employ unusual sentence structures for the sound of them, but care must be taken. Direct sentences are consistently easier to understand. Younger readers process a sentence better and with less struggle if it is very direct. For instance:
"Bear spies a mouse in the cupboard."
Though this sentence doesn't attempt controlled vocabulary (since "spies" is a fourth grade word, and I could have chosen "sees," a kindergarten word.), it is written very directly. We have the subject followed by the verb and the object. The phrase "in the cupboard" is directly after the word it is modifying "mouse." The sentence becomes more complex if we move the words around:
"A mouse in the cupboard is spied by Bear."
This sentence has been twisted around to make it passive voice. It's also wordier as often happens with passive voice. Bear is the one doing something, but he has been shunted aside to follow "by." The sentence can be made even more complex by shifting the prepositional phrase, in the cupboard.
"In the cupboard, a mouse is spied by Bear."
Because the prepositional phrase has been relocated, the sentence required a comma to be correct. Commas are often markers of complexity in sentences, so if you're ever trying to make your writing less complex (so it can be enjoyed by younger readers), look for the commas and see if the sentence can be written more directly.
In most of children's writing, and much of nonfiction writing for any age, direct sentences are preferred when possible. They make the reading more accessible and help put the focus on the content instead of on parsing sentences structures that are needlessly complex. That does not mean that all complex sentence choices are needless. That isn't true. Sometimes you need to twist the sentence a bit to force the reader to notice something you consider important. Sometimes you might twist a sentence a bit for variety. In either case, take care that you are not making the meaning of the sentence ambiguous or confusing. In children's literature and all nonfiction, clarity is king. When a choice you make causes confusion or frustration for the reader, it's a bad choice.
It's Always There
Keep in mind, that you already have a writing voice. All the choices you naturally make when writing contribute to your voice, but understanding more about how those choices work can help you to control how you're presenting yourself when writing. This can be especially helpful when you want to alter your normal writing voice to match your character's voice (which is often a part of writing in first person).
Throughout February, we'll look more at voice and choices you can make to strengthen your writing voice and make it clearer for the reader. I hope you'll come along for the ride. It should be fun.
Jan Fields is a former Institute of Children's Literature Instructor and a full-time, freelance author.
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