We hear the word “voice” a lot in appraisals of writing. The term can be confusing. You might hear, “Aden’s voice is just so original!” or “The voice of this piece really punched me in the gut.” These are terrific compliments, but what exactly is voice? Most commonly, voice refers to how a writer’s unique word choice and syntax reflect her worldview, identity, or personality. So if someone tells you that your writing has a strong voice, he is expressing his appreciation for the singular stylistic fingerprint imbued in your essays/stories.
You’ve probably already got your own personal narrator voice—and practice will only improve it.
This guest post is an excerpt from Windy Lynn Harris' new book, Writing & Selling Short Stories & Personal Essays: The Essential Guide to Getting Your Work Published (Writer’s Digest Books). She’s a prolific writer, a trusted mentor, and a frequent speaker at literary events. Her long list of short stories and personal essays have been published in literary, trade, and women’s magazines across the U.S. and Canada in places like The Literary Review, The Sunlight Press, and Literary Mama, among many other journals. She teaches the craft of writing online and in person. Learn more about Windy at www.windylynnharris.com.
The Tools of the Trade
Your authentic voice can shine with a combination of diction, the details you select, images, syntax, and tone. Let’s take a closer look at each of these elements and how to use them like a pro:
- Diction refers to your choice of words. Words affect the reader’s experience when they are chosen with purpose. For example, instead of saying house, consider using the word mansion, cottage, or Victorian. Each of those words has a unique connotation. Consider the different effect you can create when you refer to a person as vain and when you refer to someone as proud. The word vain assigns a negative connotation to this person, while the word proud might reflect the same character traits but in a much more positive light. You can choose to be poetic, vulgar, literal, formal, or anything else in your prose and show it to your readers via diction. If you intend to entertain, choose playful words or an ironic combination of words. When you want to persuade, use straightforward, confident language.
- Details include the facts, observations, and specific moments you choose to share in your story or essay. You can enhance the reader’s experience by choosing concrete details. For instance, a dented red Mustang is more descriptive than a car. Details encourage reader participation. Each word creates an opportunity for the reader to fill in the physical world he sees in your prose. You can also manipulate the reading experience through the number of details you include. When you use a handful of specific details in a paragraph, the reader leans in, gets closer to your story. When you use fewer details, the reader will feel a distance.
- Imagery adds an extra layer to your prose through sensory details. These sensory details evoke a vivid experience for the reader. The tools at your disposal are the five senses: sight, smell, sound, touch, and taste. Using these, you can trigger pleasant or unpleasant emotions, create confusion or surprise, or be provocative—all through your choice of images.
- Syntax is the order of your words, which creates the rhythm of your piece. You can manage this effect by varying your sentence length. Short sentences speed up momentum. Long ones slow down the action and let readers closely examine scenes. Repetition of certain words can also be an artistic choice.
- Tone reveals your underlying attitude toward the characters/people and situations in your writing and your story’s/essay’s subject matter. Are you angry? Sad? Apologetic? Somber? Whatever your feelings about your topic, let your readers know. Tone is achieved through the combination of your diction and syntax and is emphasized through the details and imagery you choose. Readers perceive your tone by examining these elements. They connect to the material and its underlying meaning via your attitude.
10 Tips for Strengthening Your Voice
You’ll know you have a distinct voice when somebody says to you, “I would know your work anywhere.” Usually it’s a mentor or critique partner who says this to you first; later, you’ll hear it from readers. Honing your voice is important, but how do you make your current writing shine brighter? Try these ten tips:
- Expand your vocabulary. Read widely, study your thesaurus, and buy one of those “word of the day” calendars.
- Study sentence structure. Do you miss sentence diagramming? Me too! Go old school, and play with words again. Subject-verb-object, oh my!
- Give grammar another look. Even the most competent writer can benefit from brushing up on her grammar skills. Knowing the rules of grammar increases your confidence when you write—and saves you time in the editing stage.
- Magnify the details. Be specific and intimate in your descriptions of the people, settings, and actions on the page. Every word in dialogue, action, interiority, and narration counts. Choose your words with purpose.
- Get sensual. Make a list of sensory words for each of the five senses, and challenge yourself to use them. Add at least two to every essay or story you write.
- Take risks. Let your instincts guide your decisions. That word choice that you think might be a little too strange? Try it. You might love it. It might become your signature one of these days.
- Practice your hooks. Great essays and short stories begin with terrific first lines. What words could you choose to make that happen?
- Practice exits. Leave your readers with one last resonant line. Or even one great word. Plan to make every short story and essay memorable.
- Create lists. Make a list of things you care about, and then write about those things. They will become the themes in your writing life.
- Read, read, read. Reading is a great way to examine other writers’ choices. Study what makes their voice unique, and then experiment on your own pages.
To put it simply, strengthening your writing skills will strengthen your voice. The longer you write, the more developed your voice will become.
If you’re an agent looking to update your information or an author interested in contributing to the GLA blog or the next edition of the book, contact Writer’s Digest Books Managing Editor Cris Freese at firstname.lastname@example.org.