by D. J. Herda
I was thinking the other day about how lucky some writers are to have a strong literary voice. I say “lucky,” because some writers are literally born that way. Others who weren’t have had to work their proverbial butts off in order to develop a strong voice.
Wait a minute. What, you ask, is a literary voice?
A literary voice is the heretofore often un- or under-explained strength of the written word. Take, for instance, these two relatively equivalent sentences:
Frank knew what he had to do but couldn’t do it for some reason as of yet unknown to him.
Frank knew what he had to do; he just didn’t know how to do it.
The first sentence is weak and wandering with very little focus and a great number of weak words. The second sentence comes across as more interesting and believable because it has a strong literary voice behind it.
Think of a literary voice as the written equivalent of the spoken voice. Some people (you know the ones—those radio and TV mood music jocks on the Public Broadcast System?) have naturally strong speaking voices. Others don’t.
But even those who don’t can work at developing stronger voices. They can lower the pitch of their voices and talk more clearly, more distinctly. They can insert timely pauses into their speech for emphasis. They can enunciate properly.
The same holds true in developing a stronger literary voice. Everyone can do it, although it does take a little know-how. Here are some tips to help you develop a stronger literary voice.
1.) Write conversationally. By that I mean write the way you speak.
You’d be amazed at how many people write in a completely stilted, unnatural fashion. Yet, when you talk to them face-to-face, they come across just fine. The problem is something I call “writerese.” Writers—especially new writers, although others can also fall victim to the disease—often feel that they need to write differently than the way in which they speak.
Are you one of them? Here’s how to find out.
Write what you think to be a few strong sentences. Re-read them until you feel confident that they say what you want to say in a strong literary voice. Then walk away from the sentences for 15 minutes.
When you come back, read the sentences out loud. Listen to yourself as you read. And ask yourself if the sentences are as strong as you had originally thought. Chances are, they’re not.
So, why didn’t you catch the problem reading the sentences to yourself? The answer is that the human ear has far more training in “hearing” than does the human mind, or the “inner ear.” By reading something out loud, you can usually pick up on weaknesses, faulty logic, and even improper grammar and punctuation more readily than by reading something to yourself.
2.) Scrap all of those “writing” words you’ve come to know and love over the years, and replace them with something more real.
Don’t say, “He prognosticated the outcome long before it happened.” Instead, say, “He predicted it.” The meaning will be more clear to the reader more quickly, and the reader will thank you for it.
3.) Vary the length of your sentences. By using paragraphs or even entire pages of similar-length sentences, you create an unnatural rhythm to your voice that can put nearly any reader to sleep.
Bob wanted to go shopping. His wife didn’t want to go. Bob decided to go alone. He didn’t need his wife to come. She would be just as happy at home. That’s where she enjoyed being. So Bob decided to leave her home.
Do you see how similar in length the sentences are? Same-length sentences create a sing-song effect that can be damned hard reading, even though the sentences are short. Now see how this one plays out:
Bob wanted to go shopping. His wife, he rationalized, would be perfectly satisfied at home. Hell, she’d be perfectly satisfied anywhere, so long as she were indoors. She could go through the rest of her life without ever setting foot outdoors and never miss a beat.
By varying the length of your sentences, you’ll lessen the risk of putting your readers off while strengthening your literary voice.
4.) Keep your use of long, rambling sentences to a minimum.
Once again, this literary dictum is aimed at keeping your reader happy. Readers tend to get lost when reading unwieldy sentences—especially those with lots of punctuation in them. See what I mean with this jaw breaker:
On the plains, the morning mist rises softly, gently, always at the same time and with the same lack of intensity each day, bringing, as it does, the stillness of the savannah that is inherent in Africa to the dawn—or, in fact, bringing the stillness that is inherent wherever civilization has yet to encroach, however lofty its ultimate goals, upon the horizon.
Hey, that’s kind of poetic! But it’s also kind of boring and just plain tough to read. Now see how breaking that pup into a few smaller bites works.
On the plains, the morning mist rises softly. With it comes the stillness. It is this stillness that is Africa, inherent on the savannah every bit as much as it is wherever civilization has failed to encroach.
Much better. And, for that matter, much stronger, which brings up yet another point.
5.) Don’t be afraid to use incomplete sentences, as I did in the line immediately above this one.
As a rule, good writing dictates that your sentence structure contain a subject, a verb, and an object (or objective compliment). How effective your writing can be, then, when you break that rule with the occasional sentence fragment, as in this example:
Margaret was a kind and loving woman. You could see that in her eyes. Yet, her kindness was betrayed by a hardness that had somehow managed to creep into her makeup over the years. It was not mere hardness. It was ferocity. Threatening. Foreboding. Even deadly.
I know, I know. Mrs. Lemke would turn over in her grave if you’d written a composition like that. But until Mrs. Lemke starts buying your writing for publication, she’s just out of luck.
Remember that people often talk in non-sentences. Single words or incomplete phrases not only lend emphasis and reality to an idea, but also help to strengthen your literary voice.
6.) Make your direct quotations sound like real dialogue. You’d be amazed at how many times I come across writing that reads pretty well…until I get to a quote. You're in trouble if your quoted passages sound like this…
“I don’t know, Michael. I’m as puzzled as I can be. Michael, I think that the best thing for you to do is to just trust me this one time. I know I’ve said that before, but I think this time you should really just put your faith in me thinking that I won’t let you down. Can you do that? Can you trust me so that we can get through this thing together?”
Ouch! Those lines are so stilted, they make my teeth ache! If you actually know people who talk like this—or, worse still, if you talk like this—I have only one question for you. Where on earth did you grow up???
Listen to how much more simple, how much more realistic this version of the same dialogue sounds.
“I don’t know. I really don’t. But I if we’re going to make it through this thing, you’re going to have to trust me.”
See my point? Always read your dialogue out loud. Always. It’s the only way to be sure that the dreaded “writerese” hasn’t slipped in between the quotes.
7.) Vary your sentence structure…but not too much!
Sentence structure is the order in which you assemble your words. The natural flow of things is, as I said above, subject, verb, and object. If you tinker with that order too much, your writing will sound stilted and weak. But you are certainly entitled to use an occasional introductory adverbial phrase, parenthetical remarks, and other pieces of grammar to break up the otherwise sing-song “See Spot run.”
Bob chased after her. He chased after her as fast as he could. And as he chased after her, he was amazed to see that, no matter how fast he ran, he simply couldn’t catch her. Something had to be done. Thinking back, he recalled her one major weakness—her vanity. “Hey!” he shouted. “Your dress is torn!”
8.) Avoid adverbial phrases—in fact, avoid most everything but the bare minimum required to attribute a quote to someone—when using quotations. In such situations, adverbs often sound weak and stilted. Other verbs sound contrived. Check out this nightmare.
“I didn’t know it was you,” he admitted hurriedly. “I thought it was the cops. They’ve been looking for me,” he deftly continued, “and I thought they found me.”
Inexperienced writers tend to use adverbs (you know, the dreaded “ly” words) where they shouldn’t. And they tend to use any verbs other than the ones they should use in attributes. See how much stronger this sentence reads:
“I didn’t know it was you,” he said. “I thought it was the cops. They’ve been looking for me.” His breath came in short, quick spurts. “I thought they found me.”
Note, too, that by breaking up a long quote with a descriptive passage (“His breath came in short, quick spurts.”), you vary the timing of the sentence and side-step the need for an adverb or any further attribution.
9.) Dump the clichés and colloquialisms. They impart very little information and waste the reader’s time, as in this abomination:
He went over and over it in his mind. His mind was racing. There was a time when he could have thought more clearly. Those days were gone. He knew that, come tomorrow, a new day would dawn, and everything would be just fine and dandy by then.
10.) Read a few pages of the work of an author you admire. Read them out loud. Listen to the words and try to figure out what makes that author's writing admirable. Does he have a strong or weak literary voices? How does that voice compare to yours?
Write something similar in theme to one of the passages from your favorite author. Then read both the original and your version out loud. Can you see the similarities? Is your literary voice getting stronger? Can you tell a strong voice from a weak one?
Remember that none of this happens overnight. Developing a strong literary voice can take months or even years. But once you begin working on strengthening your own voice, you’ll be off on a life-long journey that will lead you to become a better writer tomorrow than you are today. And your writing will continue to improve every day of your life.