In honor of National Novel Writing Month, Kat Brzozowski, an editor at the young adult fiction publisher Swoon Reads, helps us understand what editors want when they say they are looking for strong voice.
If you’ve ever attended a writing conference or read a book about how to write, you’ve probably encountered the word voice more times than you can count. But what is voice, and how do you craft strong voice in your writing?
What Is a Writing Voice?
Voice is the distinct way of writing that showcases the author’s individual personality as well as the personality of the book’s narrator. Your narrative voice can be loud, quiet, restrained, over the top, showy, or shy, but whatever personality it takes, your writing should feel as if it could only come from your pen (or keyboard!). The voice of your narrator should also feel individual, and a reader who picks up your book should be able to figure out your character’s personality as much from your writing style as from what you tell us about the character in the body of the book itself.
Here are four categories to think about as you develop voice in your writing:
Every character, just like every person in the real world, has his or her own unique tone and individual perspective on the world. Is your character sarcastic, matter-of-fact, depressed, or jubilant? Does she see the glass as half empty or half full? Does he go through life with a spring in his step or a sneer on his face? No matter what type of character you’re writing, giving your reader a clear sense of your character’s tone and attitude forms the backbone of strong voice.
Diction is defined as the words you choose in your writing, and the specific words that your character uses to express himself or herself will greatly affect voice. (You may think of diction as the way people say words, whether they speak clearly, but a second definition is how people use words.) A character who says to a friend, “Don’t be such a Gloomy Gus!” is different from one who says, “Don’t be such a sad sack!”—and both of these characters are different from one who would say, “Don’t be so morose!” It’s important to consider what types of words your characters would use—taking into account slang, abbreviations, and regionalisms—and using different diction for different characters.
Even in the first person close point of view, where we’re inside the narrator’s head, the reader does not often have full access to what the character is thinking and feeling at any given point in the book. Modulating the level of access you give your narrator will help give your book a strong sense of voice. Narrators who tell the reader everything going on in their head will come off more loudly than those who only hint at the emotions they are experiencing.