Writing Voice



Stories come from the melding of three different creative processes; story ideas, story design and story-telling. 


The ideas have to come from the mind of the writer.  Story design and story-telling are techniques that focus the writer’s creativity on developing the story and telling it.  This article will discuss one of the most important story-telling techniques, the writing voice.

You can’t write fiction the way you speak or tell stories aloud.  It is essential to develop a writing voice that is quite different from your speaking voice.  This isn’t an area that comes naturally to writers.  New writers especially use their speaking voice when they write stories and it detracts from the story-telling and often makes it almost unreadable.

Want proof?  Listen to a conversation.  Never mind what is said; concentrate on the way the people speak.  You’ll notice it’s pretty boring.  The obvious conclusion from this small test is using a speaking voice will make the story as boring as conversation.  Hence, the need to develop a writing voice.

Your writing voice is used for exposition and internal monologue in the story.  However, this writing voice shouldn’t be used for dialog, since dialog has to sound natural; that is, it should reflect the character’s speaking voice, not the author’s writing voice.

Some differences between your speaking and writing voices are listed below.

Was and Were: when we speak, we use ‘was and were’ in most of our sentences.  It’s our natural way of speaking.  We can’t purge every instance of ‘was and were’ from our writing, however overloading sentences with these two words is annoying to readers and smacks of lazy writing.  Thus, ‘was swimming’ can be replaced with ‘swam’ and ‘was eating’ can be changed to ‘ate’.  Notice the substitutions are stronger verb constructions. These are typical examples of what happens when we restrict ‘was and were’ sentence constructions; we use better action verbs and that greatly improves the writing.

Adverbs: these pesky -ly words pop up in our speaking voice.  We tend to use adverbs to emphasize a point when we speak.  However, adverbs should be avoided as much as possible in our writing.  One strong reason to avoid the adverbs is because, in many cases, they are ‘Show Don’t Tell’ violations.  Replacing the adverb with showing improves the writing and increases the readers enjoyment and interest.  I often see stories by new writers who use adverbs as a crutch.  Every paragraph seems to have several adverbs, sometimes two or three in a single sentence. Granted, using adverbs is an easy and quick way to get a story written and not using adverbs requires a lot more creativity, but the end result is much more pleasing to the reader.

Naked Nouns: this is not an evil word construction.  Every noun does not need an adjective or two.  Oftentimes, a naked noun fits into the description and doesn’t have to be accompanied by modifiers.  I once critiqued a story that irritated me while I was reading it.  I couldn’t figure out why the story was so annoying until I realized that every noun had at least one adjective.  The irritating factor in the story was the number of excess modifiers.

Empty Words:  these are words such as: very, even, ever, really, still, just.  In many cases, they have no individual meaning and only increase the word count.  In our real-world conversations, these words are used almost as punctuation marks and that usage can carry over into our writing.  The test for an empty word is to remove it from the sentence and see if the meaning changes.  If it doesn’t change than there is no need to include the word.  This advice applies to exposition, not dialog.  Since these empty words are sprinkled throughout our normal speech, a few appearances of these words make dialog sound more natural.

-ing Words: this is still another example of how we speak that should be restricted in your writing voice.  Excessive -ing words will give the writing a sing-song effect that will grate on the reader’s nerves. Beginning a new sentence with a -ing word should also be avoided.

An important observation about your writing voice is that you can’t completely eliminate using these words and phrases mentioned above.  However, the point is that you should restrict their usage as much as possible.  Moderation is the watchword.

Really Bad Writing Examples of speaking voice used as a writing voice.

Adverbs: Sara Engel hesitantly entered the room and slowly walked to the reception desk.  She smiled wanly at the receptionist and tentatively gave her name.

Instead:  Sara held the door open for a second before walking to the reception desk.  After a brief hesitation, she said, “I’m Sara Engle.”

Naked Nouns:  The scrawny boy used his undersized biceps to try to pick up the clumsy weight and place it in the old-fashioned truck before the foul-mouthed old man became aware of his clever trickery.

Instead:  The thin boy struggled with the weight.  He had to get it into the truck before the old man noticed him.

-ing words:  Opening the door and running down the corridor while waving her hand, Amy tried shouting, calling attention to her life-threatening situation.

Instead:  Amy burst through the door and ran down the corridor and shrieked in terror to warn others of the danger.

Instead: Amy ran down the corridor to seek help.

Everything (plus some):  Julia was very unhappy with her really, bad-tempered aunt and shouted at her just to let her know how really mean she still was. Julia then stamped her blue-and-white sneaker, really hard, and running out of the small room while slamming the brown door very loudly she wondered why old people were so really dumb.

Instead: Julia’s anger flared because her aunt wouldn’t let Julia go to the movies.

While these examples are products of my deranged mind, they reflect actual examples from stories I’ve critiqued.

Developing a writing voice isn’t easy and you’ll always have a tendency to slip into your speaking voice, but the effort is worth it.  Even you will be surprised at the improvement in your story-telling.

For more on fiction writing, here is a link to my Creating Stories on Amazon.  You can also visit this Padlet


Originally published in 2013

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