Friday, July 10, 2009

Training Our Inner Editor Part 2 - Writer's Voice

Unlike editors in large houses, who get only the best manuscripts from new writers or yet another story from an established author, we who work outside the traditional publishing system find our clients among writers of varying abilities and experience. They may not have a famous name or multitudes of fans waiting in line to purchase their book, but they want both. So we become teachers, mentors, mothers (or fathers), cheering sections, and shoulders to cry on. In fact, we wear a whole wardrobe of hats needed by our clients.

Do we rewrite? On occasion we may choose to share an example of what is needed to clarify or improve a passage or scene. Yet, should our client decide to use our words rather than rework a weak area, we must make sure those words reflect the writer’s voice. That acquired skill of seamlessly imitating another’s voice separates the best of us from the crowd.

What is writer’s voice? A combination of elements including sentence structure, dialogue, use of punctuation, word choices, character development, rhythm, flow, and tone create the unique voice of a writer. As editors, we have the privilege of contributing to budding writers' understanding of this vital element that sets them apart from other writers and makes their works identifiable even if their name is missing.

How do we help a writer develop voice? First, we peruse their work. How do they structure sentences? Are characters unique, well defined, and do they remain true to their previous actions? Is the dialogue realistic? Does it vary from character to character? How does the author use punctuation? Do we find consistency in style? What kind of flow propels the story forward? Does it move progressively toward a logical climax? In working with writers, we commend their strengths and help them to see and overcome their weaknesses. Particularly with new writers, we also help them find, define, and develop their voice.

While some writers may have similar styles, they still display individuality in their works. For example, my brother likes the books written by the late Robert Ludlum. One book, unfinished when the author died, was completed by another writer, who also penned sequels to some of Ludlum’s popular thrillers. Even though the second author has been noted as being faithful to Ludlum’s style, my brother found subtle differences that indicated another writer’s hand in the works. This is not a criticism of the author who is carrying on Ludlum’s series, but only is mentioned to show the distinction between the voices of the two writers.

Voice is vital in establishing a writer’s identity. It might even be said that it "brands" the writer. As editors, we carry the responsibility for making writers aware of the importance of voice. Then we oversee its development. Finally, we help the author use that voice to complete a work of art — a word picture created on the canvas of many pages to inform, educate, inspire, and delight the readers.

We editors show writers the value of voice. We teach them how to develop and use it in creating their own style unlike that of any other. What about our own writing? Have we created that distinct voice that sets us apart from other authors? Almost all the above that we apply to others applies equally to us. Can we identify our voice? In 25 words or less, can we define it? Have we “branded” ourselves with our voice? If not . . . hmmm . . . why not?

Next time, our inner editor takes a look at point of view. How can POV make or break a story?


Linda Lane, editor of two national award winners, will release her second novel, Treacherous Tango, this summer. She owns Pen & Sword Publishers Ltd., an independent editing and publishing house, and has gone back to work after taking time off to write her book.

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  1. Great points on writers' voice. I'm sure it's one of the hardest things to instruct a new writer on. But it's such an important component of a book.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  2. I hadn't thought about how difficult it would be for an editor to make revision suggestions utilizing the writer's voice. Illuminating!

  3. Voice is tough, and it's a lot easier for an outside reader or editor to identify the author's voice than for the first-time novelist to figure it out. Once explained, it's a "Oh, yeah, wow," moment for a writer.

    I'm looking forward to your post on point of view. My critique groups are having trouble with that, so I feel I'm not explaining it very well.

  4. Here's a good example of strong voice: Hank Phillippi Ryan's book, "Prime Time", which I just picked up yesterday. Her protagonist, Charlotte McNally, definitely has a strong one. You can read the first five pages and discern what that gal is all about. The protagonist's voice, of course, is also the author's to a certain extent.

    I'm hoping we can do an interview here with Hank sometime in the next few months, and maybe we can discuss this topic of various voices. Another issue is falling in and out of voices. That would take another whole post to cover.


  5. Intriguing post. Helping someone else identify his or her own voice sounds like a daunting task - I'm glad I'm not an editor! I've participated in several writers' groups, though, and it's pretty clear when an authentic voice shines through.

    As a mystery writer, I feel my own voice is still evolving. People have told me it's quite distinctive, and it keeps them reading. But I have a different voice as a poet, and now as a blog writer. I'm letting more of my off-the-wall, humorous side come out, and I've vowed to let more of that show in my sequel to Eldercide. One of my POV characters is Paula Rhodes, the head of the home health care agency, and her personality already has those tendencies, so I plan to let them take flight next time around.

    Julie Lomoe's Musings Mysterioso

  6. It also helps to read other writers. Lots of other writers. New writers sometimes have a favorite author that they read and they begin to write like them. I would encourage them to branch out. Read lots of authors. They'll discover that there are lots of "voices" and it might help them to find their own unique voice.

    Straight From Hel

  7. What about different voices for different types of books? I think I have a different voice for my mysteries and another for journalism, and yet another for screenplays. But maybe I just haven't narrowed it down to my true voice. :-)

    Interesting post. Thanks, Linda.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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