by David G. Woolley
* Disclaimer: Management is not responsible for blurring the line between dwarfs and aliens. Also, the use of alcohol in the example below should not be construed as condoning the sale or consumption of spirits. May we suggest soy milk?
"A hundred odd-looking men walked into the room and ordered a drink." Not a terribly poor way to describe what's going on in the picture above. The sentence is grammatically correct. The actions are clear. Maybe you fill a page with sentences like these without giving a second thought to how it affects your voice. The issue, in this case, is vagueness. The characters (a hundred odd-looking men) are woefully abstract. Write something like "a hundred little green three-eyed dwarfs", on the other hand, and you've rendered things more specific. The setting in this run of pros could be any room, but a bar is more clear and certainly more consistent with placing an order for alcohol. When was the last time you wrote something like: A man ordered a drink? It doesn't pack near the punch as say, ordering a fifth of scotch on the rocks. The following solution may be just the right stuff to improve your voice:
"A hundred little green three-eyed dwarfs stepped up to the bar and ordered a bloody mary."
Don't worry about your voice when you're writing. You'll end up forcing things. When you find that your voice is flat turn the vague, the unspecific, the abstract, into more concrete pros. Make your unspecific characters more tangible, what a movie director would likely call giving the extras some life. Choose a precise word for your setting. Make your descriptions not just clear, but precisely clear. It is not simply a matter of poor word choice. Strengthening your voice requires discipline. Shed the lazy attitude of accepting as adequate whatever pros happen to pop into your mind. When you go back to rewrite do the hard work of finding a better solution. And remember: There is always a better solution.
Repetition is not just another culprit that weakens voice. It is the ring leader. Do you write sentences with the same structure all in a row? A run of declarative sentences, ones that all begin with say, I or She or He, are certain to weaken your voice. Maybe you've written one question right after the other. Not only is that repetitive, it can be confusing. Do you give multiple descriptions when a single solution is less repetitive if not more precise? Go ahead and re-read the previous sentence again and notice how writing "if not more precise" tends to muddle your voice. Pick one and stick with it. Writing "do you give multiple descriptions when a single solution is less repetitive," strengthens your voice.
Just for the fun of it, let me rewrite the previous paragraph with a weaker voice. That's right, even non-fiction has a voice. Here goes:
Repetition is not just another culprit that diminishes voice. It is the ring leader. Do you write sentences with the same structure all in a row? Do you write a run of declarative sentences, ones that all begin with I or She or He? Do you write one question right after the other? Not only is that repetitive, it can be confusing if not down right redundant. Do you give multiple descriptions when a single solution is less repetitive if not more precise. Go ahead and re-read the previous sentence again and notice how writing "if not more precise" tends to muddle your voice. Pick one and stick with it.
I couldn't resist throwing in an extra repetition in the paragraph above. Did you catch the "not only is that repetitive, it can be confusing if not down right redundant"? Like I said, pick one and stick with it.
There are other observations that may strengthen your voice when you're rewriting. I'm going to post some of them here in the next few days in a blog I plan to call: "Rhymy-dimey stuff."
Until then, may your voice be specific, may your writing be void of abstraction, and may you never, never, never repeat yourself. And if you've got time, come join me for some uplifting commentary at Top of the Morning where I guarantee you'll enjoy an Irish lift to your day and a lilt in your step.
Join author David G. Woolley at his Top of the Morning Blog or his Promised Land Website. He is also a weekly contributor to Rangers at the Far Post blog.