Learn to Recognize Voice

I teach a whole workshop on “Finding Your Voice.” Beginning writers usually don’t think much about voice. When they do, they’re not quite sure what it is. But somewhere along the path to publication, most writers discover that voice is something editors say they look for. That it is–in fact–a critical element of great writing. Whatever it is . . .

If you don’t know what voice is, it’s tough to define, but here’s my definition: “A writer with voice has the ability to illuminate the ordinary.”

Take this line from Margaret Mahy, for example: “The morning was already laced with the voices of birds.” Though the elements are essentially the same as many lines you may have read–it is morning; there are birds–Mahy illuminates the scene by lacing the morning with bird voices. Wow! That, my writing friends, is voice.

My challenge for today is to start a Voice journal. In this journal, collect snippets that “illuminate the ordinary” from books you read. You’ll know them when you read them because they will wake you up. You’ll respond viscerally with a tingle somewhere in your body or your mind. You’ll think, “Wow! I wish I’d written that line!”

As you collect, begin to create your own illuminations. Write lines that will wake your readers up, that will show them something fresh, something orginal, something shoved slighty to the left of ordinary. Or show them something totally unexpected, such as this line from Martin Millar: “Dinnie, an overweight enemy of humanity, was the worst violinist in New York, but was practicing gamely when two cute little fairies stumbled through his fourth-floor window and vomited on the carpet.”

Come on, admit it . . . you didn’t see that coming, did you?

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Kathy Doherty says:

    Here’s the first entry in my voice journal from Sarah, Plain and Tall:

    “Sarah came in the spring. She came through green grass fields that bloomed
    with Indian paintbrush, red and orange, and blue-eyed grass. . . .
    Gophers ran back and forth across the road, stopping to stand
    up and watch the wagon. Far off in the field a woodchuck ate and
    listened. Ate and listened.”
    (Sorry, I couldn’t figure out how to italicize the title of the book.)


    1. kimgriswell says:

      Beautiful! I love the “blue-eyed grass” and the repetition of words: ate and listened . . . ate and listened. The cadence of this is part of her “voice.” I talk to picture book writers about the need for musicality in the writing. Even though this isn’t a picture book, it exhibits musicality. You could read it aloud again and again and still be entranced by the sound and the images. Thanks for sharing!


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