How to find your writing voice

Think about voice in terms of style—your voice is your unique style of writing. When we start out, we tend to write like we think writers ought to sound, instead of finding our own sound. This leads to stilted, stiff writing. Here are some tips for finding your distinctive style.

Write the way you speak—sort of. Your speaking voice is your natural voice. Don’t try to write writerly. Write as you speak, within reason. In writing, we do want to eliminate the wordiness, repetition, and flaws of our speech. Have you ever wished you could rewind what you just said and clean it up? In writing, you can, and you should. Continue reading

Avoiding cliches and purple prose

The next item on the Elements of Fiction Editing Checklist packs in several problems we see in novice writers’ voices:

The author avoids flowery or “purple” prose, as well as cliches, recycled phrases, and unnecessarily repeated words.

purple prose

Photo by Bill Davenport •

Now, there are some words you need to repeat or you’ll sound nutty. I remember once a critique partner pointed out that I had used the word “door” three times within a half-page. But he had to admit, there wasn’t really a good substitute. To use thesaurus words like portal or aperture would just be silly. But don’t repeat the word if you can get away without it. For example: He opened the door. She walked through the door.

Instead you could put: He opened the door, and she walked through. Continue reading

Finer points of voice

Part of the problem in talking about voice is that voice is interwoven with a writer’s personal style. Several points on the list need to be taken loosely, since what is effective can cover a broad range.

Paragraph and sentence lengths are varied in accordance with pace.

Monotonous sentence structures are a hallmark of novice writing. When I see sentences that are all pretty much the same length and meter and structure, I can presume the writer has just not practiced the craft for very long. Hemingway is known for his terse sentences, but he could pull off a lengthy sentence when the scene called for it. Variety of sentence structure will improve your story’s flow. Whether you prefer short sentences like Hemingway’s or long Faulknerian rambles is a matter of personal style, but either way, occasionally incorporate a dash of the other to keep readers engaged. Continue reading

When is it OK to open your novel with “telling?”

Over on Facebook, I got some pushback to last week’s article “The difference between Storytelling and Dramatization.”

One Facebook commenter noted that the “before” examples given in show vs. tell articles like mine are “often deliberately and obviously poor by any standards.” She’s talking about examples like the one I gave:

I did not want to drive to work that day. The storm was fierce, and the preschool was closed, and all I really wanted to do was stay home…

But seriously, I see writing like that all the time in novice writers’ manuscripts. I’m not exaggerating. I just can’t give you an actual example from an actual unpublished manuscript because that would violate the writer’s privacy. Continue reading

The difference between Storytelling and Dramatization

In his excellent book The Art & Craft of Writing Christian Fiction, Jeff Gerke urges novel-writers to stop seeing themselves as storytellers and instead think of themselves as filmmakers.

As you’re examining your manuscript for telling consider this: If your book were a movie, what would the camera record?

In a lot of novice manuscripts (and, frankly, in some published manuscripts from experienced writers who should know better) the opening scene, if the book were a movie, would be a person sitting in a chair.

For half an hour. Continue reading

Use Narrative Summary Appropriately

Last time, I said Inappropriate Narrative Summary was one of the main “telling” problems I see in manuscripts.

Sometimes summary is appropriate. When your hero has to make a long journey, but the journey itself isn’t what’s important to the story, you could put “he traveled across the Atlantic that spring, and arrived in Boston…” and get on with the Boston story. But if his ship is attacked by pirates, then you don’t put “he traveled across the Atlantic that spring. The ship was attacked by pirates, but he fought valiantly beside the ship’s crew. The pirates were defeated, and a week later the ship arrived in Boston.” Continue reading

What does ‘show don’t tell’ mean, anyway?

Writers are forever being told “show don’t tell.” I even put it on my Elements of Fiction Editing Checklist:

The author is showing and not telling.

But what does this mean? And with every writing instructor in the business teaching this all the time, why do we still see vast numbers of manuscripts—and not only novice writers’ manuscripts—with gobs of “telling” in them? Continue reading