Elements of Critique: Voice

Watching kids learn to speak is one of my favorite parenting experiences.

I had my three year old in the car on a quick errand. We decided to bring lunch home to wifey and the other kidlets, so I asked my son where we should go.

“Umm… we need… cake pop!” (He recently tried a Starbucks cake pop for the first time.) “And I want… Power-ate!” (He has also developed a love for blue PowerAde.)

“So, Starbucks for cake pops, then McDonalds to get lunch and PowerAde?”

He replies, “Yeah. That is good idea!”

No one intentionally taught him the concept of a “good idea.” He’s learning and developing his own patterns of speech from what he hears us saying. He’s developing his own voice.

I have four children. I know what each of them sounds like, but I also know innately how they speak. Give them a bit of information to communicate, and it’s going to come out four very different ways–no surprise, because we each have our own way of speaking.

When critiquing, I look for a consistent voice that seems authentic to the character or the writer.

Consistency matters because once a voice is established, any break in it will create a distraction. If a character speaks with a drawl and drops the ‘g’ in all ‘-ing’ words, then I expect to see that telltale sign in the dialogue throughout the entire story. (Of course, writers must beware. The difficulty of reading altered spelling to depict an accent or dialect might outweigh any desired benefit.

If a character speaks with formality, thus she does not use contractions or vulgar speech, that may be a fine way to give her a voice. I will watch to see if she breaks that form at some point for reasons that don’t advance the story. (The prim and proper lady who curses in the face of mounting difficulties might be a way to show the reader how the stress is affecting her.)

In non-fiction, the writer’s voice still shines through, and must be consistent. If the piece is informal, such as a blog post, then maybe levity and an “at-home” sense of freely flowing speech would be appropriate. The writer might type out exactly what he would say out loud if the reader were sitting across a table. On the other hand, if a piece is more academic, then levity and familiarity in writing would not serve the purpose. That shift in voice would probably feel out of place or even inappropriate.

Consistency builds up the authenticity of the character or writer. Once I know how they “speak,” I come to believe them. They seem more real or influential as I read.

Authenticity comes from the writer knowing their own style or that of the character. I know I have missed something concerning authentic voice when a reader says, “I can’t hear the hero saying that. It sounds wrong to me.” I will note that if I am critiquing and find such an instance.

The problem might be a choice of words that doesn’t match the setting or tone of the piece. I had a teenager in a fantasy novel replying to an adult woman in an argument with “Lady.” Not “my lady” at the end of a statement, but “I don’t know what you expected, lady.” The biting tone might have been correct, but the word choice sounds far too modern.

Word choice can also trip writers up when we grab words without a good understanding of their nuances. Like a child using a word the wrong way because they don’t fully grasp its meaning, a writer armed with a thesaurus can be a dangerous thing. Without careful attention, we might see constructs like “the aroma of sewage” and “the stench of fresh-baked pie.” The words are correct for which of the five senses is utilized. But clearly they’re not the right words for the job.

Similar issues might arise from “Word of the Day” aids, new words we discover and love, or attempts at showy and evocative description. The words we select must feel natural; writing that calls attention to itself misses the point. Usually this is where I find metaphors that don’t quite translate and descriptions that fall flat.

In most of these cases, I will highlight, offer what that passage said to me, and offer a suggestion on how to clarify or fix the issue. That way writers can learn how readers receive their words, and make appropriate changes.

That creates a better piece now and a stronger voice and more consistent writer down the road.

And that, for certain, is “good idea!”

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