Lessons in Voice

Many writers have struggled with that ever elusive voice in their writing, so I decided to explore just what makes up voice. This is lesson one in a five-part series. Feel free to post your responses to the exercises in the comments!

Voice Lesson 1: Diction

Diction is defined as the choice of words used in writing or speech. The
words we choose can make subtle or strong differences in the meaning of our sentences.

Take, for example, this sentence:

“Art is the antidote that can call us back from the edge of numbness, restoring the ability to feel for another.” ~Barbara Kingsolver

The first word that stands out for me is antidote. What does that imply about what it is that pushes us toward the edge of numbness? Perhaps that life can be like a poison? What would change about the sentence if the author said balm instead of antidote? It would be slightly different because the implication would be that life is sort of like a sore that needs soothing. Similar meanings, but different.

How about the words the edge of numbness? Or restoring? What if Kingsolver had said Art is the antidote that can call us back from sadness, giving us the ability to feel for another? Sadness doesn’t quite capture what the edge of numbness does. The edge of numbness implies something beyond sadness, something even worse because it means we don’t feel. And restoring implies something that we’ve had before, whereas giving us the ability might mean we never had it to begin with.  They are subtle differences, but the word choices Kingsolver has made lend themselves to precision in meaning.

How about this sentence:

“Meanwhile, the United States Army, thirsting for revenge, was prowling the country north and west of the Black Hills, killing Indians wherever they could be found.” ~Dee Brown

What effect do the words thirsting and prowling have? For me, they convey a sense of predators searching for prey, which was what the soldiers were doing. If the writer had just said hunting for revenge, how would that change the meaning of the sentence? Again, it’s about precision. Thirsting and prowling imply hunting but even more. These words imply a sort of hunger and desire that you can almost feel.

So think about your word choices carefully. Ask yourself, is this the right word here? Once you get into the habit of doing so, your sentences will have more precision in meaning and you’ll have a stronger voice.

Practice: Brainstorm a list of eating words (hungrily, ravenous, chewed, thirsted, etc.) and write a sentence with one or more of those words to characterize the art below.

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For example: The paint was like globs of sweet frosting that the bristles sucked heartily.

What if I had said tasted instead of sucked? What if I had left off the word globs? What difference would that make?

Use the picture above or below to write your sentence.

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In a Perfect Word Editing

My name is Erin Beth Liles, and I have several years of editing experience. Aside from my bachelor's degree, I have a certificate in copyediting from UC San Diego, and I have studied developmental editing with the Author-Editor Clinic. I've worked with both independent and major publishing houses, but my true love is working directly with authors. I also write young adult fiction. My YA novel Phoenix Burning is represented by Mansion Street Literary (and I have another novel in progress) and my short stories have been published in Ladybug, Stories for Children, and Knowonder. Several of my nonfiction articles have appeared in Austin Family Magazine, Mothering Magazine online, and Mamapedia. My children's picture book A Friend for Freckles was published by Guardian Angel Publishing in 2013. My novelette, Outside the Walls, is featured in Clean Teen Publishing's Wonderstruck Anthology. I am a member of the Professional Editors Network, Copyediting, SCBWI, and She Writes.