Voice

Voice is something that a lot of authors and writing teachers spend a lot of time talking about. I’ve even talked about it before.

However, I recently came across some posts by author/teacher James VanPelt about teaching voice that are about the finest posts on the subject I’ve ever seen. I am going to reproduce some of it below, but please see the original posts here, here, here and here. The part below is taken from the first one.

Basically, the question is, how do you develop voice? Well, that is the million dollar question. But Jim has some real concrete tips that I think are worthwhile:

– Put the writer on a linking/helping verb diet. No more than two to a page, say. By forcing writers into action verbs, you also force them to make specific choices. Not, “The day was nice,” (argh!), but some sentence based on an action verb that shows a nice day, like “Children laughed on the jungle gym.” There’s a zillion ways that “the day was nice.” As soon as writers choose a way to show it, they choose among the zillion. Their choice marks the beginning of voice. Distrust an overuse of am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been.

– Put the writer on a passive sentence diet. Here I mean the grammatically passive, the silliness of “The ball was kicked by John,” or my favorite, “My eyes were opened by me.” I’m not sure why passives creep into so much school writing, other than writers will put the effect in front of the cause because they see the effect first. Students will also commonly leave the cause out altogether. The passiveness of “The law was debated,” “The discrimination was done,” “The punishments were taken” infect their writing with unattributed actors performing faceless deeds.

– Outlaw “very,” any pronoun ending in “thing,” most of the “ly” words, and for crying out loud, don’t let them use a broad generality without having earned the right by piling up enough specifics first. The student who writes, “We shared everything,” can only say so after a solid paragraph of what they shared. A list that includes a vinyl collection of Vivaldi, turn of the century tea cozies, an appreciation of the Dutch masters, and a fondness for truffles stands miles away for the “everything” they shared if that list includes bootleg compilations of garage/punk/techno/emo mp3s, metal windup toys from 1950’s television shows, temporary tattoos done in henna, and a secret vice of fried pork rinds dipped in warm velveeta.

This is all advice I’ve seen sprinkled around elsewhere, but something about this list really struck a chord with me. I don’t know if it was his particular examples or what, but it makes sense. Most people say something like, “Don’t use passive voice” but he explains why you shouldn’t and how it will help your voice if you don’t.

Thanks Jim! (even if you don’t know that you helped)

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