Teaching someone how to write with “voice” is one of the hardest thing for a writing teacher. Usually, the teacher notices if it is “there” or not. Then, when she tries to give a definition to her students, she says something like, “It’s hard to put your finger on…”
Up until now, I didn’t know how to write with VOICE, let alone teach it. So, I ordered a book by Dona J. Hickey called, Developing Your Written Voice. How’s that for a title that states the goal? I’m happy to say, this book delivers its promise. Dona teaches us how to write, how to punctuate, how to craft our writing until it sings.
Dona shows that VOICE is the musical quality of American English speech that can enter our writing to give it a quality that makes a reader feel like a real human being is speaking to him through the written page.
One tip I learned from Dona is this: Lengths of sentences make a huge difference in regard to VOICE.
If your paragraphs are full of long sentences, and by this I mean, several long sentences one after the other, the reader will not find what is important. The reader plows through seeing and hearing nothing at all. To prove this point, I will share a paragraph from another book I’ve been trying to read. That book is My Grandfather’s Knocking Sticks, by Brenda J. Child. Her goal was to capture the life and labor of the Ojibwe nation in northern Minnesota of her grandparents’ era. Normally, I enjoy reading about the native tribes or nations who originally occupied North America and who search for a strong identity today.
Why couldn’t I fall into this writer’s style and learn from her? Was the problem me or the book? Turns out, she had page after page of lengthy sentences. So, her memoir stayed hidden or locked up in her writing choices. A lot of writers think that to sound authoritative, we need lots of long words in long sentences. Not so.
Here’s the middle section of one very long paragraph about the author’s grandmother’s rights to her land. Note there are only 3 sentences here:
The Nelson Act of 1889, which demanded that the Ojibwe in Minnesota sign away and give up “all title and interest in and to all the reservations” in the state, save the White Earth and Red Lake Reservations, led directly to this reality. Red Lake leaders were forced to drastically reduce the size of their homeland in 1889, yet they resisted the fast-track to dispossession under the guise of reservation allotment planned by Minnesota politicians, a policy vigorously driven by the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Since land was held in common at Red Lake, Jeannette was “entitled only to the use and occupancy of the land and tribal improvements thereon” and the land “may not be sold, buy may be changed for another assignment” by approval of tribal council.
My Grandfather’s Knocking Sticks, by Brenda J. Childs, pg 34-5
If you are like me, you skipped parts and didn’t know which key idea you should gain from the reading. Now, contrast this paragraph with a more “human” sounding paragraph later in Brenda’s book:
My mother recalled Jeanette’s Ojibwe spirituality, saying she frequently prayed and always “put tobacco for the great spirits outside under the trees.” When it stormed, she covered the windows and mirrors and burned tobacco. Like many Ojibwe women, Jeanette also collected and dispensed medicinal herbs.
My Grandfather’s Knocking Sticks, by Brenda J. Childs, pg 54.
This paragraph also has three sentences. But, what a difference it makes to control the pace of the information.
So, we proved lots of long sentences tend to obscure meaning. Why does this happen? The answer lies in American English intonation patterns. The reader doesn’t know where to put the intonation of spoken speech into long sentences. Those who read with the “speech” in their head, need to hear the “music” of it. Seeing the words is not enough.
Watch what happens if I rewrite our last example with many short sentences. Let’s do so, to show you where the music of the sentence lies.
My mother recalled Jeanette’s Ojibwe spirituality. She frequently prayed. She always “put tobacco for the spirits outside.” When it stormed, she covered the mirrors and windows. She burned tobacco for the spirits.
My example, a rewrite of Brenda’s paragraph on her grandmother’s spirituality.
Each of these sentences is relatively short. But you heard the music of each of these. And the most important one is the shortest! She PRAYED. You knew to put the stress on the subjects and objects of each sentence and when pronouns were involved, you stressed the verbs. Let me use capital letters on stressed words that would receive intonation or “music.”
My MOTHER recalled Jeanette’s Ojibwe SPIRITUALITY. She frequently PRAYED. She always “put TOBACCO for the SPIRITS outside.” When it STORMED, she COVERED the mirrors and windows. She BURNED tobacco for the spirits.
Note nouns that are not previously mentioned are stressed. Note verbs are stressed after pronouns. To learn more about normal American intonation patterns, see American Accent Training, by Ann Cook.
Because the sentences are shorter, our brain can insert the proper intonation patterns of spoken speech. We’ve been trained to collect the key ideas from rising intonation like grabbing apples from the tree. And we have a nice armful of apples about Grandmother Jeanette. We can easily list or recall some of the things she does to show her spirituality.
Well, we have just bit into the craft of VOICE as outlined by Dona J. Hickey. If you are writing memoir or want readers to devour your book, capitalize on the craft of VOICE. Then, people might say, “Your book was an easy read.” Or, “I read the whole thing in one night.” Both would be compliments. You wrote with VOICE, your characters each had their own distinct voice patterns, and you found yours.