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Words to the Wise

Listen To Your Voice

In my article Style and Voice: What's the Difference? I talked about style and voice and the difference between them. Style, I said, quoting my own writing teacher, Eileen Kernaghan, involves the structure and rhythm of the sentences, choice of words, use of metaphors and images. Voice is the disguise you wear when you write. The disguise cannot be taught: it is something you bring out in yourself by working on your manuscript.

Nevertheless, most of us beg for guidance on how to cultivate our writing voice. Constance Hale, in her book Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose, offers the best I have found. "Voice," writes Hale, "is the je ne sais quoi of spirited writing. It separates brochures and brilliance, memo and memoir, a ship's log and The Old Man and the Sea. Strong voice is conversational: The writer leaves us with a sense that we are listening to a skilled raconteur rather than passing our eyes over ink on paper." As writers we are often admonished to write the way we talk, but voice, says Hale, involves more than accurate transcription. The true zing of conversation comes from attentive listening and painstaking revision.

Hale offers an exercise to get us going, which she calls "Ode to a tape recorder." It is the very technique I recommend to my editing clients to help them decide if their dialogue is working, but it is essential to perfecting all your writing. Read your lines aloud, over and over, and recast any word or sentence that does not roll off the tongue. You can start, if you wish, by speaking your ideas into a tape recorder, to let your voice flow and to hear yourself. Transcribing talk, Hale is quick to point out, is not tantamount to writing, but it's a technique to cultivate voice. Anything that stops you or makes you cringe when you read it aloud needs rewriting. In early drafts, that's a lot of what we write.


Constance Hale, Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose. New York: Broadway Books, 2001.

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