Critiquing Voice, By Virginia Law Manning

Editors and agents often say the number one thing they are looking for when reading manuscripts is a distinct and fresh voice. But, what is voice?

In her book VOICE LESSONS, Nancy Dean describes voice as the “fingerprint of a person’s language.” She suggests a writer’s voice is created by his/her choices of diction, detail, imagery, syntax and tone. She goes on to describe each of these elements and then offers exercises to help writers become more aware of their choices in their writing.

voice lessons

Diction is the writer’s word choice. It’s “the foundation of voice and contributes to all of its elements.”

Detail are the facts, observations and incidents the author choses to include.

Imagery is the verbal representation of sensory experience and helps to make these experiences immediate.

Syntax refers to grammatical sentence structure and “controls verbal pacing and focus.”

Tone is the expression of attitude.

When critiquing others’ work, the question arises, how do we critique a writer’s voice? The answer: carefully!

An author’s voice is their personality. As readers, we will be drawn to some voices more than others, just as we’re drawn to some people more than others. I find when I love an author’s voice, I want to read the lines out loud. And then I want to read them out loud to other people. But, I find those people don’t always agree with my assessment because voice is personal.

It’s important we allow our critique partners to develop their own personal voice and not be swayed by our tastes. That said, we can and should critique the consistency of an author’s voice.

For instance, does the author use very simple words or sentence structure except in one section when the vocabulary or syntax becomes more formal and mature for no apparent reason?

Is the story written in the voice of the 8-year old main character, but a fact is mentioned that only an adult would know?

We’ll also want to ask ourselves, does the voice feel appropriate for the genre.

For instance, if the book’s main target audience is preschool teachers, an author may want to avoid words or details that would be a turn-off to this audience. On the flip side, if the book is written for reluctant readers, the voice may need to be more edgy to appeal to this hard-to-please audience.

When we first start writing, we need to focus on the basics. Does the story have a problem or is it a list of events? Later we may focus on character development, making sure the protagonists have real flaws and the antagonists aren’t villain stereotypes. Voice is probably the last piece of the puzzle. Hopefully, by the time the rest falls into place, our voice will have naturally developed. But since it’s such an important part of the equation, I know I’m always looking for resources to help me develop my voice.

In the comments section, I’d love to know if you’ve found any articles, books or courses that were helpful. Please share this information and/or any other questions/feedback in the comments section below.

Everyone who leaves a comment will be entered into a drawing to receive a manuscript critique on up to 10-pages. If you win, you’re not obligated to accept. I know/hope you may already be in a great critique group. But if you think a fresh set of eyes would be helpful or you’re not in a group, I’d be happy to read your work and send my comments to you in a private email.

Good luck with your writing! Remember to leave a comment below!

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17 Responses to Critiquing Voice, By Virginia Law Manning

  1. Sheri says:

    Thank you for a concise and cogent article about voice. I recently spoke with a newbie to writing who asked me to critique her work, and I tried to explain voice to her. I’m going to forward her this article.

  2. Claudia B. says:

    Voice–it’s an elusive concept. Your article was very helpful though. So many interesting tidbits…more, more, more! Thank you.

  3. ydansky says:

    I’m eager to read the comments–struggling to tell my story more gracefully.

  4. Kristen C.S. says:

    I love that you tackled this, Virginia. Voice was something that I had a lot of questions about and have kind of discovered by stumbling in the dark. I also learned some of these basic building blocks you mentioned while working on an ESL certification and realizing the things that go into what each student comes out with linguistically. I think I’d like to check out this book to fine-tune my understanding. And your critique advice is spot on! =)

  5. Voice. Something I think that gets clearer the more you write. But how to critique someone else’s? I’d never given that much thought, always using my own opinion. Thanks for the great advice. I’ve learned something today!

  6. Emily Basca says:

    Interesting article and I look forward to reading the book. The sudden change in “voice” in a book can abruptly take the reader out of the story. The voice of each character having consistency is so important to believing/connecting with the character for me when I am reading.

  7. VOICE LESSONS by Nancy Dean looks like a must read book as I continue to hone the skill of writing picture books for children. As I move forward developing my own voice, thank you for the reminder of the following elements: diction, detail, imagery, syntax and tone.
    ~Suzy Leopold

  8. Margaret Greanias says:

    Thanks for this blog post. I got a critique that pointed out some problems with voice in one of my most recent manuscripts. I was just experimenting with what I thought was a new type of manuscript but it turns out I was also experimenting with my voice.

  9. Nadine Poper says:

    Voice is definitely something I need to improve in my writing. Thank you for taking the time to address this craft.

  10. carlaketner says:

    Developing a strong voice is hard–as is critiquing another writer’s voice. Thanks for this thought provoking post.

  11. Martin Segal says:

    Thanks for the post, Virginia! Great things to look for to define the voice of a story. Consistency of voice is something I’ll be on the lookout for!

  12. Karla VA says:

    Thank you for this post, it was very insightful and thought-provoking!

  13. Angela Dale says:

    Virginia – great post. Voice is a particularly tricky thing to nail given the short space of a picture book, and for that same reason such a vital component. Especially appreciate your thoughts on critiquing voice in others’ works.

  14. Karen Lawler says:

    Hey Virginia, I love the suggestion of paying special attention to voice. That is something I rarely think about when I write but especially when doing critiques. Thanks for the reminder. I will try to do better. 🙂

  15. Thanks for the review Virginia. I’m working on a ‘cowgirl’ accent at the moment and playing with word order to give my MC’s voice a Texas twang, even if it’s only what the MC thinks is a Texas twang should be…VOICE LESSONS definitely looks like it would be a good addition to my writer’s reference bookshelf.

  16. Janet Bryce says:

    I am a beginner at writing and every Monday I wait with anticipation at what advice I will get from the pros. This information has helped me so much in my writing. The subject of voice has been on my research list recently. I’ve been looking for a book that would help me. I think I’ve found it. Thanks for everything.

  17. Thank you to everyone who commented! Congratulations to Yona Dansky! She is the winner of the critique this month. I reached out to Yona via email. Since several people said they might read Nancy Dean’s book, I wanted to mention that the majority of the book focuses on exercises that help readers identify how published authors have used the five elements: diction, detail, imagery, syntax and tone to create their voices. Thank you again to everyone who commented! I really love hearing what you have to say!

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