A monthly column by Anthony D. Fredericks
There is a potent secret to good nonfiction writing! It’s called voice. Voice is that element in writing that connects the author with the reader. It’s a bond, a trust, and a link between a creator of words and a processor of words. It’s what keeps readers reading and something that should keep writers writing. Most important, voice gives your writing a sense of authenticity—breathing a life into inert words naked on the page.
Voice is your connection with readers. Author Roy Peter Clark defines voice as “an effect created by the writer that reaches the reader through the ears, even when he is receiving the message through the eyes.” In many ways, voice is that element of writing that turns words into a story. Consider this passage from the book Making the World by Douglas Wood (1998). Read it aloud and listen to the voice of the author.
There is a secret that almost nobody knows. I will tell it to you, if you promise to tell someone else.
The world isn’t finished yet, it isn’t quite complete. It’s still being made.
Everywhere you look and everywhere you listen, someone or something is helping to make the world.
Can you hear the voice? Of course, you can! Why? Because when reading it out loud, it sounds as though the author is reading it directly to you. In short, this nonfiction book reads like a story (which it should). You hear it with your ears as much as you read it with your eyes.
When I wrote the book I Am the Desert (2012) I wanted to dispel many of the myths and misconceptions kids have about desert life. To do that, I gave the desert its own voice—a way of communicating directly with those readers by injecting personality into the topic. I wanted youngsters to experience a stream of sentiments often missing from encyclopedic-style books that merely report facts, list data, and offer bland narration (e.g., “Many different animals live in the desert.”). Here’s a section from early in the book:
I am alive.
I am the scuttle of sharp-tailed scorpions dancing in circles.
I am the leap of kangaroo rats hopping across cool sand.
I am the whir of bats venturing out to cover the night.
I hope you will note my intension here: I wanted the text of this nonfiction book to be shared as a read-aloud. In so doing, it would achieve a voice . . . a communication between author and reader that pumped emotional substance into factual information.
How can you do that with your writing? Simple—read it aloud. Read it to your spouse, your cat, a tree, your children, a passing neighbor, the ocean, your bathroom mirror, or the voice memo app on your cell phone. Read it as though you were reading to an audience of 700 squirming kids at the local elementary school or a cluster of nieces, nephews, and grandchildren at the next family gathering. Is there a voice there? Is the author (you) making a verbal connection? Are you building a conceptual bridge, not just with facts, but with passion and emotion?
To help you in establishing that voice, consider asking yourself (immediately after the read-aloud) some of the following questions:
- What is the level of the language? Are the words you use basic facts or metaphorical abstractions?
- Are the words concrete? Do you use words that create rich visual images in the mind of the reader?
- In what “person” do you write? Do you use words such as “I,” “you,” “me,” “we,” “they,” or “us”?
- Is there a plethora of facts and a dearth of emotions? Does the story rest entirely on a foundation of data to the exclusion of visceral connections?
- How long are your sentences? Do you use short sentences exclusively? Or, is there a mix of both long and short sentences?
- Are you neutral? Is your writing objective, partisan, or passionate? Is it “your way or the highway,” or is the reader invited to make her own discoveries?
Reading your work aloud—several times—gives you pause to listen for its voice. Additionally, it helps ensure that your readers will hear that voice, too.
Next month—more ways to add voice to your writing.
Tony is an award-winning author of more than fifty children’s books. He has also authored Writing Children’s Books: Everything You Need to Know from Story Creation to Getting Published (Blue River Press, 2018) [“This is a fantastic resource for aspiring authors, written by a seasoned working author.” – 5 stars] (https://amzn.to/2tREKCa).