Wilde words

The final blog on creating the writer’s voice

Write about what?


Sometime in the eighties I noticed a shift in the focus of television sitcoms–the humorous situation was gradually being replaced by humorous banter. Witty retorts were more important than amusing events. In fact, often the events would be minimal. The entire plot may have been based solely on the character’s illusions, often nothing happened but clever conversations. Sometime the events in comedies actually struck a painful nerve. But, the audiences continued to laugh as the actors cut each other down a notch with witty retorts.

This is not the first time that ‘witty’ words have been prized over plot. Oscar Wilde, a 19th century Irish writer and poet wrote many poems, essays, short stories and plays. However, other than the fame achieved through his one novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, and his hit play, The Importance of Being Ernest, Wilde is mainly known for his epigrams, wry observations…

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Playing musical words

Digging a little deeper into creating a unique voice…

Write about what?

stephs (4)One of the quickest ways to make your writing voice stand out from the crowd is to master the use of literary devices. Some devices are just fancy names for specific types of diction and syntax. For example, anastrophe is a type of hyperbaton in which the position of a single word is changed from the normal syntax for emphasis. It is also the formal name for the distinctive syntax that marked the speech of Yoda in Star Wars.

However, there are many more literary devices that have potential. These involve selecting words for their actual sounds, as the sloshing, crackling, twinkling onomatopoeia words. I fondly think of these as the ‘musical’ literary devices. Longer words, with many syllables ending in vowels, like onomatopoeia, sound elegant, while short consonant bound ones, such as slang, carry a cocky connotation. I’ve witnessed people discussing whether it is more important to be intelligent or smart. To…

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Deciding on a direction

Writing doesn’t just need to be organized; it needs to go somewhere.

Write about what?

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“Say what you are going to say, say it, and finally say what you have said.” I don’t know how many times I’ve heard this rule for organizing the written word repeated in the educational realm. But rules are meant to be broken. Following this rule consistently will end up putting your readers to sleep. So many formulas to create structure in writing breed boredom instead. Good writing requires movement towards a goal, without being completely predictable.

There are multiple types of graphic organizers to assist the writer in brainstorming: such as branching, bridging, and bubbling. However, consider exactly how the reader would comprehend a composition if you wrote it with one central idea and all the related sub-ideas jutting out in different directions? This would be like constantly returning to home between every leg of a road trip. There is no way to get away from the fact that…

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The speed signs for writing

This is about how fast your writing seems rather than how fast you write.

Write about what?

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The way we string together words and the type of words we use contribute to the “pace” of writing. Longer sentences with a plethora of subordinated clauses provide an intellectual sound to the writing. The reader must take more time to ponder the concepts presented, making the ideas seem as complex as the style,  and also making the reader slog through the work.

Short sentences with direct verbs are the antidote to a dragging pace. However, few readers can stomach an entire work of short choppy bursts.  When dependent clauses are avoided, flow is sacrificed. The trick to dealing with pace-changing techniques is knowing when the writing can be improved by putting on the brakes–to let the reader savor the experience of reading–or speeding up the pace for drama.

A good exercise to show how this works is to take a paragraph out of academic writing and rewrite it. Revise it by…

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Order matters how?

So what does Yoda have to do with creating the writer’s voice?

Write about what?

YodaPuppetWhile diction determines word choice, syntax determines where the words are placed. Language without syntax are words strung together with no method to the madness–in other words, nonsense. Our normal syntax mimics what we have heard before. Unique syntax requires mixing up that order without creating nonsense.

Do you recall Yoda’s distinctive style of speaking in the Star Wars movie series? Simply take the predicate object or predicate adjective at the end of a sentence and move it to the front. Voila–Yoda speak. “But what is a predicate object and predicate adjective?” you ask mystified. Basically it is everything in a normal syntax that follows after the verb.

Learning how to use syntax to create a unique voice requires a fundamental knowledge of grammar. I recall creating lengthy diagrams parsing complex sentences in my junior high days. But, diagramming went out of vogue (probably due to lack of time) just like…

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Write or wrong word

Another blog in the series on creating voice in writing.

Write about what?

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Diction is one of the building blocks of voice that pushed far enough can become a two-edged sword, making the written word dangerously inaccessible to readers. When teaching Shakespeare’s plays to students I frequently pointed out that it was not the formal speeches that were hard to comprehend. Rather it was the lines full of common slang and innuendos of Elizabethan English that the students failed to grasp. After all, the bard did write to entertain the “man on the street.”

Beginning with the Renaissance there was a movement toward more formal diction in writing, and then sometime before the twentieth century writers started backing away from that same kind of diction. You could blame or praise Mark Twain for this, but he was not the only one in concerned in this swing. Today, the media has morphed into users of an informal brand of Standard English that is sprinkled…

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Tone of voice

Creating tone–second in the series on the writer’s voice.

Write about what?

ink1007 sunsetTone of voice… you have probably heard this phrase used frequently, such as in “I don’t like your tone of voice.” As a child I often assumed that phrase was the adults’ way of reprimanding someone whose statement was not malicious or false, but brought up an inconvenient truth. In speaking, tone is typically associated with a certain timbre, pitch or intensity that expresses an attitude, such as amusement or disdain. However those cues disappear if the words are written.

How are we to betray underlying emotions in writing? That is one of the keys to creating a distinctive writer’s voice.  Authors often use imagery to create the tone through their descriptive passages.  It does make a difference if the setting sun is “red as a ruby” or” red as blood.” A skillful writer uses imagery, full of connotative words with emotional undercurrents, to draw their characters and set the…

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The writer’s voice

Chasing the elusive writer’s voice…

Write about what?

voiceWhen people speak they produce many different signals that  the audience can interpret–facial expressions, gestures, and timbre of voice can add to the meaning of the words, or reverse them. For example, a person saying “Good job!” in a lusty voice with the right corner of his lips raised in a sneer of disdain means that he thinks you’ve done anything but a good job. However, when we write, we only offer one stimulus–words on the page.

Your style of grammar, tone, and inflection, which make up your voice when you are speaking out loud, offer so many modes of expression that must be converted to words when writing. When I hear people say creating a “voice” in writing means simply writing like you speak, I cringe. Only putting down the words you say in print is a pale, tasteless version of what needs to be told. However, writing done…

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Ancient Name Dropping


Photo by Peter Church, CC BY SA

In the George Lucas’ film The Empire Strikes Back, the furry Wookiee, Chewbacca, holds the head of robot C-3PO in the same way that Hamlet is usually shown holding a skull. Many people assume that Hamlet recited his fateful soliloquy “To be or not to be…” as he stared at the skull.  But, that occurs an act later. Actually, Hamlet said “Alas poor Yorick, I knew him well.” Yorick was the king’s jester, a bit of comic relief serving the same purpose as the protocol droid, C-3PO. This distinction is not important to understand the point of this allusion in The Empire Strike Back.  Chewbacca was wrestling with the nature of life, death and existence, just as the doomed Danish prince did.

If you find yourself dangling too close to the edge of sanity trying to come up with the perfect words to describe your character, you can lean on what past writers have done. Allusions are the literary equivalent of name-dropping. Once, I heard an acquaintance refer to another person as an “Adonis.” Despite knowing over fifty people in common, I immediately knew who she was discussing. There was only one man in our circle handsome and charming enough to fit that comparison (and he just happened to be from Greece). Alluding to a well-known character, fictional or real, is a short cut that quickly gives the readers already developed concepts.

How do you determine to which characters or works you should make your allusions? You want to make sure enough people recognize the same literary characters that you do. Use your friendly internet to supply lists of the most famous people, both real and fictional. Then cross out anyone who wasn’t walking the earth or in a book more than one hundred years ago. Not only have you shortened your list dramatically, you have selected the people with staying power.

Is it necessary for readers to read the same books as you for this kind of name dropping to work? Not always. On almost any list of the famous classics that authors use for a source of allusions the Bible and Shakespeare’s plays sit on top. However, people who have never read either one still know that “Judas” is an epithet for a traitor, and “Romeo” describes a male with romantic intentions.

Of course, when you allude to a character from Shakespeare’s works, everyone knows that you aren’t claiming personal friendship with the playwright. But they may assume that you know his works quite well, when in truth you may not have read any of them, just like your reader. However, that is where the difficulty lies. Comparing a character to Romeo because he is old and lecherous is not the kind of romantic male that Shakespeare had in mind.  Unless your you call him “Romeo” in a sarcastic manner, readers who have actually read Romeo and Juliet may start making fun of your work, or simply stop reading it.

If you are intent on using allusions you should be well-read.  It is not enough to watch movies that pale in comparison to the work that inspired them. And, you must read the classics, not just recent best sellers. Finally, you must be aware of all the shades of behavior epitomizing the characters before you allude to them. Drawing on the already developed descriptions of classic characters will add depth to your writing. However , if used incorrectly, you simply sound pretentious.

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More than what you see

Write about what?

IMG_4708 imagery2The term ‘imagery’ brings to mind, of course, images–verbal pictures that allow us to peer into the world which an author has dreamed up.  Imagery sometimes implies page after page of descriptive detail–in which case you might risk having the readers fall asleep and start dreaming up their own worlds.  But, a story without enough visual detail leaves the characters moving in an unsubstantial shadow land.

Imagery should includes more than what you see in your mind’s eye. It also needs to bring to life the sounds, smells, tastes, and textures of the world you have created. One of the appealing aspects of writing is that you do not have to stick with the conventional. Music can be  ultramarine blue or a person’s scent can be rough and sand papery. Using these metaphors which cross the senses is  called synesthesia, a term referring to a neurological condition in which senses…

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