“Ask an Editor” is a forum wherein SCBWI members submit questions that are answered as part of our quarterly Kite Tales blog.
Hi Christine – My grammar and mechanics skills helped me get good grades in school but they often cause me trouble when I’m revising fiction. How do I keep from editing the voice out of my manuscript?
—Jade, Los Angeles
Hello Jade – Let’s start by a general definition of writer’s voice. It certainly can involve technical choices such as grammar, spelling, and so forth, but it is more of how a writer’s personality comes through to the reader. Depending on the kind of writing you’re doing, your voice may vary. For example, in a personal narrative essay, you may want to sound like yourself. In fiction, your main character may or may not sound like you and other characters in your story should have their own distinct voices. What?! Yes, you must find your voice and also that of the other characters in your story.
HOW DO YOU FIND YOUR VOICE?
As with pretty much anything else in life, the more you do it, the better you get at it. Practicing the craft of writing is key. Some writers are wordier; others spare. Part of voice includes sentence structure, word choice, and viewpoint. There also needs to be a balance between description and dialogue. A helpful reference book is Cheryl B.Klein’s The Magic Words: Great Books for Children and Young Adults (2016, W. W. Norton). Specifically, the chapter regarding “latitude” has a solid breakdown of things to be mindful of in regard to writing character voice.
Since you’ve identified clear grammar as something that’s uniquely you, that doesn’t mean it has to be edited out. Maybe you should lean into it instead if that works for the kind of writing you’re doing. For example, a writer’s voice can sound too “adult” sometimes for readers of kidlit. When that happens, channel your inner kid. Do you have journals or diaries from when you were younger? Many of us have always been writers, so that’s a good place to start. Being around kids is also important to see how kids today speak and interact. That brings me to how voice can suggest the time period of the book. For example, the characters in a historical fiction book would not sound like we do today. In that case, research may be necessary to nail characters in a period piece.
Because you’re asking about this and thinking about it, you’re on the right track! Keep writing. Soon you’ll know your voice and so will your readers.
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Answers by Christine Van Zandt, literary editor and writer, and owner of Write for Success Editing Services.
Sage advice. Agree that Cheryl Klein’s book is a good one.