Don't Change My Voice!

Monday, March 20, 2017

Being an effective critiquer isn’t easy, and few people do it well. The first problem is that a good critiquer can’t worry about hurting the writer’s feelings. Yes, the critiquer should be sensitive and respectful, but the point of the exercise is to help the writer improve. That means pointing out what is wrong as well as what is right.

The second problem is distinguishing between craft and voice. The line between the two is thin, but it’s also crucial. When critiquing someone else’s work, craft is fair game. Voice is not.

So what does it mean when we talk about a writer’s voice? I’ve heard many definitions, but the one I like best comes from The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th Edition), which says voice is:

The distinctive style or manner of expression of an author or of a character in a book.

As I see it, voice is a combination of tone and style and something even harder to grasp. It’s what makes it easy to distinguish Mark Twain from Jane Austin from Stephen King. Or, to modify the well-known adage, it’s what makes it possible to say “I know the writer when I see his or her work.”

A couple of weeks ago, a fellow writer mentioned that her new critique group has been telling her to use more deep POV. As far as I know, there is no rule that says a writer must use deep POV. In fact, conventions over the type of POV to use change with the times. Just look at Charles Dickens or George Elliot or most of those classic writers who used omnipresent POV with a narrator who knew everything the characters didn’t. That practice is no longer in fashion, although a few writers do still use it. Using a particular type of POV correctly is important if you want to keep your readers immersed in the story, so that’s craft. In my opinion, however, what type of POV you use and whether it is near or far is a matter of voice.

I cringe every time I read a poem by e.e. cummings. I want to go through and add capital letters to make it grammatically correct. But that would be interfering with his voice. Or there is the poet in my local critique group who writes without punctuation. I love his poetry, but it took me a long time before I stopped itching to add commas and semi-colons and periods.

One “rule” says good writers should never begin a sentence with a conjunction. Or some people think that is a rule, anyway. If it is, it’s one I often break. When I edit my work, I eliminate some of the conjunctions that begin sentences, reword other sentences so they don’t need them, or change two sentences into one with the conjunction to join them. But sometimes starting a sentence with a conjunction creates a smoother transition while giving the sentence greater emphasis. Those sentences stay in, and they have become part of my voice.

Different people have different tastes. If I don’t like someone’s voice, I won’t read that person’s work. Or if the writer is a critique group member, I try to limit my comments to craft. When a particular use of voice creates unintended confusion, I mention that because there may be a craft way for the writer to revise it without changing the voice. But I’m not perfect. The line is a thin one, and I’ve crossed it from time to time. Still, I try not to.

Because craft is fair game, but voice is not.

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