Problems to Avoid -1: Voice – Part A

by Al Kalar

As an editor, I see a number of problems that either spell “rejection” by a publisher, poor sales, or “more work for me – and higher bills for my client”. This is the first of a series on those problems.

The problem of “voice” is actually a two-part problem:

  1. The author’s voice
  2. Character voice.

The author’s “voice”

The sum of how s/he writes non-dialog prose (or poetry). Word choices, sentence structure, slang, contractions, and unique ways of expressing things.

If you write your prose to exactly follow the rules of English, you can overdo it and end up sounding like the Queen of England, rather than a “regular person”. There is a pretty wide range of language use that the average reader will find to be acceptable, but if you go outside that range, you may alienate your audience.

Examples (actual stuff with the details changed – some were actually worse than these):

  1. Thus the plan was formulated. A few of the conspirator’s became over-confident, and only making them more dangerous.
  2. Representative Johnson stood looking at the group, and scolding them. “Listen to me. . . .
  3. [In a conversation between two people who have already been identified]  Henry Jones spoke again. “Junior, . . .
  4. Henry took the people to the house and started a fire in the large potbelly stove he then started a fire in the fireplace and placed a log on the fire. Henry found two flashlights, the electric lamp, which the occupants had left behind, and a few cups. Henry advised then to melt the snow to drink . . .

Criticism of the above examples:

  1. Very awkward sentence, not even grammatically correct. Author was in a hurry and didn’t come back to fix it. A few changes would fix this just fine.
  2. Problem is self-evident, not just because of incorrect punctuation.
  3. You can re-identify your speakers as often as necessary, but “Henry said,” would have been sufficient without making it sound like a pronouncement was coming (it wasn’t).
  4. Too many “Henry’s” at the start of each sentence. Also the first sentence is a run-on.

Character voices:

Not all characters speak the same. Regional dialects, family, the “circles” someone runs in, all conspire to give people differing ways of talking. Two people from the same family will likely use the same speech patterns, but someone reared in Georgia is going to sound different from someone from the Bronx section of New York City.  A college professor will likely talk differently than a mob “enforcer” who grew up in the streets (even of the same city).  And it may be that none of them sounds like you when you speak.

The best way to avoid the problem of everyone sounding like you, is to listen carefully to people as they talk. With the advent of television and radio, it’s easier than ever to review the various “flavors” of people from different parts of the world.

Humfry Englishprof may “speak very correctly. Never would he consider using a contraction nor would he eschew the use of polysyllabic words in his speech.” He may ramble on in long sentences and belabor a point until the other characters scream for mercy.

Joe Enforcer “don’t speak all dat well, buddy. He’ll sling slang jabber right at’cha wid’out battin’ an eye, don’cha know. An he’ll use contractions jus’ as fast as he’ll “contract” you in’ta a pile of bloody goo if’n you crosses him or da boss.”

Mainstream Charlie “is quite comfy with contractions and often uses unusual phrases to make a point. He happily spouts cliché’s quick as a wink. He’s everyman (or everywoman) and audiences from Alaska to Florida and the UK are comfortable with him.” His voice is a good one for prose as well as speech for most of your casual characters – and perhaps your main character.

Sally Teenybopper, “like, speaks a strange dialect, y’know, full of  teen slang. If she’s a, like, modern teen, she talks really fast, dude, and brushes off stuff she, like, doesn’t wanna hear with a ‘whatever’ and, y’know, gets back to what she likes.” Dumb jocks often sound like her or one of her buds.  This deplorable speech pattern is filtering into the adult population, infecting even senior citizens (especially “y’know” sometime pronounced as, “y’ow”).

Always consider your character’s background when picking speech patterns.


Write your story first, in the style most comfortable to you.

Then go back and fix your prose “voice” if you don’t normally use such an acceptable voice.

Next, fix your minor characters to whatever voice they should have as they enter and leave your story.

Finally, pick individual “voices” for each of your major characters and rewrite ONE CHARACTER AT A TIME so you can be true to that character’s voice. Then go back to the beginning and do the next character.


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