Devices that create voice, part 2 of 3

Such clauses delay the subject, and dim the clarity of the sentence. Longer and more complex ones delay it even longer, causing frustration for readers. Lowered clarity lowers authority. I avoid beginning dependent clauses as much as possible, because I’m a clarity freak, and I want my readers to think I sound like one.

Insertions put one unit inside another unit, such as a parenthetical aside. They give a sense of a person thinking, unless there are so many that they become confusing, in which case, they make the voice seem wishy-washy. Like everything else in writing, it’s a balancing act. Insertions, especially those between subject and verb, sometimes with insertions inside the insertion, and even going on for half a page, drive readers crazy, the way this sentence drove you crazy. See?

Repetition has meaning because it ties things together. Used clumsily, it links things you didn’t intend, and becomes confusing. The French novelist Stendhal famously tried never to repeat the same word on a page, depriving himself of a powerful device.

Repeating key words and phrases makes them prominent in the readers’ memories, unless you repeat them too much, in which case readers notice them, and they make the voice tedious. Repetition puts things in parallel, and invites readers to compare them.

Repeating meaningful images sparks readers’ memory in new contexts. Frank McCourt is the master of this technique, constantly taking readers back to his miserable childhood, Ireland’s tragic history, his clotty eyes, etc.

Parallels are repetition in form. A series of clauses or sentences with the same shape creates a compelling rhythm, a sense of unity, and authority. Remember Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream,” and especially Winston Churchill’s great rallying speech of 4 June 1940:

We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France,
we shall fight on the seas and oceans,
we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air,
we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be,
we shall fight on the beaches,
we shall fight on the landing grounds,
we shall fight in the fields and in the streets,
we shall fight in the hills;
we shall never surrender.

Variation increases the power of parallels, as we see in the slight changes in form after each “we shall ….” Parallels have the same compelling quality as chant.

Active verbs create a sense of power, mostly by being graphic and specific. Passive verbs dilute the voice, and linking verbs (“to be”) weaken it. On the other hand, American informal speech uses mostly linking verbs, so they create a conversational sound. The active voice used exclusively will sound formal.

Contractions make prose sound conversational, and the more contractions, the more it sounds like speech, unless the readers notice them. Such illusions are like perfume; they work only if the target doesn’t catch on to them. A total avoidance of contractions raises the level of formality.

Remember Strunk and White’s commandment: “Omit needless words.” Wordy sentences sound more conversational because ordinary speech isn’t edited. But if you trim sentences skillfully, they flow better, becoming conversationally friendly. On the other hand, extremely tight sentences come off as formal, distancing, and even huffy, like “Omit needless words.”

I recently ended a post inviting to readers to comment: “Done any experiments with creating a voice?” Let’s add and subtract words to see different effects, moving from tightly formal to loosely conversational:

Ever experiment with voice?
Have you tried experiments with your voice?
Have you done any experiments with creating a voice?
What has been your experience with trying to create a voice?

I wouldn’t call any of those words “needless,” although I could (and would) cut a lot of them in all three of my voices. I might leave some of them in, if I was trying to sound especially chummy.

Rhythms can range from jerky to, as we said of Jefferson, “mellifluous,” which means honeyed and flowing. We’re talking here about the sense of movement, how the sounds lead from one to another. Jerky rhythms make the voice seem disorganized, slightly out of control, even angry. Rolling rhythms create order and unity. Easy flow sounds poetic.

Abstractions make the voice seem elevated, sophisticated, and learned. If you use too great a density of abstractions, the prose becomes remote and tedious. Specific words and images create authority by drawing readers in close. They experience an illusion of “being there,” and a sense of the persona as someone who knows things in detail. For greatest power and authority, use a few abstractions to frame a lot of specifics.

[Stay tuned for part 3 this week.]

Published in: on December 13, 2009 at 3:30 pm  Leave a Comment  

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