Good Writing Is ... #2 The author's voice has no place in his work

First, a response to the emails I’ve received

Thank you for the response to article #1 in this series – most gratifying. Regarding the requests in my inbox that I review your work: I’d love to do this for you. But it is not appropriate for me to do so on hubpages, nor would either of us be comfortable going through the process publicly. So here’s what we’ll do: send me a copy of the work you want reviewed by email, and please embed the work in the body of the email – no attachments, and no more than 2,000 words please. I will use MSWord reviewing pane and give you the best overall edit and review I can, then send it back to your home email address. For the one or two who wrote and said they don’t know how to transfer work from their hubpage site: first, you should always keep a copy of your work on your home computer – who knows what may happen in the computer world; you may lose your creation. If you have not, go to your hub; put it in edit mode; using your clipboard, highlight and copy the body onto your clipboard; then, start an email to me and paste it in the email. (And keep a copy in your own files for posterity.) I am not comfortable with the suggestion I copy your hub and edit. A copy taken from a published hub will come up underlined, and secondly, it just doesn’t feel right. I’ll happily review submitted work, though.

A review of what we’ve covered so far

  • Stay active in your writing. Avoid overuse of the passive voice.
  • Show the reader what is happening, share the experience; don’t describe and ‘tell’ the story from a distance.

A common error for new writers is to insert the author’s voice into the story.

New writers want to “set the stage;” don’t. Let the stage become apparent as the story unfolds AND tell the story from the character’s point of view, not the author’s. (Two errors in one heading.)


“Come on,” Mary urged. She was an adventurous girl, with no fear of the unknown. “Let’s see what the storm left on the beach.”

“I don’t know.” Louise looked around, her face full of skepticism. She was more timid, and desired nothing more than the safety of her bedroom.

The storm had brought rain that lasted all night long, and the beach was now a quagmire, soft, wet and littered with debris. The sky, still grey and overcast threatened yet more rain. The waves rolling into the beach no longer shimmered green, but brown and soupy, full of the sediment stirred up by the downpour. The long beach, normally filled with vacationers enjoying nature’s bounty was empty of human life, except for two boys throwing a football, up above the tide line, on the grassy side of the newly piled driftwood, and dead kelp.

Not a bad descriptive passage, if I do say so myself, and it would suffice on its own if I intended to write a simple description of a beach after a storm. But, if I inject this into the middle of a story, it has the effect of stopping the action and injecting my own, the author’s voice. The days where a story is told by an omniscient, God-like narrator who not only describes the scenes but also knows what’s going on in everyone’s mind are long gone, and the all-knowing point of view has no place in the modern voice.

What worked in the style of Dickens, or Austen, is presumptuous by today’s standards.

What is wrong here? First, we start out with a bit of dialogue, but the action becomes cluttered with the author’s judgments on the characters. Yes, we may well want to know these things about the two girls, but we should be more subtle in how we impart this information to the reader – not as a pronouncement from on high. We’ll show the reader, not tell – remember?

Secondly, the descriptive passage, while brilliant (excuse me) stops us dead in our tracks, which would be particularly obvious were this an extract from an ongoing scene. How often in our reading do we come across long descriptive passages and skip over them in our haste to return to the story, the action? For most of us, the honest answer is many times.

Definitely, we want good, sparkling description in our work, but we need to present it as part of the story, as seen/heard/felt by our characters, not by us, the author. The exception to this rule may be if we use the first person narrative when our primary character makes all observations. (I saw ….) But even then, there are better, more digestible methods.

So now, I too, will show you what I mean, not tell. Let’s rewrite this passage with the above advice in mind.

“Come on,” urged Mary, boldly stepping off the boardwalk onto the beach. “Let’s see what the storm left behind.”

“I don’t know.” Louise looked around, the fear and uncertainty growing on her face as she surveyed the heaps of debris, the driftwood, tangled piles of dead and stinking kelp, the puddles sulking in depressions on the rain-soaked sand, and beyond, the soupy brown water, leaving lines of dark sediment behind each wave. She took one tentative step forward, and sank up to her ankle. “I’d rather stay home today.”

“Chicken.” Mary bent down and straightened up holding a large shell in her hand. “Look – isn’t this marvelous? Who knows what we’ll find. For heaven’s sake, Louise, try to find a bit of adventure in your soul, for once.”

“I don’t know,” she repeated, staring up at the sullen grey clouds in the sky. “It looks like more rain.”

Mary plodded slowly farther toward the water, her feet making sucking sounds as she pulled them from the quagmire of wet sand. Twice she lost her shoe, and finally ripped them off, threw them as far as she could toward the boardwalk, and continued slopping through the ooze in bare feet. “It feels wonderful. Try it.”

She glared at Louise, still standing with one foot in safety, the other slowly sinking, her arms crossed over her chest and flung up her hands in dismay. “Are you going to stand there all day?”

“There’s no one else out here.”

“They are.” Mary pointed at two boys throwing a football up on the grass, on the other side of the newly deposited wall of ocean debris.

“Yeah, well they’re on firm ground.” Louise pulled her foot out of the slop, and regarded the mud encrusted sneaker in dismay.

Now, is there any information from the first example not found here in the second? Isn’t the second far more palatable and engaging? You know why? We showed the reader that Mary is adventurous and Louise timid, and painted the backdrop of the scene in an unobtrusive manner. The reader doesn’t have to take the author’s word for it. The reader knows.

Here’s another example on a lovely piece by a new writer I’m editing now.

“I’m sorry; I just can’t help myself. I can’t stop drinking,” he said, slipping down in his chair and staring at his lap.

“You’re pathetic,” she exclaimed, staring at him. He was a mess, a pathetic, helpless weakling. She gave up. She wasn’t going to waste any more time on him.

What’s wrong here? Can you guess? The phrase, ’he was a mess, a pathetic….’ is a judgment inserted by the author. There are two ways to fix this. One would be to consider these as the female antagonist’s thoughts, at which point we need to inject something like ‘she thought’, and show those thoughts, which are really unspoken dialogue in italics (because that’s how we should write thoughts.) The way I edited this is as follows:

“I’m sorry; I just can’t help myself. I can’t stop drinking.” He slouched down in his chair and stared at his lap.

“You’re pathetic.” She rose from the table in disgust and left.

Doesn’t this impart the same message, but more powerfully and actively?

Conclusion

Keep your voice, opinions and judgments out of your story. Let the events unfold from the character’s point of view. Don’t play God and tell us what everyone is thinking, his or her character or their fate. This is not considered an acceptable point of view in modern writing, and let’s face it, even in those writings of the time where this was common practice, it comes off egotistical, presumptuous, and fusty, dry and preachy. Let your characters share their senses – tell it from their point of view.

I wish you all good writing, and remember:

  • Stay active
  • Show and share, don't tell and describe
  • Keep you own voice out of the story.
  • Let your characters do the work.

More by this Author


Comments 51 comments

Hello, hello, profile image

Hello, hello, 6 years ago from London, UK

Thank you so very much a very good advice. I appreciate it.


The Rope profile image

The Rope 6 years ago from SE US

You've set yourself up for quite a task LM. Excellent advice for the professional story teller. Thanks for sending out such a terrific reminder.


Mr. Happy profile image

Mr. Happy 6 years ago from Toronto, Canada

I suppose you are talking about fiction? My appologies - I scanned through this blog ...


Ann Nonymous profile image

Ann Nonymous 6 years ago from Virginia

Good advice. Now I feel the need to go back over my writing and see it through your eyes! LOL...I'm still considering or is it too late? I still will get back to you either way-don't like to keep people hanging, especially you, lmmartin! Thanks!


lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 6 years ago from Alberta and Florida Author

Never too late, Ann Nonymous. You can forward me a piece whenever you like. (Preferably the first Sam-I-Am.

Hello, hello-hello, same message for you. I'd love to sit down with Harry and George Have Fun in the Snow. I like that one a lot.

Hi, the Rope (such an ominous pen-name) You're welcome.

Hey there, Mr. Happy, always glad to see you. What are you apologizing for? and what blog?


Mr. Happy profile image

Mr. Happy 6 years ago from Toronto, Canada

lol I was talking about your second lesson on writing "Good Writing Is ... #2 The author's voice has no place in his work". I was asking if you were talking about fiction - I was on a pit-stop at home and just scanned quickly through what you wrote thus, I appologized for not reading it in full and asking if you were giving the writing advice for those writing fiction.

P.S. Unless I read something which is in essay format, I call everything on Hubpages 'blogs'.


lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 6 years ago from Alberta and Florida Author

Oh. I'm not sure what blogging really is, and I suppose as this series is not meant to be a shining example of article writing, but an informal presentation of hints and advice for writers, followed by brisk conversation in the comment section, I'll assume it is a blog.

Yes, I'm focusing on fiction here. After all, I am a novelist, though I do write some serious articles. After three decades in the business world, and all those dry, gag-in-the-throat financial reports, and internal control reports, fiction is a wonderful release.

Still, the advice given here also works in non-fiction narrative, and to a lesser degree in non-fiction -- where the author's voice is everything. So I guess this amounts to a windy yes, in answer to your simple question.


Sherbet Penny profile image

Sherbet Penny 6 years ago from Galway, Ireland.

Again, sound simple brilliant advice, thank you.


lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 6 years ago from Alberta and Florida Author

You are so very welcome Sherbet Penny, and I hope to have the next article in the very near future. Thanks for the comment.


PegCole17 profile image

PegCole17 6 years ago from Dallas, Texas

Oh boy, it's back to the keyboard for me. Write, rewrite, rewrite, edit, rewrite. Yikes. I better work on some of my omnipotent stuff. Shows how much I have to learn. Thanks for the pointers. Much work ahead : (


E. Nicolson profile image

E. Nicolson 6 years ago

I am really enjoying your series. It's a great way to freshen up one's fiction endeavours. I have dragged out the novel yet again after spending far too much time on the articles. I look forward to your next instalment.


lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 6 years ago from Alberta and Florida Author

Hey Peg, get the thing out before you go to rewrite. It doesn't matter how it's written in the rough stage. It's the rewrites that count.

Hello E Nicolson, There's something about your verb usage -- dragged out the novel -- that suggests you're not happy working on it. Am I right? Anyway, as I said to Peg, success is all in the rewrites.

Thank you ladies, for commenting. I should have the next one out in short order.


Petra Vlah profile image

Petra Vlah 6 years ago from Los Angeles

Thank you Lynda,

Another great and informative hub for writers.

Just like with the first one what I liked best is the fact that you are putting side by side “what it is” as opposed to “what should be”; great way to see and learn.

I would love to send you by e-mail some of my work, but most of it is over the limit of 2000 words


lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 6 years ago from Alberta and Florida Author

Hi Petra, as I've already agreed to work on A Marked Family -- in fact that piece won't get out of my mind and ideas on how to present it occupy brain cells that should be editing my second novel -- I'll over look the word count. To tell the truth, I'm dying to get my hands on that one; it could be so powerful. As I asked before, let's discuss by email. Lynda


Highvoltagewriter profile image

Highvoltagewriter 6 years ago from Savannah GA.

Great job! You were quite clear in getting you point across! I will be coming out with another hub on "Book Trails" I will call it "Positioning your Trailer" that will give several choices on the best way to use your "Trailer." Look for it in about a week after I do the research.


lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 6 years ago from Alberta and Florida Author

I'll look for it, highvoltagewriter, with great interest. Years ago, when I published, authors were expected to do nothing but write. How that has changed. Now we must write, then bat our heads against the tightly woven "agent wall", agree to turn over most profits to the publisher, and then market the damn thing ourselves. I'm sure I'm not alone among fiction writers wondering who's out there for us. As I've commented (too many times, I'm sure) existing programs are geared to the non-fiction, prescription book, as they seem to be all the rage, these days.


Nan 6 years ago

Some people do write in their own voice, that is where they get their ideas. Please put all of your writings in a book of How-To-Write.


lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 6 years ago from Alberta and Florida Author

Yes Nan, of course we write in our own voice, but it shouldn't be apparent to the reader (at least not in fiction which is the subject here.) When it becomes apparent we are hearing the authors opinions, judgments, feelings -- not the characters it is an intrusion. And as I've said, the days of the "all knowing" narrator, the author, are long passed. We need to be subtle and always working behind the scenes. Certainly, as we are the author everything we write is our voice.

As far as writing a book on how to write, I think I'll stick to this series of articles (at least for now -- who knows.)

Thanks for coming by and I hope you read the other two posted here. I'll be working on the next, soon and I think I'll write about plot and construction. Good night.


Quilligrapher profile image

Quilligrapher 6 years ago from New York

Damn! I’m late for class again. Am I really four days behind everyone else? I feel like a tortoise bringing up the rear and gagging on road dust and rabbit fur. I am off to find lesson #3.

Q


lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 6 years ago from Alberta and Florida Author

Hi Quilligrapher,

Slow and steady, the tortoise won the race. Don't forget that. I mean, it's not like these articles suddenly disappear. (Though they do inexplicably drop ten points in score in a matter of hours -- who can figure.) Take your time.


Marisa Wright profile image

Marisa Wright 6 years ago from Sydney

I love the beach example! I probably wouldn't have changed the second one - but then I'd be writing deep in the female protagonist's POV, and therefore any opinions expressed would clearly be hers, with or without italics or tags.

I can't resist taking issue with Mr Happy's comments that Hubs are blogs, especially in view of your reply. Hubs bears no resemblance to blogs. A blog is a collection of short posts built up over time, not necessarily on a single topic. A Hub is a stand-alone, magazine-style article of at least 400 words and usually much longer, and isn't added to over time. Hope that helps!


lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 6 years ago from Alberta and Florida Author

Hi again Marisa,

We all have our own style, and as you like to write from one protaganist's view (first or third person?) then it is not the author's voice speaking but hers -- acceptable.

I don't take issue with Mr. Happy -- 'cause we go back to when we both started here, and I know he means no insult. I do appreciate you clearing up my confusion over the terms, though. Thanks.


Rafini profile image

Rafini 6 years ago from Somewhere I can't get away from

What about when you write in the first person pov? I haven't progressed to third person yet (can't figure it out lol)


lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 6 years ago from Alberta and Florida Author

When one writes in the first person, the thoughts of the main character are the ones we hear, not the authors. What we want to watch out for as described in this article, is inserting the author's voice from on high -- not as the POV of one of the characters (even it that character is I, the author.)

And yes, in truth all characters are speaking with the author's voice, but this should not be apparent to the reader. The first person may be the author, or a fictious character -- either way, the voice should remain true.


Rafini profile image

Rafini 6 years ago from Somewhere I can't get away from

i think i get it now. this is what makes writing = working.


lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 6 years ago from Alberta and Florida Author

Good, write as little Rafini, not big Rafini and you'll be fine. Love your avatar.


Duchess OBlunt 6 years ago

I have taken so long to get back to your articles, I had to review the first one too. Your method of teaching works well for me. I will most likely have to revisit them all when I am able to get back to my book (scheduled for this coming month - YEA!)

I could so relate to "skipping" over those long descriptive parts. And yes, they are usually examples of great writing - but still, I skip them when I run into them in the middle of a good story. I have to remember this. :)


lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 6 years ago from Alberta and Florida Author

Yes it's true,isn't it? I remember thinking while reading Thomas Wolfe "will ya shut up and get to the point?" and "do you have to describe every little thing?" but then his writing, while brilliant, is an extreme example (and probably why I can't force myself to finish most of his books.) I like writing that leaves something for the imagination. But most importantly, those descriptive passages do bring us to a screeching halt. I'd like to know more about your book -- email me, when you get the time.


Jessica 6 years ago

Have you considered writing text books? I wish that it was put to me so clearly in school. I recently started college, again, and had to take a writing Gen. class. It was amazing the things I forgot and the thing that I never got. You are like the sun's rays peaking through the over cast of my mind. The lyrics i can see clearly now seem appropriate. Thank you I look forward to reading the other posts. I now have several hundred pages to go back over and edit I am sure that I have made this mistake.


lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 6 years ago from Alberta and Florida Author

Thank You Jessica. Lovely compliment to receive first thing in the morning. No, I've never considered writing textbooks as I'm sure any such project would take the fun out of writing these articles. Hope you enjoy the rest.


cindyvine profile image

cindyvine 6 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

Excellent again!


lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 6 years ago from Alberta and Florida Author

Thanks again. Lynda


lisadpreston profile image

lisadpreston 6 years ago from Columbus, Ohio

What a talent you are. I am thrilled to have discovered you via comments on De Greeks hub asking for 100 dollars to start a publishing co-op (or something to that effect) in hopes of helping struggling writers to get published. This is the first hub of yours that I read and it was quite helpful. Having been a wife and mother for most of my life, I wasn't able to attend college and only completed the 10th grade of high school. (something I used to be ashamed of) Knowing this, you can only imagine how much I will appreciate reading your hubs and benefit greatly from them. Your generosity is astonishing and I hope to take advantage of your offer to review work. I will dive into your hubs later on this evening when I am better able to concentrate. For now, I am off to read your profile and learn more of who you are. Many thanks, Lisa


lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 6 years ago from Alberta and Florida Author

Why thank you Lisa and I'm gratified to know my hubs are of help. I look forward to reviewing some of your work, and if you wish to join our little group of new writers (aka 'the fledglings') you'd be most welcome. I wait to hear from you. You may locate my website through my profile. Nice to meet you. Lynda


sagebrush_mama profile image

sagebrush_mama 6 years ago from The Shadow of Death Valley...Snow Covered Mountain Views Abound!

I'm going to bookmark these! Thank you for breaking things down into bite-sized pieces.


medina112 profile image

medina112 6 years ago

love your hubs am a great fan! Love your advice. I use to write stories similar to Enid Blyton (my style), my English Teacher thought they were great (back then lol). Have to get back into it again and see how I go.

Keep up the good work and congrads on your new book!


lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 6 years ago from Alberta and Florida Author

Hi there, sagebrush. I didn't see you there until just now. So sorry. Thanks for commenting. Lynda

Thank you, so much, medina. Glad to know my words are of help. Lynda


C.Y. Falvey profile image

C.Y. Falvey 6 years ago from Nova Scotia

As I am in the midst of rereading Gabriel García Márquez, I have to respectfully disagree with your premise that the time of the omniscient narrator has passed. A select group of authors still practice it with engaging results. Spare writing that describes only action is exactly why I've stopped reading contemporary fiction. Anything after Hemingway is out for me.

But this is entirely a matter of taste. For those hoping to publish widely, I definitely think this hub is good advice - and it's certainly a well-written piece. Very good examples.


lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 6 years ago from Alberta and Florida Author

To each their own opinion. I find the omniscient point of view comes across unbelievable, pretencious and often judgmental, no matter how select. I much prefer writers who write deep inside one character, or characters in turn. Such writing does not have to be spare, and does not usually describe only action. Active writing does not mean only action. It means avoiding the passive voice. Engaging with a POV.

And between us, I don't find Marquez omniscient, but deeply engaged with the characters, not writing as though God. A fulfilling writer -- yes.

Thanks for dropping by. Lynda


Docmo profile image

Docmo 5 years ago from UK

Nicely done. The power of good writing is to invite discussion and debate. You illustrate well with your examples and are a great tutor.


lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 5 years ago from Alberta and Florida Author

Thank you. Glad you found it useful. Lynda


shellyakins profile image

shellyakins 5 years ago from Illinois

I just stumbled across this series of hubs. Thanks for putting into words something that I knew was wrong with my fiction writing. I now have a new perspective to revise my fiction writing.


lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 5 years ago from Alberta and Florida Author

How nice to hear I've helped you shellyakins. Good luck with your writing and if I can be of help, please ask. Lynda


Sweetsusieg profile image

Sweetsusieg 5 years ago from Michigan

I do believe I am happy that I have never tried my hand at fiction. Well I did... sort of, but since it was a Childrens' book it doesn't count, the 'idea' of the story was true.

To volunteer to edit others work! WOW, I can't imagine sifting through all of that! With almost 800 followers to boot! What a terrific person you are!!

Blessings to you! (your eyes too!)


lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 5 years ago from Alberta and Florida Author

No, I'm not a terrific person. I'm opinionated, sharp-tongued and stubborn. Others have told me so. But thanks. Yes, I do take editing from others on a sample basis, and will work with some on an ongoing basis. It's fun.

Thanks again for the boost. Lynda


wba108@yahoo.com profile image

wba108@yahoo.com 5 years ago from upstate, NY

Really good info! I wonder if these principles apply to articles other than those for creative writing? Should I attempt to let my information tell the story rather than try to summarize the information myself. Should I avoid a passive voice in religious, economic and political articles.


lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 5 years ago from Alberta and Florida Author

Only opinion pundits let their voice speak out. (Think Glenn Beck for an extreme example) On the other hand, sometimes when writing articles we speak from our own experience. Different altogether. This series of articles was directed for creative writing, but there are aspects that can be brought into journalism. In true journalism, the authors voice and opinions have no place at all. It's the facts, ma'am. Only the facts. And passive voice should always be avoided. (It's boring)


attorneydavid profile image

attorneydavid 4 years ago from Memphis

What's funny is that if you post on a writers forum everyone will start criticizing you for not having enough voice. Of course they are mostly unpublished.


lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 4 years ago from Alberta and Florida Author

Everyone's a critic! And most don't know what voice is.


Glenn Stok profile image

Glenn Stok 2 years ago from Long Island, NY

Having read your second lesson in this series, I now have a clear understanding of the importance of letting the characters describe the action. Not the author. I really see the importance of this. Your examples were very good with making this clear. The action keeps the reader involved.


Sam 2 years ago

Love your advice and help. Will read all ten currently posted excerpts tonight. A small point of contention, though, with this one, if you will. In your second example above it looked to me like the author was using free indirect speech to show us what the woman was thinking about the alcoholic man. Thus I would not see this as the author's opinion of the man but the author showing us what the woman was thinking of the man.

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