Virginia Law Manning

Critiquing Voice

Virginia ManningComment

Editors and agents often say the number one thing they are looking for when reading manuscripts is a distinct and fresh voice. But, what is voice?

In her book VOICE LESSONS, Nancy Dean describes voice as the “fingerprint of a person’s language.” She suggests a writer’s voice is created by his/her choices of diction, detail, imagery, syntax and tone. She goes on to describe each of these elements and then offers exercises to help writers become more aware of their choices in their writing.

Diction is the writer’s word choice. It’s “the foundation of voice and contributes to all of its elements.”

Detail are the facts, observations and incidents the author choses to include.

Imagery is the verbal representation of sensory experience and helps to make these experiences immediate.

Syntax refers to grammatical sentence structure and “controls verbal pacing and focus.”

Tone is the expression of attitude.


When critiquing others’ work, the question arises, how do we critique a writer’s voice? The answer: carefully!

An author’s voice is their personality. As readers, we will be drawn to some voices more than others, just as we’re drawn to some people more than others. I find when I love an author’s voice, I want to read the lines out loud. And then I want to read them out loud to other people. But, I find those people don’t always agree with my assessment because voice is personal.

It’s important we allow our critique partners to develop their own personal voice and not be swayed by our tastes. That said, we can and should critique the consistency of an author’s voice.

For instance, does the author use very simple words or sentence structure except in one section when the vocabulary or syntax becomes more formal and mature for no apparent reason?

Is the story written in the voice of the 8-year old main character, but a fact is mentioned that only an adult would know?

We’ll also want to ask ourselves, does the voice feel appropriate for the genre.

For instance, if the book’s main target audience is preschool teachers, an author may want to avoid words or details that would be a turn-off to this audience. On the flip side, if the book is written for reluctant readers, the voice may need to be more edgy to appeal to this hard-to-please audience.

When we first start writing, we need to focus on the basics. Does the story have a problem or is it a list of events? Later we may focus on character development, making sure the protagonists have real flaws and the antagonists aren’t villain stereotypes. Voice is probably the last piece of the puzzle. Hopefully, by the time the rest falls into place, our voice will have naturally developed. But since it’s such an important part of the equation, I know I’m always looking for resources to help me develop my voice.  

In the comments section, I’d love to know if you’ve found any articles, books or courses that were helpful. Please share this information and/or any other questions/feedback in the comments section below.

Good luck with your writing!