Novel Diagnosis–Voice

Novel Diagnosis Series


It’s been interesting trying to find ways to easily diagnose novel problems with short, easy-to-do activities. I’ve written lots here about Voice, but I’ve never thought about a short activity to diagnose how well you’re doing.

So, this is a proposal and I’d be interested to see how well it works. Try it out on pieces that you acknowledge have poor voice and on those that you see as having a great voice. Let me know if you think it works. A diagnostic tool won’t necessarily tell you everything about what is wrong with the voice of a piece of writing, but it will point to voice as one of the problems.


Choose a page of your mss (page 33) and count the number of words in each sentence. List the numbers in a row.

Yes, that’s it.


Stories with a strong voice TEND to have a lot of sentence variety which indicates the varied intonation patterns that play throughout the piece.

From p. 33 of Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, by Gary D. Schmidt.

21, 15, 4, 11, 9, 2, 6, 14, 4, 2, 10, 5, 4, 7, 23, 8, 19, 13, 7, 8, 27, 20, 7

From p. 33 of The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

8, 9, 6, 21, 11, 13, 2, 12, 13, 10, 21, 5, 7, 11, 25, 8, 13, 49

LOTS of variety in the sentence lengths, which gives places for the intonation patterns that create a lively voice to play around.

When I’ve done this for eighth grade essays, I find that most of the students’ sentences are about 12 words long, plus or minus a few. Occasionally, they throw in something, but not often. On first drafts of professional writers, there’s some variety, but not much. An occasional long or short sentence, but hovering around 15 or 16 words long.

Please, let me know how your trials turn out!

Of course, revising for Voice involves much more than just sentence variety! Again, this is just a quick diagnostic tool (that has yet to be proven).

Self-Diagnosis of Characterization

Is there a distinctive intonation pattern weaving throughout the writing?
Are the word choices unique, interesting?
When you read this story, can you hear a distinctive voice?
Is the writing dry and generic, or is it rich in tone and attitude?

Rate Yourself on Characterization

(see Introduction for explanation)
Unconsciously Incompetent
Consciously Incompetent
Consciously Competent
Unconsciously CompetentSuggestions:
Let me know how this diagnostic works!

3 responses to “Novel Diagnosis–Voice”

  1. Darcy–I did this for the first chapter of my mg novel, which is only one page long. Here are the results:
    15, 17, 9, 7, 3, 3, 11, 12, 10, 11, 6, 5, 11, 15, 11, 2, 15, 9, 3, 2.



  2. Pam–Looks like some good variety. But not the extremes that Schmidt and Raskin have. Shrug. Not that you MUST have those extremes, of course. But your writing would probably feel much different from theirs.

    Interesting, indeed.


  3. Darcy–Here are the results from page 33:

    After reading your posts it is easy for me to discern the differences between the voices, (vocabulary and sentence construction) of the two characters interacting on this page.

    Thanks for your blog,