Please, Sweat the Small Stuff: Shape Voice with Sound & Syntax | W.O.R.D. Ink
Vanessa has a gift for inspiring even the most reluctant writer and her passion for writing is infectious. She is a favorite workshop leader at our Young Writers’ Conferences.Julie Moore & Rena Svetic, Young Writers’ Conference Founders
The writing skills my daughter, now excelling in ninth grade English Honors, left Vanessa’s class with continue to be an invaluable set of resources.Betsy Leva

Vanessa is an outstanding writer and a joy to work with.

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Ms. Vanessa has challenged me to stretch my writing and I am excited for what I will do next.Evan, 3rd Grade
Vanessa’s vast skills, complete dedication, and clear purpose construct a solid core for every student she teaches. Her passionate nature produces both a fun and rewarding learning experience.Michele Noble, Director, Writer, Filmmaker
Vanessa transformed our son Josh from a decent writer into an excellent writer.  We wholeheartedly recommend Vanessa and her ability to draw out the best in your child’s writing ability.Jill and Larry Krutchik
Vanessa’s methods are creative, thorough and innovative. She makes writing fun and has turned our daughter’s “like” of writing into a true “LOVE”.The Altmans
It's obvious that Vanessa is a wordsmith: "Write. Observe. Revise. Discover...W.O.R.D."  These are the four essential ingredients for becoming a writer; two of them about the work (writing and revising) and two of them about the joy (observing and discovering.) Vanessa accomplishes it all.  Julie Larios, award-winning poet and children’s author
All of us remember teachers who inspired us to greater heights and who influenced our lives. Vanessa Ziff Lasdon has played this role in my daughters' lives.Jack Tauber, M.D.
Whether it’s teaching a student to become a more vivid creative writer, a more effective analytical writer, or a more selective business writer, Vanessa can do it all.Meli and Stephen Rose
Vanessa’s greatest ability is to help each student realize his or her own untapped potential. It’s the stuff that changes lives!Jacqueline Frohlich
Ms. Ziff is definitely not just my teacher and tutor; she is my mentor.Lexi 7th Grade, Harvard Westlake
I learned as much from teaching with Vanessa as any of her students under her guidance. Where so many others fall back on old tricks, Vanessa taps into her extensive experience to invent new methodologies for each and every one of her clients.Patrick Kieffer, Fifth Grade – English & History, The Packer Collegiate Institute
While we continue to be impressed by Vanessa’s many attributes, it is her high energy level, extraordinary patience, and passion for what she does that make her truly unique.Melissa and Rob Weiler
Having an eight-year old highly gifted boy was not enough to make him put all those brilliant ideas on paper. Daniel feels constantly challenged by Vanessa and that ignites him.Liliana Benitez
I honestly don’t know what kind of a writer and reader I would be without the tools I learned with Ms. Ziff. She was always a very understanding, rigorous, and involved teacher, and an incredible mentor.Maddie 9th Grade, Marlborough School
Ms. Ziff is always organized, resourceful, and ready for anything. She believes in a process, [...] the best of all being the Ms. Ziff approach, which makes her spectacular.Kenneth 8th Grade, Harvard Westlake
Vanessa is high-energy smarts and charm, the kind of writer and teacher who captures and captivates readers of all ages.New York Times bestselling author, Cynthia Leitich Smith
Ms. Ziff set the foundation for my analytical, constructive, and creative skills. Whether writing a sonnet or writing an essay, I still have her lessons in my mind.Kenneth 8th Grade, Harvard Westlake
Vanessa is truly a one-of-a-kind teacher. She’s extremely organized, communicates ideas effectively, helps motivate, and has a lively, engaging teaching style that brings out the best efforts in all of her students.Howard Tager
The skills Vanessa taught my son--particularly the value of revising many times […] attention to detail, and high standards—are still with Nico several years later.Liz McNicoll, Attorney, Paramount Pictures
Vanessa is a true master of her craft. She is a blast to work with, completely trustworthy and utterly authentic. To work with Vanessa is a privilege; you just want to soak up all her talent, and bottle it up for yourself! She is an inspiration.Sarina Fierro, Head of Lower Elementary, Curtis School
Ms. Ziff always pushed me to do my best, and never let me slack off.  She introduced me to my love of writing and gave me the confidence I needed both academically and in myself.Georgia 9th Grade, The Buckley School
Ms. Ziff’s friendly demeanor and enthusiasm made communicating easy and learning exciting. She taught us to understand and appreciate the material, and have fun in the process.Alivia 8th Grade, Harvard Westlake
Vanessa got my 8-year old son excited and intrigued to dig deeper into his experiences and bring his thoughts to life. Now Evan’s words dance and sing, which makes me want to dance and sing!Sally Micelotta
Vanessa captured the essence of what I wanted to relay on my site without sounding trite, unlike my experience with previous writers.Martin Pugh, Musician
What our daughter values most about her time in Vanessa's class is being inspired to become an organized writer who could convey her thoughts in a meaningful manner.Laurie and Chris Harbert
My son learned more about writing and literary appreciation from Ms. Ziff in fifth grade than in any other year of school. I wish all teachers had Vanessa’s passion for teaching and inspiring!Kim Ford
Vanessa Ziff Lasdon possesses the dynamic combination of an incisive intellect and boundless passion when it comes to teaching her craft and sharing skills with her students.MaryLynn Richmond
I know that the many fun and challenging lessons I’ve learned from Ms. Ziff will help me achieve my goal of one day being a professional writer and filmmaker.Jaren S. 7th Grade, The Buckley School
Ms. Ziff maintains a good balance of knowing when to give more help and when to insist that you rise to the challenge of the learning situation. She instills confidence, honors excellence, and respects effort.Kenneth 8th Grade, Harvard Westlake

Please, Sweat the Small Stuff: Shape Voice with Sound & Syntax

What is Voice?

In this 3-part revision series, we’ll debunk several mysteries behind the magical element within every great work of writing: Voice. It’s my hope that you’ll see Voice not as an elusive and unattainable ingredient, but rather, as a series of deliberate, layered choices made throughout the revision process, and as accessible to all who practice the craft–within every genre and for any purpose. May you walk away each week inspired to “Re-Vision” your writing with techniques that work!

Fred Astaire

Please, Sweat the Small Stuff:

Shaping Voice with Sound and Syntax

The skilled storyteller relies on sound and syntax to sculpt the voice, or personality, of a story. She calculates the use of these fundamental elements in every line of every scene so that the tone, or shades of speech and narration, reflects a character’s spirit from the first page to the final word. Sound (the articulation of letters, syllables, and words carrying within them distinct intonations) and syntax (the arrangement of words and punctuation to create rhythms and accentuation) are the micro-elements of a writer’s toolbox, as essential to the construction of voice as the macro-elements of fiction writing: plot, setting, point of view, structure, imagery, and dialogue. All writers revise with these micro-elements in mind.

To craft tones that resonate with the reader, decisions about technique and style within sound and syntax must be as deliberate as the nails in a house. Writer, editor, and educator David Jauss describes the result of this decision-making process as the flow. “If we want to write fiction that flows, we need to explore the syntax [and sound] of our prose on all levels, from the micro level of the sentence to the macro level of the complete work,” he explains. Layered in purposeful patterns throughout each scene of a novel, these fundamental elements produce meaning, cadence, and mood that evoke an emotional response from readers.

When fiction flows, it speaks to the reader. Yet, when a scene or character is not fully realized, it is often because the writer has failed to wield the many stylistic effects of syntax and sound. Like an architect constructing a house from a shaky foundation and flimsy walls, the story falls flat. A writer who deliberately sculpts each sentence’s sound, length, punctuation, and arrangement is more fully in control of a character’s tone line by line, scene by scene.


Sound Bites: Why a House is Not a Home

Apart from definitions and the unique personal history we bring to each word, why does the word house sound less intimate than the word home? The answer lies within the unspoken layers of meaning contained within individual sounds of the vowels and consonants. House has an energetic ou vowel; the o in home is long and comforting. House ends with a sharp semivowel consonant, s; home ends with a liquid m that reverberates in the mouth, warm and inviting as a homemade brownie. Together, the musculature of the word house connotes distance and structure, while that of home evokes affection and fond memories. There are a variety of terms to describe the texture of vowel and consonant sounds: liquids, aspirates, vocals, and mutes, for example. The alphabet is the most essential source for the manipulation of sound.

Unlike poetry, not every sound in every word on a line of prose serves to convey tone. Many words are simply connectors between the most important sound patterns in a scene. Working together, the occasional use of connectors and repeated sounds illuminates prose.

For example, in these lines of Jack Gantos’ Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key, the reader senses the “wired” tone of the story through a series of long i sounds highlighted here:

“Grandma was born wired, and my dad, Carter Pigza, was born wired, and I followed right behind them. It’s as if our family tree looks like a set of high-voltage wires.

Listen to the lazy tone of this summer scene in Meg Rosoff’s novel, How I Live Now. It comes from the zzz sounds,short vowel sounds, and the long o in low, and closed:

“I just closed my eyes and watched the petals fall and listened to the heavy low buzz of fat pollen-drunk bees and tried to imagine melting into the earth so I could spend eternity under this tree.”

Readers can assume that, on some level, both Gantos and Rosoff were aware of how the sound of their sentences affected the tone of their passages. Deliberate patterns of sound convey their characters’ temperaments, creating tempo for the scenes and planting seeds of subtext within the spaces between words.


The Flesh and the Underbelly

The flesh of a story is the words and symbols on the page, the details that drive a novel and fill the story with rich, interconnected ideas. The underbelly is what is left off the page, the silence within the tiny pockets between letters and the white space surrounding words that is ripe with its own implicit significance. Both flesh (sound, syntax) and underbelly (silence) are essential to story. Author Ursula Le Guin describes these two concepts as crowding and leaping. Although crowding keeps the story full and moving with explicit thoughts, Le Guin states, “what you leave out is infinitely more than what you leave in. There’s got to be white space around the word, silence around the voice.” We will return to the underbelly of story, but first, let’s examine successful use of sound on the page.


Sound–Fleshing Out the Story

Language is a system of communication governed by rules. Nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs are the four word classes whose main objective is to carry content and meaning. Nouns describe people, places, and things. Verbs describe action. Adjectives and adverbs modify nouns and verbs. If syntax and sound comprise the house in which a story is built, then nouns and verbs form the foundation and framing while adjectives and adverbs supply the ornamentation.

Choosing the best words from these classes of speech requires the writer to explore their variety of sounds. As we’ve just seen, one word can carry many layers of meaning and sound that affect tone. Precision is key when choosing what sounds will best flesh out a story. The meanings and melodies of words should play off one another to produce a distinct cadence. Listen to Rosoff’s passage again:

“I just closed my eyes and watched the petals fall and listened to the heavy low buzz of fat pollen-drunk bees and tried to imagine melting into the earth so I could spend eternity under this tree.

Imagine if the nouns were altered so that it read:

I just closed my eyelids and watched the leaves fall and listened to the heavy low murmur of fat pollen-drunk bugs and tried to picture melting into the ground so I could stay forever under this branch.” Not quite the same, dreamy tone.

Verbs function on an energy gradient, from the dynamic and animated to the static or banal.  At best, they invigorate the language and structure of a sentence, injecting the tone of a scene with a particular level of activity. When used in conjunction with the appropriately “shaded” adjectives and adverbs, a prose passage can deliver a sensual reading experience.

Kevin Henkes’ middle grade novel, Olive’s Ocean, is a coming-of-age story about twelve-year old Martha’s reflections on death, family relationships, and feelings for boys. In the climactic two-page scene, Henkes’ carefully crafted pattern of actions and vivid details gives the reader a sense-driven experience that directs the tone, tension, and pacing. When Martha accidentally slips into the ocean to avoid her crush, Jimmy Manning, we see her actions build toward tension and finally release, a pattern of transformation captured in a small moment in time. (Some nouns have been bolded to emphasize this pattern of change):

She had only meant to wait it out, wait unnoticed until he had passed, taking baby steps, wanting to disappear, but then she actually did disappear, dropping into the water that was everywhere–no sides no top no bottom–and taken so by surprise that it didn’t matter that she was close to shore or that she was a goodswimmer because she panicked and in her panic she swallowed water and scratched her cheek and somehow clawed her hair loose from its ponytail and her hair spread out from her head like a multitude of tentacles thin as filaments like a sea creature jerking about wildly and then for a second she felt numb and blue and liquid herself and resigned to the fact that the water would overcome her and in that second she began sliding away from the present and she stopped thrashing about and relaxed and felt like a bird caught in a draft of air rather than a girl pushed and pulled by the ocean and gave up. I’m drowning, she thought, and it was the very thought that made her kick and stroke and kick and stroke until she broke through the surface of the water and made her way back to shore oh so happy to be alive and coughing and coughing and coughing.

Henkes could have chosen any number of other words to flesh out this passage, but he chose the ones he did for the particular shades of sound and meaning they carry. As a result, the words accurately channel the tone of transformation in this scene. Sound is critical to the success of each sentence. Well-chosen words separate the authorial Twains from the tongue-tied.


Silence, The Underbelly of Sound

When we admire a story, we are impressed with both its powerful sense of sound (the flesh) and its equally potent absence of sound (the underbelly). Silence is the breath between descriptions. It is a signal of movement in story, and the shape of that movement across a page, scene, or complete body of work.

“Some of the greatest writing mankind has ever produced comes in the caesura; the pause between words,” says author Madeleine L’Engle.

There is an audible power in silence. Real and perceived absence of words on a page sharpens readers’ senses in a near mystical way. Perceived absence of thought is considered subtext. Real absence of thought is the extreme form of subtext; what is said when absolutely nothing is present, a story stripped to its barest essentials. Readers must imagine these invisible atoms of fiction, let them fill them up as words do and build bridges of meaning from what is and is not present on the page. Silence can be extracted from a word, its placement, punctuation, figurative language, even dialogue. Ultimately, the silent treatment, like a tree in harvest, bears rich fruits long enjoyed by the reader.

“Lean dialogue,” writes Robert McKee, “in relief against what’s primarily visual, has salience and power.”

Through sparse dialogue, readers construct meaning from silence. In An Na’s young adult novel, A Step From Heaven, four-year old Young Ju emigrates from Korea to California, struggling alongside her insular family to acculturate to their new American life and hide their often-nightmarish domestic situation. An’s prose are painful and exquisite, quiet, precise, and masterfully told.

In one exchange at the novel’s end, Young Ju tells her mother, “I wish I could erase these scars for you,” as she looks at her callused hands. Uhmma pulls her hands away and stares at the calluses for a moment, then says in response, “These are my hands, Young Ju.”

Young Ju does not respond. Nothing of their past, their regrets, or desires is explicitly exchanged in this lean dialogue, yet readers are hyper aware of these textual undercurrents. The reader’s tree of thought bears fruits of hope, one of the prevailing tones of the story, from Uhmma’s response, understanding all she has sacrificed for her daughter’s wellbeing.

Rita Williams-Garcia also writes sparse, poignant dialogue. In Every Time A Rainbow Dies, sixteen-year old Thulani witnesses the rape of Ysa in a Brooklyn alley. He falls for the headstrong, colorful girl and both in time discover how love heals the heart.

Perhaps the most telling line in Williams-Garcia’s entire novel is a dialogue compressed into three words. “‘I am Ysa.’”

The greatest gift Thulani can ever receive, the most precious and personal thing the young rape victim has left to share, is her name. In three quiet, one-syllable words, Ysa opens up the entire novel with her confession. The reader senses more clearly here than anywhere else that the two teenagers will enter into a trusting and healing relationship. Williams-Garcia’s line of dialogue is the ultimate example of silence on the page. Her writing is so pristine that her restraint never once confuses the reader; rather, it sharpens her senses and understanding of the characters in a near mystical way.

Silence is a masterful translator of subtext and tone. Whether through omission of words or packed within the words themselves, silence sharpens the reader’s moment-to-moment sense impressions; it converts every inch of the page into priceless real estate. A story stripped to its barest essentials requires a deep journey of the mind and heart, within the author and between the author and the reader. Silence is the tree of thought that an author plants within the reader. It requires the reader to listen, wait, and see the truth behind the quiet, often absent words on a page, for these truths are the magical fruits of labor and restraint. These are the truths that leave the reader breathless, that endure long beyond the final page.


What is Syntax and How Does It Regulate Sound?

Syntax, the arrangement of words and punctuation that create rhythms and accentuation on the page, enables words to connect in a sequence, so that the whole of the sentence and its individual parts convey meaning, cadence, and tone. Writer and professor Virginia Tufte adds that successful syntax, “is a matter of controlled rhythm through spacing, grammatical pacing, endings, beginnings, widening, and narrowing of sentences.” Syntax is a tool of both functionality and style. Skilled writers calculate the syntax of every line because they understand that the rhythm of those lines must build to produce a tone reflective of their character’s spirit at that given moment. This is where sound comes in to the picture.

© Copyright Vanessa Ziff Lasdon, 2011

Syntax choreographs rhythm, and rhythm is a pattern of sound that affects tone and mood. Hence, syntax regulates sound on the page. It choreographs “the noise words make and the rhythm of their relationships,” states Ursula Le Guin.

It also touches the reader’s emotions by shading meaning in the voice of the characters or the narration on the page, much in the same way a gesture, expression, or fluctuation in voice changes the shades of a conversation. There are three functional and stylistic components to syntax that work together with sound to shape tone through every line on a page: length, punctuation, and arrangement. We will cover these topics in next month’s W.O.R.D. of the Week REVISION post, Part 2, on Voice!

For the Love of Words!

(Related Articles on Sound and Syntax)

  • What makes the difference between a moment of quiet, a dead beat, and the crackle of energy in a sentence? The verb. 


  • An, Na. A Step From Heaven. Asheville, North Carolina: Front Street Books, 2001.
  • Gantos, Jack. Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key. New York: HarperTrophy, 2000.
  • Henkes, Kevin. Olive’s Ocean. New York: Greenwillow Books-Harper Collins, 2003.
  • Le Guin, Ursula K. Steering the Craft. Portland, The Eighth Mountain Press, 1998.
  • L’Engle, Madeleine. A Circle of Quiet. New York: Farrar, Strous, and Giroux, 1972.
  • McKee, Robert. Story. New York: Regan Books-Harper Collins, 1997.
  • Rosoff, Meg. How I Live Now. New York: Wendy Lamb Books-Random House, 2004.
  • Tufte, Virginia. Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style. Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press, LLC., 2006.
  • Williams-Garcia, Rita. Every Time A Rainbow Dies. New York: Harper Collins, Inc., 2001.


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