Summer School-How To Write Your Peace Corps Book, Lesson # 3

Rejection slip received by Rudyard Kipling:
I’m sorry, Mr. Kipling, but you just don’t know how to use the English language.”
from Rotten Rejections: A Literary Companion edited by Andre Bernard

Finding Your Voice

You have begun your book. You have decided on how you want to structure the book. Now you have to find your voice.

For years the voice of nonfiction was an impersonal voice, attracting no attention. Fiction had a “voice” but not nonfiction. It wasn’t until the 1960s when Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, and a half dozen others gave birth to The New Journalism that voice began to receive attention in nonfiction. Generally what this meant was subjective nonfiction, nonfiction with an attitude, or subjective reporting.

The New Journalism, coming of age with the “Me Generation,” morphed into what we have today, Creative Nonfiction. In Creative Nonfiction, we have the writer’s voice, a human touch in the narrative. This “voice” is audible in the writer’s: style, tone, creative, and focus.

1. Style is the way you express yourself, including word choice, sentence length, and rhetorical modes.
2. Tone is the attitude you take towards your topic. It’s like the colors you choose to wear.
3. Creativity is your choice of what details and examples to use in your writing. You might say it is the choice of which accessories to add to your outfit, a certain kind of tie, a pair of earrings.
4. Focus is what you select to write about. It is the piece of clothing that demands the most attention, i.e., a bright yellow tie, a pair of flashy heels.

In this lesson we will talk about

1)      style
2)      tone


What is style? Style is how you do what you do. Style is the way you communicate who you are – the way you express yourself. The best writing style for any writer is the one that comes naturally. It is a rhythm that you find natural. I think that the best thing to do is not to try to “be a writer.” If you do, you will lose your own style.

Try to write as if you are talking to someone you know, someone you are not trying to impress, someone with whom you want to share information, someone who you want to keep amused. Keep listening to what you are saying.

To make your writing connect with the reader, keep it conversational, keep it fun to read, and remember to rewrite and rewrite.

Remember, too, that no style is wrong. The best style for anyone is the style that comes naturally.

Elements of Your Style

To break style down, let us look at five of its elements.

A. Diction: This means the words that you use. An example:

“Summertime, and the livin’ is easy.”

“Summertime, and existence is effortless.”

When writing, you need to match the appropriate word with what you want to say. Words make up sentences. Sentences make up paragraphs. Paragraphs make up a chapter.

You get my point.

B. Syntax: This is the way you arrange the words in a sentence, and the way these words relate to each other. It is the difference between Faulkner and Hemingway.

C. Length and variety of sentences: Short sentences are forceful and hard-hitting. Longer, complex sentences are more formal and less conversational. For the most interesting writing, vary these sentences.

D. Alliteration: This adds rhythm and tempo to your prose.

E. Description: Show don’t Tell – Describe the scene happening, but don’t say it is happening. This is the basic function of dramatic writing. Develop the scene with your language and selection of details.

There is a famous story about how Hemingway developed his unique

It had four basic rules he learned as a cub reporter on the Kansas City Star, his first job after high school. He was told to write this way:

•Use short sentences.
•Use short first paragraphs.
•Use vigorous English.
•Be positive, not negative.

Later in life, well after he became a successful novelist, he said that those were the best rules he ever learned and that he never forgot them and that anyone who wanted to be a writer couldn’t fail if they followed those simple rules.

Now Norman Mailer felt that Hemingway was not capable of writing a long, complex sentence with good architecture in the syntax. But what Hemingway did was turn that inability (if it really was an inability) into his real skill at writing short declarative sentences or long run-on sentences connected by conjunctions.

William Faulkner, to the contrary, was not capable of writing simple sentences, nevertheless his over-rich, congested sentences produced an extraordinary mood.

Remember that, but don’t worry too much about style: You have it. You just haven’t recognized it


Tone simply means the attitude that a writer takes towards the material. If you are writing about violent crime or terminal illness, the tone is different from writing about walking down a path in up-country Africa in the middle of the night, alone.

There are lots of individual tones:

  • exhortative (pleading a cause)
  • narrative (telling a story straight)
  • humorous (irony satire, or parody)
  • invective (angry)
  • superior (with an attitude)
  • sentimental (over-emotional)
  • pompous (pretentious)
  • flippant (lazy humor, tactless and uncouth)

Take a look again at Peter Hessler’s River Town in terms of tone. Do you see how Peter used humor to offset a serious or depressing point? For example, Jimmy’s request that Peter curse onto his tape recorder at the end of the book, a scene that rounds out a sentimental section and leaves the reader with a different feeling about Peter’s leaving.

I asked Peter if he was conscious of this, and he was, of course. He said,

“This was partly for the sake of readability, but it also had to do with accuracy – China is a very funny place, both to visitors and locals, but somehow that humor always gets cleaned out of the writing. Too many victim stories, in my opinion – often the cheapest kind of nonfiction writing.”

What Peter was attempting to do was write a book that fell between the extremes, between Jude the Obscure and the Horatio Alger stories. He is, he says, “always looking for the middle ground.”

Besides shifting the tone within the chapter, Peter was doing more. If you study his book, you’ll see that he balanced other aspects as well.

He focused on:

  • Tone
  • Character
  • Action
  • Setting
  • Information

In going about writing, he said, “I look at the thing as a whole, mapped out on the page, I’m trying to see if the tone is imbalanced. I’d rather not have a huge section that is entirely setting, or a chapter that is dominated by set pieces. If there’s a problem, then I’ll think about how things can be organized differently.”

Assignment – Week #3


Read the piece called “White” that we published on It was written by Lynn Marshall (Mali 1997-99) and won our 1999 Peace Corps Experience Award. You can find it at:

In this short piece you will see how Lynn set fulfilled all the requirements for a well written piece: tone, character, action, setting and information.


Leave your opening alone for a while and write a new scene. Look at the outline that you have developed and pick a topic or chapter and write that scene.

As my son might say, “Get down with it!” which is his tone and style!

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