Friday, September 19, 2008

Is it style or is it voice?

Have you ever read something, and without having seen a byline, feel certain that you know who wrote the piece?

Take today, for instance. I received an anonymous comment on a post, but just by reading the comment, I knew it had to come from Cousin Bob. It simply sounded like him -- the words he used, his way of addressing me, and what he felt important to relay to me.

"Nice blog Hughes, you are a talented FORMER Rush fan !!! ;)"

That's Cousin Bob's voice coming through loud and clear.

If he'd changed his style of writing by punctuating the sentence differently, capitalizing it differently, making it two sentences instead of one, it still would have sounded like Cousin Bob to me.

That may be a simplistic example, but to me it nicely illustrates a concept that a lot of writers (me included) have a hard time wrapping our heads around: the concept of style of writing vs. voice in writing.

This very concept was the subject of a talk by author Jennifer Greene at my writers group meeting last week. It was a talk that left many of us pondering: What are the elements of our writing that we can control (style) and what are the elements of our writing that are innate (voice)? And how can we work these to our advantage as writers?

Further defining style

"Style is craft. It's nothing you're born with. It's something you learn and apply," Greene said at our writers meeting.

Style is the delivery system. It is the writing technique that we change, depending on what we are writing, she said. It's the adjectives and adverbs we use, the length of the sentences, the choice of words.

The concept of style contains all the elements of writing, such as pacing. "Pacing is about the impression of speed and is delivered through style and choice of words," Greene said.

Further defining voice

Voice is harder to explain. It is what the writer brings to everything he or she writes, Greene said. It reflects the writer's vision of the world. No one else has the same voice and no one else can duplicate it.

Like good writers, at our meeting we tried using analogy to define voice. Here are a few that were bandied about. (Sorry, I can't remember who offered which analogy.)

Voice is food, and style is the flavor.
Voice is the heart, and style is the head.
Voice is the fabric, and style is the pattern that you apply to the fabric to create a shirt, a dress, draperies or whatever.

And the thing about voice is that when someone rejects your writing because they don't like your voice, that rejection can cut a lot more than when someone rejects your writing because of style issues. It's a more personal kind of rejection.

"Voice is an intimately personal exchange between a writer and a reader," Greene said.

It can be that one hard-to-define element that causes some people to love an author's work, and other people to loathe that same author's work.

(Me, personally, in contests I tend to get a lot of feedback about my voice. It probably also explains why my scores varied so widely the last time I entered the Golden Heart contest, with some people giving me 9s and 8s on a 1-9 scale and some giving me 2s.)

How do voice and style affect a writer's success?

That's anyone's guess. If there were hard-and-fast rules on how to be successful as a writer, there'd be a lot more successful writers out there.

But there was one hypothesis that was bandied about at my writers group meeting: A strong voice can be more of a liability when times are good in the book-selling business, and it can be more of an asset when times are tough in the book-selling business.

In good book-selling times, publishers think they know what readers are looking for in a book. They tend to stick with the tried-and-true and tend to favor books that are strong in style. Talking from a romance perspective, when secret babies, vampires and Scottish medievals are selling well, a lot of people are writing and submitting these books. Publishers have a lot to choose from in these categories, so they don't have to take risks on strong or different-sounding voices. These strong voices might have to tone themselves down to get a publishing slot.

In tough book-selling climates, the publishers are looking for something new and different that will grab a reader's attention. Since the tried-and-true isn't working as well, the publishers are more willing to gamble on books that don't fit marketing slots as well. They might take a chance on the strong or odd-sounding voice, even though the writing may have style issues.

Remember, this is just a hypothesis and is open to debate. Feel free to shred this hypothesis. No hard feelings.

Anyone else have other ideas about how an author can work these elements to his or her advantage?

Anyone want to throw out some examples of authors with strong voices? Jayne Anne Krentz comes to mind.

A side note for Cousin Bob: Thanks for the compliment. And just because I haven't bought Rush's latest album and often mess up the name of it, I am still a Rush fan. There is no FORMER about it.


  1. I think it's simply:

    Voice = Content

    :-) Too simple?

  2. Interesting discussion.

    The RSS widget on my blog includes the post title and opening line of the blogs I track. I try to guess which blog each post is from by reading just that little bit of data. Each blog has such a distinctive voice that I get it right nine times out of ten.

    I'm always wondered how translation affects and authors voice/style. For example, one of my favorite authors is Haruki Murakami. Since he writes in Japanese and is translated into English, I often wonder if I'm really reading his voice or his translator's voice.


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