Writing Voice and Style: Part 1

CC image by Andy Morffew

When I studied writing in school there was never a lesson about voice. Setting? Check. Character? Yep. Plot? You betcha. I heard endless platitudes about realistic dialogue and appealing to the senses. Nearly every writing class spent at least one lecture on the anatomy of a story, and made sure to discuss the importance of denouement. I was even encouraged to draw a handy graph of rising action so that I could reference it later when writing (Psst, I never referenced it).

CC image by Andy Morffew

CC image by Andy Morffew

But in those four years, there was one aspect of writing that no professor taught—voice/style. It was never in the lesson plan, apparently impossible to quantify. At most, it was a little slice of a paragraph in a creative writing textbook, maybe two sentences that said voice is an author’s personal style, thereby linking the concepts of voice and style but not offering any real explanation. They could break down all the complexities and nuances of creating a character—an entire person with history, thoughts, motivations, and speech patterns—but a student wants to know what exactly an author’s voice is and how to understand their own? Forget about it.

I’ve looked for definitions of voice and style on the interwebs. I’ve listed a few for you below.

According to Wheaton College:
Voice is “something that makes your writing sound uniquely like you.”
“Style is the way in which something is written, as opposed to the meaning of what is written…Style includes diction and tone.”

According to Writer’s Digest:
“Voice is your own. It’s a developed way of writing that sets you apart from other writers (hopefully). It’s your personality coming through on the page, by your language use and word choice.”
“Style is much broader than voice. Some writers have a writing style that’s very ornate—long, complex and beautiful sentences, packed with metaphors and imagery…Others have a more straightforward style—sparse prose, simple sentences, etc.”

These definitions aren’t perfect, particularly the first one regarding voice: “something that makes your writing sound uniquely like you.” Ah, yes. That clarifies everything…

I also asked the writers of the Embers staff to define what voice/style is to them, and here’s what they had to say:

Melissa said,

I think the basic definition is how an author puts words together. It’s vague but trying to pin down a person’s style is subjective and difficult. Some people use a lot of metaphors and similes, some use the same words or phrases frequently, or describe the same features when introducing a character. I think the pace of a book is about style too, fast paced and action thrilled or meandering and descriptive.

Tracy said,

I would say it’s the unique way an author manipulates the English language and standard storytelling methods to tell a story in a way that resonates with readers. It’s really hard to condense it!

Rachelle said,

I’d say a person’s writing style is like a person’s voice. Everyone has different tones, intonations, pitches, pacing, word choice, etc. It’s the same with writing. Writing style is how we choose to convey the story. This includes not just the language but plot elements.

Perceptions vary on the subject, to be sure.

My short and ugly definition:
Style is the use of the various elements of storytelling, and voice is how those elements coalesce to create the author’s unique sound.

I define style and voice together because we really can’t discuss one without the other, and I’ll use the terms interchangeably for simplicity’s sake. Think of it this way—if style is the beat, chosen instruments, individual notes, lyrics, etc. of a song, then voice is how all of those elements work together to make it clear immediately whose song it is. Additionally, just like a musician could play in a style other than their preferred style and still sound like them, so can writers emulate various styles while retaining their unique voice.

Confused yet? It’s okay, we all are.

In this blog series, I’ll break down voice/style. I’ll attempt to make the mysterious not scientific, but perhaps simpler. My goal is not to remove the magic for you, as my professors seemed to do with the parts of a story. Honestly, I believe that no matter how much anyone attempts to explain this topic, it will always retain its mystery, the shiny, otherworldly something that you can’t define or put limits on. My goal is to help you (and me) understand it just a little bit more through this series, and to help you explore and find your own voice.

Tune in for my next post where I’ll begin breaking down the elements of style. Let’s go on this beautiful, confusing journey together.

By Madeleine Mozley