The Writer’s Voice: What is Voice?

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This week, I’m revising Paper Lightning: Sparking Student Brainstorming for Effective Prewriting, a teacher resource book that will come out next year. The editor keeps asking me to clarify places and I shoot her back a casual email. She likes “the you” that comes through in the emails and has asked me to include more of that as I revise.

Even in a teacher resource book, which has lots of dry instructions, voice is important. But what is voice? I find it extremely irritating for speakers to say that voice is that “indefinable quality” about writing that you just know when you hear it.

In the last class of my Creative Writing for Children course this semester, the final project was to plot a novel and write the first chapter. Students read the first two pages out loud and each was a study in voice! No two were the same and I definitely wouldn?t confuse Student A’s and Student B’s chapters.

Three Viewpoints on Writer’s Voice

Voice =Personality on the Page

So, in some ways, I would agree with Les Edgerton who says in Finding Your Voice: How to Put Personality into Your Writing, says, voice is your personality on the page. The students’ personalities were evident in their topic, genre, language, sentence structures and every other choice they made in writing the chapter.

When this doesn’t happen, Edgerton says it’s because writers have an inferiority complex and hold themselves back. They modify their writing to meet some imaginary norm. Often this is done in an attempt to appeal to a wider range of audience. A mistake. Find your audience and let your voice speak directly to them.

But saying that Voice is a personality on paper doesn’t help in practical terms, in terms of revising and trying to figure out how to use words, grammar, sentences, passages to express your personality.

Voice = The Effect of Style

Dona J. Hickey in Developing a Written Voice, says Voice is “the writer’s relationship to subject, audience, and occasion as it is revealed through the particular blend of speech patterns you hear as you read.”

In other words, the topic, genre and audience can affect how you write. In a more practical vein, though, she says that, “Voice is the sum effect of all the stylistic choices a writer makes to communicate not only information about a subject but also information about himself or herself to a particular audience.” That begins to bring it into a clearer focus. It’s not just the personality of the writer, but their attitudes, beliefs, feelings about a subject that is conveyed to a certain audience.

Still foggy? Hickey tries to make it even more practical she says that the effect of style is voice. That is, style itself (choices about sentence structure, vocabulary, punctuation, etc.) is found in even technical government documents that have a flat voice; but “the interest is in discovering how certain combinations of stylistic features may create a voice each of us would want to claim as our own.”

Voice = The Right Tone for a Story

So, should we try to “find our voice”? Jane Yolen complicates it a bit more when she says in an excerpt here and in her book, Take Joy: The Writer?s Guide to Loving the Craft, “The story’s voice. That is what must be uncovered, not discovered. It is not the author’s voice, but the true tone of the tale.”

For example, in fantasy, she describes the “bardic voice,” in part, as “full of alliteration, hyperbole. There are chants, lists, spells. Sentences often end in a full stop, the strong stress syllable that reminds the reader of the tolling of a great bell.”

She goes on in the book to describe Schoolboy, Josephus, Boogerman, Dark Angel, Midtown Mab, Dave Broder and Hemingway voices in terms of vocabulary, sentences structure, stresses, rhythms and more.

Voice Definitions affect your Wriring

“Voice is the right tone for a story” focuses on considering a particular piece of writing.

“Voice is the effect of style” focuses on the craft of writing and manipulating various elements.

“Voice is personality on paper” focuses on relaxing and being yourself.

Donald Murray tries to untangle these in his book, The Craft of Revision, 4th Edition (NOT the Fifth edition, which omits the chapter, “Rewrite with Voice”):

“Many of the qualities writers call voice have been called style in the past, but writers today generally reject that term. Style implies something that can be bought off the rack, something that can be easily imitated. Tone is another word used, but it seems limited to one aspect of writing. Voice is a more human term, and one with which we are familiar.”

Hold on. It gets even muddier, because we can not only talk about Bardic Voices, but also formal versus colloquial voices. Confused? Yes. I understand why editors resist defining voice, why they insist they know it when they hear it, but they can’t use words to explain it. Voice is all of these things: tone, style, personality, formal, bardic and much more. Voice comes in as many varieties as humans.

How then, can we approach studying voice and trying to “find our voices” or “find the right voice for this story”?

My Priority: Revision Strategies

In the end, I want something practical, not mystical. I thought about what Stephanie said in the comments last week:

“I think though, that it’s a give and take between mysticism and conscious choice that emerges during the revision process.”

She may be right that voice is both the conscious and subconscious–the right brain and the left brain–that combine to create something distinctive as you revise. But even if she’s right, it doesn’t lead me to a revision strategy that works. For me, the best way into voice is through style. I find that as I focus on matters of style, of craft, that my subconscious does the other work of straightening out plot, character, dialogue and other story elements; as I focus on matters of style, of craft, voice does emerge. Maybe in the end, I don’t care about a definition of voice either. What I care about is a revision strategy that helps me find the right voice for this story.

Style does that for me: consideration of vocabulary, sentences, punctuation, rhythms, formality, etc. lets me reach for voice in a practical way, while freeing my subconscious to do its work.

Focusing on style to reach for voice has one big advantage to me as a teacher: it keeps me from interfering with a student’s voice. Several years ago, the local university where I teach held a Freshman Writing conference, which consisted of freshman reading papers written in Freshman Composition class. Freshman Composition is a strange class because I almost never get the A/B students: they test out or go to the Honors College. I almost never get the D/F students: they don?t come to college. Instead, I get a strange mix of B/C/D students and usually, they dread my class and expect it to be one of the hardest classes they take; they plan their schedules around my class, giving them plenty of time before (so they can work at the last minute) and plenty of time after (so they can moan about the difficulties the class imposes).

That year, though, I had a student who had come back to college after laying out for a while and, really, he shouldn’t have been in Freshman Composition, his writing was so good. His essay won first place in the Freshman Writing Conference, which carried a nice cash prize that year. Another professor commented on the excellence of his writing and I responded that he was easy to teach because he came in writing well.

“Oh,” the professor said, “those are the hard ones because you have to try hard not to destroy their voices.”

That surprised me. Why would teaching destroy their voice? Oh, believe me, I know it happens. But not in my teaching. When I focus on giving writers (even freshman writers) choices about style, they make choices that strengthen their voices. Focusing on “personality on paper” exercises seems too vague for my tastes as a teacher. But style gives writers something concrete to work on, to focus on; yet, while their focus is on these style elements, other “very good and very interesting” things happen sideways. In the end, it’s the revision that matters. My students revise their first essay for me eight times, focusing each time on a specific style issue. They often say, “This is the best thing I’ve ever written.”

Duh.

It’s the only thing they’ve revised eight times. It’s the only time their voice has ever been so strong.

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