What we mean when we talk about ‘voice’

Earlier this semester, when we talked about story structure and organization, I said something about about how a compelling voice can act on the reader like a spirit guide to the story (although I am sure I didn’t use exactly those words). I talked about how — when the writer’s voice is compelling enough and has sufficient authority, or humor or uniqueness — the reader will follow along without a lot of extra help.

In the beginning, when we’re learning our craft, it’s hard to write in our own voice. It’s muffled by the effort to convey facts, use quotes, and lots of the other conventions of news writing. I like how Jack Hart, in his book, “A Writer’s Coach,” uses the analogy of singing in a choir. For a while, that’s what we do as we learn — we remain just a part of the chorus. And then the soloist in each of us steps out.

He defines voice this way:

Ultimately, voice is the writer’s personal style coming through in the writing. It’s as complex and varied as human personality itself.

How is that personality conveyed? What is voice made up of in a particular piece of writing?

It comes from the following (also from Jack Hart’s book, “A Writer’s Coach.”)

  • Atmosphere: The “imaginary environment” created by the writer’s use of description.
  • Level of diction: The formality of the writing (and it shouldn’t be the same for every subject).
  • Tone: “The overall ‘feel’ that emerges from a written passage.” Voice is a constant; tone can change, depending on the subject and objective of the story. Hart talks about how you might use rough, crude language to describe a bar fight. You would use a totally different tone for a story about an exhibit of fine art, or a conversation with President Tim Wolfe.

Certain lazy writing habits work against voice. They include pomposity, using “bureaucratese” or “copspeak,” passive voice (start with the subject!) and using cliches. When we’re doing a notebook dump instead of telling a story in our voice, we’re also likely to repeat ourselves. Repetition is boring, and boring works against voice.

Say what you mean, in your own voice. That entails cutting out the words you would never say in conversation (do you say “prior to” or “before”?) — with the notable exception of those words that we have to use to explain technical or scientific matters. And then, it’s up to us to define terms in a way that helps readers understand the subject and stay with us.

Over-use of quotes also works against voice, in most cases. If you can say something better and more clearly yourself as the writer, by all means do so. Quotes capture personality, color and controversy. Use them when you can tick off at least one of those as a justification.

Think about voice as you read this story by Jimmy Breslin, an old classic. Greg Bowers will talk about it tomorrow when he comes to class to talk about his approach to writing interesting stories that people actually want to read.

One of my favorite examples of deliberate and masterful use of voice is Susan Orlean’s non-fiction piece, “The American Male at Age Ten.” Analyze it for atmosphere, level of diction and tone. What do you notice about Orlean’s use of voice in this piece? What is she up to?

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