Voice and Style


“Style,” at least in creative writing, tends to be somewhat synonymous with “voice.” Did you know Wikipedia has an entry for “a writer’s voice”?

It’s: “the individual writing style of an author, a combination of idiotypical usage of syntax, diction, punctuation, character development, dialogue, etc., within a given body of text (or across several works). As a trumpet has a different voice than a tuba or a violin has a different voice than a viola, so the words of one author have a different sound than the words of another. One author may have a voice that is light and fast paced while another may have a dark voice.”

So, that’s cool. And probably true. I mean, duh. Of course we all sound different. Voice is important. A strong, well-defined voice is the bridge between you and your audience: It helps your readers understand who you are, and it helps you engage them and keep them coming back for more.

A lot of times, writers—especially student writers—are told to play around with different literary styles and techniques in order to help them better develop their “voice.”

Please don’t do this. Even if they tell you to, don’t do it.

I’m not of the opinion that style can really be taught—or, excuse me, that good style can be taught. You can certainly learn a stilted, awkward, affected, intrusive, and annoyingly artificial style. But really, your voice is just how you talk, and should be how you write, with a tad more elegance.

We’ve all had the experience of doing something familiar to us, riding a bike or throwing a ball, and then, suddenly, we begin to analyze what we’re doing, and in that moment we start doing it noticeably worse. Your natural style is already present in the language you use when you speak freely and fearlessly. That is the “style” you want to show up in your work. Let other people figure out what it is.

Readers want to hear a writer’s living voice—they hunger for the easy music of it (like those trombones and violas). But in addition to hearing the voice, they also need to know what’s going on in the story. You have to balance pretty sentences with clarity. Can you improve your style? Not directly. But if you work on your rhetoric—on communicating the plain tale clearly, credibly, persuasively—your natural style will emerge without any effort at all on your part. Other people will point it out; sometimes, when it is excessive, you will even want to tone it down. But you yourself will never give it a thought while writing.

In my opinion, the best practitioners of voice and style are young adult writers. Sometimes the plot is simple, slow, and yet you want to stay in the world forever because you feel like your best friends with that writer’s voice. Here are some favorites I recommend checking out: John Green, Rainbow Rowell, Robert Cormier, A.S. King, Stephanie Perkins, Barbara Park.

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