Today I would like to spend a bit of time discussing style and voice. Two different topics when it comes to writing, but that are also linked very closely. First let’s start with style.
According to Wikipedia, style is “the manner in which an author chooses to write to his or her audience.” So does this mean that simply choosing to write is a style in and of itself? I would have to say no. For example, this blog post is written in what is commonly referred to as Conversational style simply due to the fact that use personal pronouns (I) and contractions (let’s). The other two prominent styles are Technical and Business styles. These two are very similar, other than the fact that Business style allows longer sentences than Technical does.
Now, I have written many professional emails and documents during my time teaching. Emails to students, parents, other teachers, and administrators. I have also written documents being sent to the district office to be entered in a student’s record, whether a discipline referral or an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) form for a student with a learning disability. I would definitely consider these to all be written in Business style. However, in each one I used both contractions and personal pronouns. Does that mean I was really using a Conversational style of writing when Business was necessary? Absolutely not.
As I see it, there are only two real styles to writing, formal and informal. Formal is obviously when you are writing in a professional manner while informal is when writing familiarly to a friend or person you know. The tricky thing is that writing fiction seems to fall right in the middle of these two styles.
A novel is written formally in the way that it is written professionally for an intended audience while also being informal because the author’s voice is coming through in what they write.
Now for voice. Once again, according to Wikipedia, voice is “the individual writing style of an author…within a given body of text.” The article also claims that voice is a combination of syntax, diction, punctuation, character development, dialogue, etc. So apparently style determines voice and voice determines style. Seems to me like a real chicken v. egg issue. If I set out to write something formally, or with Business style, but allow more of my personal voice to come through in the writing have I failed at my target style? Absolutely not. Voice is something that is going to, or should, come through in every piece of writing.
When I teach voice in my classroom, I use an activity called the Pizza activity. What this involves is reading four different paragraphs that are each only a couple of paragraphs. Each one is about pizza, and each has been written by a very different person. After reading each the students have to fill out some information about the author, such as age, gender, and education level. They always have a blast with this activity. Then, if there is still time in the period, I have each of them write a paragraph about pizza and turn it in. I read these out loud and we try to guess who wrote it. Generally they do pretty well.
Now, do not take all of this to mean that an author’s voice will never change. Two good examples I have of this are Brandon Sanderson and Dan Wells. Both started out writing novels for an adult market, but have also written books in the YA market. Sanderson has even written a series in the Children’s book market. Now, if I take a passage from an adult book by Sanderson and one by Wells, I will easily be able to tell them apart. I read Dan Wells first trilogy right in a row and then over a year later read his fourth adult novel, and the voice was almost identical. However, when I read one of his YA books between them, it felt almost like a different person. The same held true for Sanderson, but to a lesser extent. The main difference here could be that Wells had a different editor for his YA novels while I believe Sanderson uses the same editor for everything, but the shift in voice comes down to a simple fact. They had shifted their audience.
Sanderson was no longer writing for people who were willing to read an 800 page fantasy novel and Wells was no longer writing for people who wanted a horror story involving a 17 year old sociopath. So maybe it isn’t that style determines voice or voice determines style. Maybe the real answer is that audience determines both.