Words to the Wise
Style and Voice:
What's the Difference?
begins Manuscript Makeover, her recent, masterful tome on
fiction writing, with one of the most difficult distinctions in
the art of writing, that between style and voice. She imagines a
panel discussion among literary agents and editors at a writers'
conference on what they most look for in a novel submitted by an
unpublished writer. Original style, answers one, distinctive
voice, and then story. Fresh, original style, says another,
individuality of the author's voice. The puzzled Everywriter in
the front row courageously asks what is meant by "voice" and how
that differs from "style," to which one of the panellists
responds, "It's difficult to put in words, but we know it when
we see it."
Not all attempts at
definition are so unhelpful, and once you see—really see—the
difference, I think you will begin to relax and not try so hard
to cultivate your voice.
The best definition
I have heard comes from my own writing teacher,
Kernaghan, who says, "Style involves the structure and rhythm of
the sentences, choice of words, use of metaphors and images.
Voice is the disguise you wear when you write. It's more than
style or point of view or word choice, though it incorporates
all those things."
All fiction writers
strive for a strong, distinctive, authoritative writing voice,
one that will lift their words out of the fast-food category and
into collective memory, like "Call me Ishmael. Some years ago
But, as Browne and King say in Self-Editing for Fiction
Writers, this is "something no editor or teacher can impart.
There are, after all, no rules for writing like yourself. Voice
is, however, something you can bring out in yourself. The trick
is to not concentrate on it." The best exercise in developing
your voice, they say, is to work on your manuscript.
To which I say
simply: read and write ... and write ... and write.
Renni Browne and Dave King,
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into
Print, 2nd ed. New York: HarperCollins, 2004.
Elizabeth Lyon, Manuscript
Makeover: Revision Techniques No Fiction Writer Can Afford to
Ignore. New York: Penguin, 2008.
Constance Hale, Sin and
Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose. New York:
Broadway Books, 2001.
Back to Words
to the Wise index