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Words to the Wise

Style and Voice: What's the Difference?

Elizabeth Lyon begins Manuscript Makeover, her 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among literary agents and editors at a writers' conference on what they most look for in a novel submitted by an unpublished writer.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, Eileen 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.

Also recommended:

Constance Hale, Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose. New York: Broadway Books, 2001.

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