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This Writing Life: A Matter of Style and Voice

8 June, 2011

The more I learn about writing, the more difficult it all seems. One of the aspects of craft that has bothered me the longest is that of style and voice: what exactly they are, whether they’re the same thing, whether they can be learned. Recently, I’ve read a few things that have crystallised for me the difference between the two (or at least how I’d define them) and how that’s useful for a learning writer.

Style is both the more complex and the more conscious of the two. To me, style means all the things that you need to think about to make your prose work. It’s your choice of POV, pacing, word choice. It’s writing dialogue that could really be spoken without your character running out of breath, and which fits their personal vocabulary and cultural background.

This latter has been very much on my mind this week. I’ve been reading a steampunk book set in Victorian London. It’s an enjoyable book – witty and charming – but it’s not without its flaws. There are frequent words and phrases which drag me right out of the story, as they’re phrases that I simply don’t think a Victorian gentlewoman would ever have used. One that’s stuck with me is a reference to hitting someone ‘upside the head’. I actually cringed when I read this. ‘Upside’ is apparently an old word, but ‘upside the head’? A quick Google shows it as being a piece of 1970s American slang – not something a wealthy woman in 1890s England would be using.

It’s a little thing, I know – a very little thing – but it’s stylistic issues like this that can make your invented world seem less real. POV switches (we’ve become conditioned to strict 3rd or 1st person in most modern literature), misused words, a character suddenly coming out with a word they simply shouldn’t know: these are all a matter of style, and they can all throw your reader out of the suspension of disbelief that a story (particularly SFF) needs.

Voice, on the other hand, is simpler and perhaps more unconscious, but no less tricky. I’ve seen Holly Lisle describe voice as being your words, rather than somebody else’s. That sounds complex, but really it’s a simple matter of writing with the words that come to mind, without searching for endless synonyms or trying to flower up your prose with words you wouldn’t normally use (and which your readers wouldn’t use either). Of course, reading widely and learning more words is important, but it’s the ones that stick with you that you should use – not the ones plucked at random out of the thesaurus, that don’t sound right and might not really mean what you think they mean.

Whilst style is, I think, something that can be learned and consciously improved, voice is both more subjective and requires more practice. Writing like yourself and not your favourite author, or your English teacher, or someone who’s just swallowed a dictionary, is something that comes naturally the more you do it. (Conversely, I think this is why many new writers – myself included – write very stilted prose before they get into the flow of their own words. They’re trying to emulate Tolkien, or Shakespeare, or Dickens, or just trying to sound cleverer.)

Voice is one of those things that agents and editors always seem to be looking for, and for a long time that scared me. Now though, I’ve come to realise that everything I do – all my writing, all my reading, all my finished stories and failed experiments and endless practice – goes into creating my voice, and I’ve been developing it without even knowing it. And when there’s so much else to learn in writing, that it a very comforting thought.

  1. Nate permalink
    8 June, 2011 4:39 pm

    I know exactly what you mean about style. I was listening to an audiobook last week in an invented fantasy world, when the author referenced “Peking Duck.” It shocked me out of the narrative for a bit, as something from the real world was injected for no apparent reason into this fantasy world.

    • 8 June, 2011 5:57 pm

      That’s exactly the sort of thing I’m talking about! I think some writers just don’t consider how strongly a lot of modern vocab is linked to modern, or even past, culture – and that some fantasy worlds shouldn’t have either. Although I would have thought a reference to ‘Peking’ was more obvious than some!

  2. Brett James Irvine permalink
    9 June, 2011 1:11 pm

    Totally agree…it’s sometimes difficult to get the balance right, especially in a created world, as using the wrong word can really throw things out for the reader. I think they key is reading widely (or at least frequently in your genre), researching basic aspects of your chosen setting, and as with anything else, practice, practice, practice!

    • 13 June, 2011 4:26 pm

      You’re right, Brett, and practice really is the most important thing. I think it’s easy to forget just how vital practice is, to every single part of learning to write.

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