When people speak they produce many different kinds of signals that the audience can interpret – facial expressions, gestures, and timbre of voice can add to the meaning of the words, or reverse them. For example, a person saying “Good job!” in a lusty voice with the right corner of his lips raised in a sneer of disdain means that he thinks you’ve done anything but a good job. However, when we write, we only offer one stimuli – words on the page.
Your style, tone, mood – your voice when you are audibly speaking offers so many modes of expression must be converted to words when writing. When I hear people say that to create a ‘voice’ in writing simply write like you speak, I cringe. Only putting down the words you say in print is a pale, tasteless version of what needs to be told. However, writing done that way still has a voice; all writing does, but not necessarily a good voice.
I recall a time recently when I was reading aloud one of the submissions to the creative writing group, and one of the girls asked, “Did John write that?”
“Yes,” I replied.
She assured us, “I can recognize his voice,” and John beamed in pride.
Although there are things that marred his style, like use of trite phrases and repeating words too frequently, John had achieved one of the goals of a quality voice in writing – originality. A combination of simplicity with occasional irony made his writing voice distinctive.
Of course originality is not the only thing to strive for – writing can be different from anything you have ever seen, but if it makes no sense you will not stick to reading that author very long. So another goal of a quality voice is a recognizable structure – a manner or style of communicating in which the elements of voice work together.
Voice needs to have a balance also. If every sentence is a completely varied style, tone and mood, such a lack of flow would make it jarring and discomforting to read. Balance in voice is like variation on a theme in music, enough of the melody is there that you can hear it, even though the arrangement changes.
Finally voice needs to have something appealing to the audience of readers – what I would refer to as beauty, a word which is probably even harder to define than voice.
Artwork by S.L. Listman