“Voice” in the context of writing or speaking isn’t about the sound that comes out of one’s mouth. Instead, it’s a metaphorical term that refers to the unique way a writer or speaker presents their thoughts and feelings. Voice refers to the sense or measure of writer’s personality and distinctive ways of expressing themselves.
Voice is the distinct quality, style, or tone of a piece that makes a work distinct from others. Readers can discern J.K. Rowling from Ernest Hemingway not just from the content but from the distinctive voice each writer presents. It’s this voice that allows readers to “hear” a human personality in the text.
Voice in writing is a nuanced interplay of stylistic and rhetorical elements. Specifically, it encompasses:
- Stance and Persona:
This reflects the position a writer adopts towards their subject and audience, providing a lens through which they engage with their topic.
- Idiosyncratic Expression:
Every writer has a distinct way of conveying ideas, which sets their work apart and lends it a unique flavor.
- Strategic Crafting:
Writers don’t just express; they craft. They adjust their voice, molding it to suit specific rhetorical goals and to resonate with their intended audience.
- Flow and Authenticity:
A strong voice often brings about a state of flow, where both the writer and the reader are deeply engaged. This state can endow the writing with a sense of authenticity and authority, making it more compelling.
- Linguistic Choices:
The technical aspects of writing, like choosing between active or passive voice, play a pivotal role in shaping the overall tone and mood of the piece. These choices, while sometimes subtle, significantly influence how the writing is perceived.
Stance is the position a writer adopts concerning their subject. Consider a columnist discussing a recent political event. Their stance could range from supportive to critical. The persona, on the other hand, is the role a writer assumes for their audience. Using the same political column, the writer might adopt the persona of a neutral observer or an impassioned activist.
In an op-ed about climate change, a writer might take an urgent stance, using language that conveys immediacy. The persona they might adopt could be that of a concerned citizen speaking to fellow community members.
2. Voice Refers to a Writer or Speaker’s Idiosyncratic Ways of Expression
Over time, we develop our own unique ways of communicating. We invariably develop idiosyncratic ways of expressing ourselves even if we are unaware of our unique stylistic moves. Some of us are wordy; others are terse. Some of us repeat common phrases in conversations like “You Know” or “so” or “whatever.” Some of us enjoy a folksy anecdote, even in formal situations. Others speak with rich metaphors and figurative language.
Writers with an incredibly unique and clever voice are memorable. Some writers have such powerful voices that when you pick up a text by them, you might guess it’s their work without reading their byline. Ernest Hemingway, e.g., could convey deep emotions with incredibly sparse language. Hunter Thompson could nail the crazy hallucinogenic episode with an underbelly of sarcasm and self depreciation.
One writer might use complex, flowery language while another prefers straightforward, concise wording.
Some writers have a humorous undertone in their works, while others maintain a serious or contemplative tone.
A writer’s or speaker’s background, beliefs, and personal experiences can shape how they see and discuss a topic.
3. Voice Refers to Strategic Crafting
As humans, we are deeply rhetorical: When we enter a new communication situation, we read the room—i.e., we engage in rhetorical analysis of our communication situation before communicating. We adjust our messages in response to what we believe our audience expects from us. For instance, if we were sharing our views on the merits of purchasing a particular new car, we would outline those merits differently when discussing the purchase with the car salesman, our significant others, our parents, or ou friends. Adjusting how we speak in response to audience and purpose is so natural that we don’t much think about it.
Not only do we adjust how we present our message in response to a rhetorical situation, we also adjust our voice. In science writing, for instance, the convention is to put the emphasis on the topic under analysis rather than the investigator’s personal interactions or feelings about the topic. In contrast, a prominent first-person voice is expected in a personal essay.
When we consider voice as a rhetorical construct, we’re emphasizing the intentional nature of writing. A writer isn’t simply pouring words onto a page but is strategically choosing how to present ideas, frame arguments, and communicate with an audience. This facet of voice is rooted in the ancient art of rhetoric — the skill of effective speaking or writing.
Every decision a writer makes, from the broad structure of an argument down to the choice of a single adjective, serves a purpose. For example, a political commentator might adopt a passionate and indignant voice when discussing perceived injustices, aiming to rally readers to a cause. Meanwhile, a scientist might employ a more measured and neutral voice when presenting research findings to ensure the data speaks loudest.
This strategic crafting is an ongoing process. As writers gain more experience and receive feedback, they refine their voice to better achieve their rhetorical goals. They learn which techniques resonate with their audiences and which might cause misunderstandings or unintended reactions.
Moreover, the context often shapes the rhetorical aims. A novelist writing a first-person narrative will craft a voice very differently than they would when writing an op-ed for a newspaper. One context might demand an intimate, introspective voice, while the other requires clarity, brevity, and directness.
In essence, understanding voice as a deliberate crafting underscores the depth of thought, intention, and strategy behind effective writing. It’s not just about sounding good; it’s about achieving a specific effect or purpose with one’s words.
In summary, a writer’s voice is responsive to the writer’s rhetorical situation. Writers understand they ignore their audience at a great cost: readers will click away, go elsewhere, the moment a text doesn’t seem relevant to them. Realizing this, one way writers endeavor to keep readers on the page by developing a distinctive, engaging voice.
4. Voice Refers to Flow and Authenticity
When writers discuss the process of “finding their voice,” they often refer to a deeply personal journey of self-discovery. It’s not just about adopting a particular voice but about aligning one’s authentic self with the act of writing. When a writer finds a voice that truly resonates with their beliefs, experiences, and emotions, writing stops being a mere task; it becomes an expression of the soul.
This alignment can usher writers into a “flow” state, a concept popularized by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. In a flow state, individuals are so deeply immersed in an activity that they lose track of time and are singularly focused on the task at hand. For writers, this means words pour onto the page with little conscious effort, ideas connect seamlessly, and the process feels invigorating.
But why does finding one’s voice lead to flow? It’s because when writers are in sync with their voice, there’s no internal conflict. They’re not second-guessing every word or worrying about sounding like someone else. Instead, they’re freely expressing their thoughts and feelings, uninhibited by self-doubt or external pressures.
In essence, finding one’s voice isn’t just about honing a unique style; it’s about achieving a state of cohesion between one’s inner self and their written expression. When this cohesion exists, writers often find themselves in the gratifying realm of flow, producing some of their most genuine and compelling work.
5. Flow Refers to Linguistic Choices
Voice, while nebulous at its core, crystallizes through the deliberate and often intuitive linguistic choices writers make. Ultimately, our voice is defined by the selection and ratio of repeated stylistic and rhetorical elements, such as concision, coherence, diction, grammar, figurative language, jargon.
Brevity reveals a writer’s preference for concise expression, making their voice immediately recognizable for its clarity and directness.
A writer’s voice can be identified by how seamlessly ideas connect (coherence) and the rhythm with which one thought transitions to the next (flow).
Concision vs. Elaboration
A writer’s voice is often illuminated by their choice to be succinct or to delve into expansive detail. Each approach lends a distinct texture to the narrative.
Departure from Standard Written English
A writer’s voice can be uniquely distinguished by how they either adhere to or deviate from linguistic conventions, embracing regionalisms or colloquialisms to resonate with specific readerships.
The selection of words a writer chooses provides listeners and readers with insights into their emotions, worldview, and intentions, making diction a key component of voice.
The metaphors, similes, and other imaginative expressions a writer chooses can vivify their narrative, revealing a voice that values sensory and imaginative communication.
Grammar and Punctuation
The rules a writer adheres to or intentionally breaks in grammar and punctuation provide subtle cues about their voice, whether it’s formal, playful, rebellious, or anything in between.
A writer who consistently ensures their writing is inclusive showcases a voice that is empathetic, considerate, and attuned to modern sensibilities.
A writer’s decision to use specialized terms can offer clues about their voice, highlighting their depth of knowledge and intended audience.
A voice dedicated to simplicity prioritizes clear and accessible communication, inviting a broad audience to understand and connect with the narrative.
How a writer arranges words and phrases within sentences — whether rhythmic or erratic, straightforward or complex — offers listeners and readers an understanding of their unique voice.
A writer’s dedication to ensuring their work has a consistent theme and purpose underscores a voice that values discipline, focus, and cohesion.
Each of these elements now points back to how they contribute to defining a writer’s voice.
Why does voice matter?
Voice matters because it adds authenticity and individuality to a piece of writing, allowing readers to connect more personally with the message and the writer behind it, thus enhancing the persuasive power of the content. If rhetrickery is the goal, voice can be used as a semiotic system — as a tool of persuasion.
What are the elements of voice?
Most globally, the major elements of voice are
The emotional undertone of the writing. Tone can range from formal to informal, serious to humorous, or objective to subjective, based on the writer’s intent and the context.
The aspects of the writer’s character, beliefs, or emotions that shine through the text. It’s how a writer’s unique perspective or attitude becomes evident in their work.
While writers can adjust their voice for different audiences or purposes, a degree of consistency remains. It ensures recognizability and builds a sense of trust with the reader.
Genuine voice stems from honest expression. It’s when a writer is true to their thoughts, feelings, and experiences, making the narrative more relatable and compelling.
Beyond these overarching qualities that make a writer’s work distinct, the primary elements that define a writer’s voice include:
- Tone: The emotional undertone of the writing, ranging from formal to informal, serious to humorous, or objective to subjective.
- Brevity: The preference for concise expression.
- Coherence and Flow: Ensuring a seamless transition of ideas.
- Concision vs. Elaboration: Deciding between succinctness and detailed descriptions.
- Departure from Standard Written English: Choices to stick to or deviate from conventional linguistic rules.
- Diction: The specific words and vocabulary selected.
- Figurative Language: Use of metaphors, similes, and other imaginative expressions.
- Grammar and Punctuation: Adherence to or intentional deviation from linguistic norms.
- Inclusivity: Crafting writing that is considerate and approachable for all readers.
- Jargon: Employment of specialized terms for specific fields or audiences.
- Simplicity: Striving for clarity and accessibility in narratives.
- Syntax: The arrangement and flow of words within sentences.
- Unity: Keeping a consistent theme and purpose throughout the work.
What is the difference between voice and tone?
Voice and tone are closely related concepts in writing, but they serve distinct roles in shaping the reader’s experience.
Voice encompasses the overarching stylistic and rhetorical choices that give writing its unique character. It’s a combination of various elements like diction, syntax, figurative language, and more. Voice is the distinct quality or style that makes a piece of writing uniquely identifiable as the work of a particular author. It’s informed by the writer’s personality, experiences, and intent, and it remains somewhat consistent across different pieces by the same author.
Tone, on the other hand, refers to the emotional undertone or mood conveyed in a specific piece of writing. While voice provides the consistent signature of an author, tone can vary from one work to another based on the subject matter and the intended audience. Tone can be formal or informal, serious or humorous, or objective or subjective. It’s influenced by the writer’s attitude towards the particular subject or audience they are addressing at that moment.
In essence, while voice is the overarching and consistent style of the writer, tone is the shifting emotional coloration of individual pieces. Think of voice as the consistent musical style of a band, while tone is the mood of a particular song they perform.
What is the difference between voice and persona?
Both voice and persona are crucial elements in writing that influence how a message is conveyed and received. However, they play different roles in the narrative structure.
Voice is the unique style or manner of expression an author brings to their writing. It encompasses a combination of elements such as diction, syntax, figurative language, and tone. It’s the distinct fingerprint of an author’s communication, shaped by their experiences, beliefs, and intent. Voice is often consistent across different pieces by the same author, allowing readers to recognize the underlying style of a particular writer.
Persona, on the other hand, is a crafted role or character a writer assumes for the context of a specific piece. While voice is an overarching quality, persona can change from one work to another. A writer might adopt a different persona depending on the topic, audience, or purpose. For instance, the same author might take on the persona of a stern critic in one essay and a curious explorer in another. Persona is influenced by the writer’s genuine beliefs and feelings but is also a strategic tool to make the writing more effective for its intended audience.
In metaphorical terms, if writing were theater, voice would be the distinct style of a particular actor, recognizable in various roles they play, while persona would be the specific character they take on for a particular performance.
Atwood, M. (2003). Negotiating with the dead: A writer on writing. Cambridge University Press. Through her unique lens, Margaret Atwood examines a writer’s rapport with both their craft and audience. Her reflections on voice, viewed as a simultaneous revelation and disguise, present a distinctive standpoint on its import.
Didion, J. (2005). The year of magical thinking. Alfred A. Knopf. Joan Didion’s memoir exemplifies the power of a singular voice in non-fiction writing. Her distinct narrative style offers readers a lesson in how personal voice can transform and elevate a piece.
Elbow, P. (1981). Writing with power: Techniques for mastering the writing process. Oxford University Press. A seminal work on the subject, Elbow delves deep into the art and craft of writing. He emphasizes the importance of finding one’s voice and offers strategies for achieving it.
Elbow, P. (2007). Voice in writing again: Embracing contraries. College English, 7. Retrieved from Voice in Writing Again: Embracing Contraries. Peter Elbow revisits the topic of voice in writing, elucidating its multifaceted nature. He promotes the idea of embracing voice’s inherent contradictions, lending a richer understanding to its role in composition.
Gardner, J. (1991). The art of fiction: Notes on craft for young writers. Vintage. Gardner’s foundational text provides insight into narrative fiction’s intricacies. His explorations on voice offer readers a profound understanding of its pivotal role in shaping stories.
King, S. (2000). On writing: A memoir of the craft. Scribner. Part memoir, part guide, Stephen King’s tome provides a close look at his approach to writing. His observations on identifying and refining one’s voice provide invaluable insights, particularly for budding fiction writers.
Williams, J. M. (1990). Style: Toward clarity and grace. University of Chicago Press. Williams delves deeply into the craft of writing, offering insights into how style contributes to effective communication. Among his key ideas is the notion that placing the character or main idea in the subject position ensures clarity and directness in prose.