I wrote a piece on the meaning of voice well over a year ago that has been one of
the most widely accessed of my articles on the Internet. But I was never pleased with
the content, and I want to try to do a better job of explaining my position on the topic.
Everyone Seems to Have a Different Definition for Voice in Writing
Much of the confusion seems to come from the way critics often extol the virtues of a newly published author. We’ll read something like, “John Doe, a striking new voice on the scene,” or “Mary Jones, the richest and most vibrant voice to hit commercial fiction in a
long time.” Nice words indeed, but do they really say anything about what this voice is?
Voice Is Each Writer
I stated in my earlier article that voice is “you,” and I firmly believe this. If someone
is told he or she displays a striking voice, I’d like to think there is something genuinely scintillating about that writer’s particular style. Likewise, if someone is claimed to possess
a rich and vibrant voice, I’d expect to read a work with well-developed characters and expansive characterizations. But there is no way to be certain this will be the case, since
the term “voice” is anything but definitive.
A Voice Can Be Something Specific
My least favorite phrase is when someone says a writer has a strong voice. Why not
just state that the author’s prose is intelligently written? Or that the content will make the reader think? Or that the plot is complex with well-conceived threads that are explained in an exciting and realistic manner at the work’s conclusion?
Voice Is Genuinely Often Quite Distinctive
Perhaps one of the ways to illustrate voice is to look at four of the most famous American writers of all time: Faulkner, Steinbeck, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald.
Faulkner is known for intricate sentence structure that he utilized to present extraordinary characterizations; Steinbeck wrote in an easier-to-read style, but with a comparable depth to his storylines; Hemingway on the other hand crafted brilliant characterizations via a terse, sharp style that required perfect word selection; while Fitzgerald infused his narratives with characterizations so rich with imagery that they created a mood for the entirety of his stories–which the reader could feel on each page. Each of these writers achieved a like result, but with unique, unmistakable voices
predicated on the mastery of a particular writing technique.
While It Can Indeed Be Difficult to Define, Voice Is Always Present
Voice is whatever any of us want to make it. It is a word that has few limits, since it
can describe quintessential material just as well as something quite pedestrian. Yet owning
a voice to be complimented is what all writers should strive for, regardless of how feeble
the attempt might be to explain exactly what was recognized for its excellence.
Robert L. Bacon, Founder
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