Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Put Some Style in Your Writing Voice

Style, voice, tone. These three elements of writing are all involved and interconnected in making your writing effective and stamping it as uniquely yours. No two people can write the same way – although many have tried to mimic famous authors’ styles. In fact, there’s a funny contest set up to emulate William Faulkner’s writing style. See this link for an excerpt of a winning entry in that contest...


There are about as many different definitions for style, voice, and tone as there are places where they are defined. Rather than get into a lengthy discussion of the nuances of all these variations in definition, I’m going to just cut to the chase and make up my own versions in an attempt to help you see how you can use these elements to improve your writing.

STYLE. Style results from specific choices in writing techniques that include diction (word choices), mood and setting choices, characterization choices, and so forth. Like painting styles (impressionistic as opposed to modernistic), writing styles in fiction can vary depending on the needs of the story. Style includes all the tricks and techniques you employ to get your writing to say just what you want it to, in just the way you want to it to.

In the same way Faulkner employed stream-of-consciousness writing techniques, convoluted run-on sentences, and specific punctuation or lack thereof to create a style that was uniquely his, Hemingway created a style all his own that was vastly different. Literary styles can range from picturesque eloquence to choppy one-sentence paragraphs. What style you choose to use should be a good match for your writing skill, the way you naturally express yourself, and the type of story you intend to write. If you prefer a style that employs big passages of scenic description replete with long luxurious sentences and ten-dollar words, maybe you’ll choose not to employ that particular style in everything you write.

Of course, if your writing tends to sound like everyone else’s, then maybe you don’t have a style developed yet. And if you don’t, you have a great opportunity to experiment with characterization, diction, punctuation, and all kinds of different writing elements – each of which, employed in a specific manner in a unique combination with other elements – can create a distinctive style for you.
Here are two writing samples of the same subject with different stylistic treatments, just to demonstrate how word choices, diction, and even punctuation can help establish a unique style that fits your storyline and also fits your natural writing inclinations...

Blatt slumped his bony shoulders and rubbed his stubbly chin for a moment, then yelled,“Pa says we don’t need no permission to come onto this here property.” He lifted his skinny elbows high into the air and planted his fists on nonexistent hips. “You hear me?”

Blatt scrubs his fingers over the scruff of his chinny-chin-chin and thinks about it for a second or two afore hollering in his tinny little squeak of a voice, “Pa says we don’t need no permishun to come onto this here property.” His elbows fly up in the air like a rooster fixin’ to flap his wings, and he jams his knuckles on his skinny ol’ hips like he’s gonna strut around just like that dad-blame rooster. “Ya hear me?”

A couple variances in techniques and writing elements – verb tense choice and more defined use of colloquialisms and diction/slang – make these two versions of the same excerpt vastly different in style. You can apply the same kinds of choices to craft a writing style that is luxurious or austere or any variation in between, so that it becomes a style of your very own, suited to the specific needs of the piece you’re writing.

VOICE. Author voice (as opposed to verb voice – passive/active) is a little harder to explain. It is a lot like style, in that it is uniquely yours by the choices you make in wording and sentence structure, but it also has a bit more of you in it – your feelings and attitudes – rather than simply a result of chosen writing techniques.

The voice of a writer should be evident in whatever writing style is adopted. For instance, in the two examples above, the first is more straightforward in telling the ‘facts’ of the story, while the second employs more ‘attitude’ by describing the character with more flair and bordering on making fun of him by describing him as skinny and scruffy and comparing him to a rooster flapping his wings and strutting around. So the author of the second example doesn’t appear to have a particularly high regard for his character, and uses him as an excuse to present a humorous and even ridiculous visual image to his readers. He ‘sacrifices’ his characters to entertain his readers, and may choose to apply that approach in all his writing. His voice says that the storytelling is a performance for him that can take precedence over the mechanics or content of the story. So while one author may focus on the actual telling of a story in the most straightforward method possible, an author whose attitude and personality shine through will show his ‘voice’ in whatever he writes. Tied in with a favored style, that voice may lean toward humor or pathos, depending on the author and the story.

A good example to demonstrate voice unique to the writer comes from Wheaton College’s web site (www.wheaton.edu). Note that the same basic idea is expressed by each of two quotes...

“Don’t play what’s there; play what’s not there.” –Miles Davis

“The notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes – ah, that is where the art resides.” –Artur Schnabel (1882–1951), German-born U.S. pianist

Basically both musicians are saying that the secret to great music lies in what’s between the notes, what the musician himself brings to the music. The way each of them makes this point is vastly different. Their voice is different – a combination of style, attitude, and tone.

TONE. Tone, like voice, is a bit difficult to explain, because in truth it is very similar to voice, but more attuned to the ... well ... tone of voice used. For instance, a treatise on political misbehavior could come across as very stern. Or an instructional message could come off as didactic, or a moral could end up sounding preachy. The author’s attitude toward the audience and purpose in writing comes into play in establishing the tone of a particular piece.
Here are two more examples to consider. Note how the author treats each character in the way he is described...

Philip had penned his notes for his public address neatly on lined white index cards. Numbered in order, precisely arranged, they laid out his simple plan to convince the townspeople that taxation was not something to be avoided, but to be accepted and embraced as part of the democratic way of life. He mumbled a practice run of his closing argument, allowing his words to ring in his head with glorious pitch to the standing ovation he imagined would be his once he concluded his speech. “I beseech you, fellow taxpayers, to vote ‘yes’ on this county tax referendum, for surely there can be no other logical choice. Your tax dollars are sorely needed to maintain our glorious country where democracy is prized but does not come without a price. That price is support – support in the form of financial offering. A ‘no’ vote is just saying ‘no’ to freedom. Remember, dear citizens, nothing in life is free – not even freedom. So vote ‘yes’ today and proudly support the dearly beloved freedoms in our democratic country.”

Ryan scowled, thinking of the cutbacks at work and the lost wages due to disappearing overtime. He needed that overtime to make the bills every month. And this stupid county tax increase would be just one more demand on his finances that he couldn’t afford. “The burden of taxation falls to the middle class,” he whispered, practicing his speech as he sat waiting for his turn at the podium. “The median-income wage earners, the families with a couple kids, a couple cars, a mortgage, and most likely both parents working full-time to support that suburban lifestyle, are the ones who will be hit hardest by this new tax referendum. The affluent, the wealthy, the privileged – on the basis of statistics alone – pay less tax per capita dollar earned than do the working middle class. Perhaps it’s a matter of being able to pay for better tax-preparation help. Who knows? But the bottom line is, the more that’s earned, the more likely the taxes paid on those earnings will be lower for the wealthy and higher for the middle class who are already struggling to make ends meet.” He sighed and twisted the pages of his speech in his sweaty hands as the last line rang in his head... “Vote ‘no’ on this referendum and let our government know they can’t take any more from you, because you can’t take it anymore!”

The author treats the first character in the example above like a fruitcake. His missive is colorful and flowery, harking back to the days of ‘My fellow countrymen, lend me your ear...’ The character in the second example is more down to earth with real details backing up his financial dilemma. It’s subtle but clear that the author sympathizes with the second character more, and thus, subconsciously, the reader will too – mostly because of the way the author’s tone colors the attitude of each piece. This attitude is what the author expects the reader to accept.

So, tone leans toward attitude – your attitude toward the subject you are writing about, as well as your attitude toward your audience. For instance, you may favor a specific subject and employ a variety of techniques to subtly steer your readers toward accepting your argument in support of this subject. Or, if you are against it, you may write about it in a derisive or disdainful manner, also subtly coloring your audience’s attitude about the subject. Of course, depending on the preferences of particular readers, you may end up alienating some readers rather than convincing them to adopt your attitude.

In the examples above, the tone of the first example is somewhat flippant and sarcastic, lingering high in the clouds of impractical ideology. The tone of the second is more respectful and better grounded in reality with details that point to actual reasons why the man doesn’t want to allow a higher tax burden to be heaped on everyone. His message has the definite slant that taxation laws are not fair across the board. He comes off as righteously angry. The author’s tone in the second example is more respectful of the character and thus more persuasive for the reader.

Coupled with the author’s voice and style, the tone drives home the point that the author wants the reader to empathize with the second man more than the first. This subtle difference of making a character reasonable and grounded in reality as opposed to too ideological to be a trustworthy source for the reader to empathize with sets the tone of how the author wants the reader to view and assess the characters and the issues they are dealing with.

Hopefully this demonstrates how style, voice, and tone can all be used to color your writing and enrich your characters while subtly bending your reader to your viewpoints.

Patricia Morrison
Penumbra Publishing


  1. Hi Pat :) Excellent post. I always found style, voice and tone to be a confusing area of writing, thanks for clearing it up. I put a sample of my writing in a website and it said I am like Vladimir Nabokov, whom I haven't even read! =) I guess I should check him out =) have you ever read him?

  2. Thanks Charles.

    Explaining the differences between style, voice, and tone is like diagramming a sentence - ugh! Most writers just employ these writing elements and don't think about what they're doing. However, for the beginning writer, it's probably helpful to know what's going on behind the scenes to be able to 'tweak' things rather than relying on instincts that may not have been developed yet.

    No I have not read Nabokov...

    The interesting thing to consider when reading a translation of work by a foreign author is that you're getting a dose of the translator's writing style in choice of words and sentence structure. The more differences in syntax and vocabulary between the native language and the translation language, the more likely you are actually reading just the author's storyline enshrouded in the translator's writing.


  3. Hi Pat :)

    You're welcome. I'm not sure I've ever read a translation, probably in university but it's been a long time anyway. I never thought of that, very interesting (about getting the translators ideas). I agree having the right tone and voice for the characters is important skill to learn.

    Many people say the Bible has so many problems, because it was written,re-written and translated so many times, at least that's what I think (that and I'm not religious :)

  4. Hi Pat, great article! I did post it on the new blog as well. Very good response to it. I'm pretty sure I fixed your login issues as well, at least I hope I did!

  5. I want to be just like Joe dirt, except different.


Sorry, we no longer allow readers to comment anonymously due to increase in spam. Please sign in and identify security letters to verify you are a human user and not a spam generator.