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...
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 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.
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?”
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.
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.
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
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
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, 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...
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
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.
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.