What is style? What is that voice thing that editors keep going on about? How do you develop style and voice in 3 easy steps?
Lorrainne posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
Randy, please describe how you see style and voice and how that is cultivated. Sight examples for clarification.
Randy sez: Drat! I was hoping for a question with an easy answer. You’ve asked one of the questions I find most difficult in teaching fiction writing.
I’d define style to be the set of patterns you use in your writing: word choice patterns, grammatical patterns, sentence structure patterns, paragraph structure patterns, narrative structure patterns.
I’d define voice to be the “attitude” you bring to your writing. This can be separated into the voice of each of your characters plus the voice you bring in as author.
Some examples of style patterns:
Word choice patterns. Do you use long words or short words? Do you use foul language or fair language? Latin-based words or Anglo-Saxon words? Active verbs or passive verbs? Spicy nouns or tofu nouns? Lots of adjectives or adverbs or hardly any?
Grammatical patterns. Do you violate those annoying rules of grammar that Mrs. Thiesing taught you in ninth grade English, or do you follow them? Do your verbs and nouns agree? Do you split infinitives?
Sentence structure patterns. Do you use long sentences or short? Clip the subject of the sentence? Do you pile on the clauses?
Paragraph structure patterns. Do you use long paragraphs or short? In dialogue, do you make a new paragraph every time you have a new speaker or do you sometimes lump two or more people together?
Narrative structure patterns. What is the mix of action, dialogue, interior monologue, interior emotion, description, and narrative summary in your writing?
Some examples of “attitude” in your writing:
Are you an optimist or a pessimist? Religious or not? Confrontational or conformist? Conservative or liberal? A rule-keeper or an anarchist? Altruistic or selfish? Judgmental or slow to leap to judgment? Angry? Depressed? Chaotic? Whimsical? Neurotic?
I could go on and on, but I think you get it.
Now the problem is how to develop your style and voice.
To develop your style, you need to learn what your options are. You do that by reading. Ten million words should be enough, if you read a mix of categories. That corresponds to about 100 novels. When you’ve read that many, you ought to have a good sense for what can be done with the language.
To develop your voice, I recommend writing a million words. That works out to about 10 novels, although you don’t have to write that many different books. It might be ten complete versions of one book. Your voice is you on paper. You don’t need to practice being you, but you may need to unlearn some of the things you were taught in school. That’s why you need to write a lot — because it’s only in doing it every day for years and years that you strip away all the handcuffs that Mrs. Thiesing put on you in school.
Do you have to read 100 million words to develop your own style? No. You might learn it quicker. You might never learn it. I’m guessing that 100 million words is an average. Your mileage is guaranteed to vary.
Do you have to write 10 million words to develop your own voice? Same answer.
What do my Loyal Blog Readers think? How many books did you have to read to develop your style? How many did you have to write to develop your own voice? Leave a comment and let me know, because I’m just guessing based on my own sordid experience as a reader and a writer. I’d love to get some data from writers who aren’t me.
If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.
Blog of the Day: Agent Steve Laube blogged today with the headline: Every Writer Must Read This. I read it, and found that it’s a summary of a recent Harris Poll on the reading habits of Americans. There are some useful trends to note here. The most popular category is mystery/suspense, as measured by the percentage of readers who read this category. I suspect that the most popular category is still romance, as measured by the number of books actually bought, because romance readers tend to buy tons of romances. Steve is a guy I always pay attention to, so check out what he has to say.
Katie Hart says
The reading ten million words made me laugh – I think I had that part done by 4th grade! 🙂
Tessa Quin says
Great advice and idea of what the elusive “voice” means. It’s basically what I thought, only I hadn’t put it into words yet “attitude”.
Jonathan Cain says
Oh man, you really struck a chord with me when you were talking about “taking off the hand cuffs: thats a major issue that I have, I am glad to know that there is light at the end of the tunnel!
Is it possible to “hear” your own written voice, or does someone else need to identify it for you, like an accent? How can you tell if your voice is consistant, strained, whatever? I guess I’m afraid that overanalzing could kill my voice.
Randy sez: Voice comes from the creative side of your brain. Don’t overanalyze it or you’ll kill it–or at least knock it unconscious for a while. Voice is like personality — trying to “make it happen” is the surest way to make it not happen.
Davalynn Spencer says
Ugh! Style and voice. Great question, inspiring answer. Personally, my style and voice change depending upon what I’m writing. I think. Since I write such varied nonfiction as inspirational columns, interviews, reviews, articles, etc., I must choose the appropriate style/voice for the assignment. Now here I am as the student of a fiction writer! – thanks to that writer’s conference I attended in California. But creative writing is creative writing, whether fiction or non (and I’m writing a novel). They are parallel tracks of the same railroad line, and many aspects of one can be found in the other, like story arc. And voice. And style. A reader once told me, “I love your style.” I wanted to stand up on my desk and scream, “Tell me, please tell me, what is my style?!” I’m still waiting for the answer.
I know fear of exposing what is truly lurking in my own twisted mind is one of the ‘handcuffs’ to my voice. I’ve been told my blogging/correspondence voice is something people enjoy (the poor saps) but no matter how hard I try to be ‘free’ in my fiction writing, I am chained by rules, what certain people will think, things I’ve been taught you can’t do or shouldn’t do in CBA, etc.
I am still reveling in a recent discovery: an author who writes in my genre in a ‘style’–if you will–closer to mine than any others I’ve read by far. I not only like her books (it would take pages to detail why in particular) but I learned a couple of key things through her example that suddenly liberate me from my fears. She also pulls off some things (regarding emotional experience & reader reward) that I’ve tried to do but wasn’t sure if I was doing. On reading her books, I can see that I sadly failed at these things in my first book. Luckily I’m still in the early stages of my 2nd and can incorporate what I learned from her now.
It’s taken me a couple years of writing fiction and other stuff (a literary term) to sift through my stuff (a spiritual term) and begin to recognize what elements of my own preferences in style and word choice and attitude and approach to communicating that I should focus on for fiction and which to leave for personal life chatter. I’m still working on it. I guess I have about 250k words or so under my belt so far, have lots of lab time to go.
Hey – do the ones we throw away count? Then I probably have about 500k. 🙂
Randy sez: Yes, everything you type counts, whether you throw it away or burn it or blog it. Words written are words written.
I agree, style and voice are a bit mysterious but it is always great when you read someone whose style you like. I don’t even think about my own style when I am writing. While I know it is lurking in the shadows I let it take care of itself. Randy’s mad professor style for this blog keeps me reading and laughing.
I think it’s definitely important to read a wide range of authors and genres when developing your writing style so that you aren’t too obviously influenced by a particular writer, especially if they write in the same genre as you.
Melissa Stroh says
A few people have told me that they really like my voice, which I found very encouraging. To be honest, I can’t say with certainty what I think of it (because I’m my own worst critic). But if it is good, then I’d credit it to mixing up my influences. Just like any writer, I have my favorite authors who have a specific voice and style that I enjoy. But every now and then, I like to read something different or out of the norm for my taste just to get a flavor for something else. It adds variety. And it’s fun to discover new things along the way. Like Jordyn implied, you don’t want to get stuck in a rut.
rick crawford says
I have been reading about this lately. It is hard to define voice. When writing in first person, voice comes through clearly. But when writing from a different point of view, voice is how the author sees the scene and the events.
Tiger stalking its prey. Some writers would spend a several paragraphs on the setting around the tiger or what the tiger saw. Some would describe the why the tiger is stalking.
Voice is delivery. And then its either slow or fast. Stalking to me is slow but suddenly fast.
Voice is what the author lets me see with their word pairings.
Sheila Crosby says
I like C. S. Lewis’s advice. Forget about your voice / original style. Just write the story as best you can, and your voice will come naturally. You’re bound to be original, just because you’re you.
I had once read in a classical fiction writing book (I don’t remember the name)that an author’s “voice” or style is what distinguishes him from the others. But the moment you consciously become aware of them or try to analyze them, you run the risk of stagnating as a writer. If you become aware of the intricacies of your style (and specially if your style has been appreciated)you will try hard to stick to it and will not improvise as per the demands of the story.
I personally consider both style and voice as a “spontaneous way of writing a story” – a way that appeals to me and me only, and I see a pattern in my writing but i don’t go overboard trying to analyze it.
Carol Ann Hoel says
Voice and style are apparently so closely linked that both are treated at the same time by those instructing others in the craft of writing. I appreciate the good information. I’m an author, published by a traditional publisher, Christian category.
Andre Onema Ukungenyema says
I have a keen interest in linguistics which turns to be one of ,y academic fields of studies. In particular, the interpretation of language forms in works of literatary wrtings has attracted great amount of my attention.
How I developed my style? I started writing what would have been my first novel (if it had ever been finished) and learned that I had no idea what I was doing, but there were still parts of what I was doing that were done correctly and when I thought about those things, I realized that I did like some of them. Those things I kept. Then, when I started my second novel (now forever unfinished) I noticed the things I liked naturally carried over in the writing from the first novel, but so did some of the things I didn’t. So, still having no idea what I was doing, I pressed on to remove that which I didn’t like and turn it into the sum of all the things I did (like about my style).
What really started me along the path (while writing the novel that will be my first finished and published novel) towards cementing my style into a thing I can look at on the page and feel good about was realizing that I was too focused on getting everything right the first time (in the first draft) and couldn’t (errors in the proofread). I would get depressed and think I was a hack and then want to give up. As I decided to not let another novel slip through my fingers and pressed on (with the novel that I am now proofreading) I allowed the errers to not get me down. I would notice things and say that I’d get it in the proofread. Now I’m proofreading and I am “getting” them…and the language is coming alive, taking shape, and becoming my own.
It’s not about being perfect in the first draft (because only a liar writes a good first draft) and it’s not about beging able to write things correctly the fdirst time they’re written (because, again, only a liar can do that often enough to brag about it). What it is about is knowing what your voice, style, unique something is such that, even it you fail the first time through, you do eventually recognize it when you get there…it doesn’t matter how you get there (one million proofreads, under the thumb of a heavy editor, by accident, simply by instinct, etc.) it just matters that you do.
My actual style started with no real style at all. Long verbose paragraphs with sentences that did the job of five or six sentences (very well, but with no voice/style) and just free flowing thoughts and ideas on the page. I kept trying to inject poetry and imagry into the work, but it always killed the otherwise good, but dead pan, lack of style (that in and of itself was almost a style). I had this love of realism and attention to detail and this love of poetc abstract imagry and no idea how to make the two meet in the middle to tell a story in a way that wasn’t either purple prose or poorly written literary poetry.
It wasn’t until I’d written the first draft (690 something pages of what is not a 709 page novel) and I started proofreading that I finally realized how to finally polish the style into something I can be proud of. The wonderful poetic imagry and the heavy handed verbosity all work very well when broken up by the dialogue and the dialogue works very well with tags that are so pared down that they, well…
“I love it!” feminine face aglow.
“I’m glad to hear it,” honesty in full form, despite nothing to gain.
…basically, tell you ONLY what is necessary and not one single word (or even character) more. Contrasted with the hugely poetic, and as I describe it sprawling, narration style it works very well. Once I realized that, I knew I had found my style. All I have to do now is work with it to reach as close to perfection as any human can…and then I’m good.
Finding your style, your voice, that thing only you can bring to fiction writing, isn’t about writing blindly and accepting that whatever appears on the page (barring the mistakes, of course) is your style. Your style can be anything you want it to be, but it does have to be a style that’s true to you otherwise it’s nothing but a set up for failure. You’re not going to instantly start with a style that just works. You might start with bits and pieces of a style that in and of themselves work, but the over all style will take time to develop. Work at it, notice the things that work and those that don’t and asjust accordingly until eventually you’ll just know what your style is and you’ll know it when you see it and it’ll feel like a bag of tools you carry around with you in your head. You won’t be able to fully describe your style to another person, but you will be able to write something using it and show them. Sure, you can adjectify the style into a description of it, but your relationship with your voice/style is yours, no one elses, and once you’ve found one you can be proud of…well…be proud of it. By that point you’ll have certainly put in the time/effort to deserve to be.
Oh, and yes: read, read, read. You’ll learn a lot from other authors. I’m not saying to steal anything they’ve done or that your style will be a mixbag of their styles all jumbled together, but how can you develop something if you don’t know what all the possibilities are? How can you pick and choose from a group of things if you don’t know they exist?
…of what is NOW a 709 page novel…