Style…sandals with socks versus Angela Kelly headwear.
Voice…the light that catches someone’s eyes, when they open up about themselves.
This occasional series of blogposts on Writing Skills has reached Part Four of the course materials and the first two projects get to grip with something that often foxes writers. What exactly is the difference between style and voice?
Perhaps the Cambridge Dictionary can help. Here’s their definition of style… a way of doing something, especially one that is typical of a person, group of people, place, or period.
In Project one of Part Four, short examples of writing styles are given, ways of writing that point readers in the right direction. Imagine swapping these styles round, receiving an official letter from your accountant, written in the manner of a holiday website, for instance. The style would be off-putting, possibly incomprehensible.
Basic style is all about the nuts and bolts of doing a decent writing job. A journal essay, for instance, would be tighter on grammatical accuracy and have a far higher fog index than a standard twist-in-the-tale short story. Science fiction often employs very long paragraphs, while young adult fiction mostly keeps paragraph short.
Voice, on the other hand, is far more subtle. Even the Cambridge Dictionary admits this, with various definitions, including…important quality or opinion that someone expresses. Your writing voice is your personality…heart, soul…coming through on the page.
Here’s Frances Ryan in the Guardian; Sandra’s lost her mum, dad and brother over the years, and with them a place she could go for help. When her mum was here, she says, if she was struggling with the bills, she’d know she could ask her mum for money and she wouldn’t have to pay it back. “Though I’d want to,” she adds. Her sister bought her fleece pyjamas for Christmas…
Here’s Jeremy Clarkson in the Sunday Times; Having established that it’s jolly good at mending broken legs and even better at getting mildly political songs to No 1 in the hit parade, the NHS has decided it would like to start designing towns…
Both of these columnists have broadsheet journalistic styles, but their voices are instantly recognisable, which is maybe why the emphasis in recent years has been on cultivating and celebrating voice rather than style. Voice is the overarching spark that editors and agents are desperate to find. Voice is what readers respond to on the first page, long before they’ve been sucked into the plot. Through voice, readers are connecting to a writer’s mind.
When I read certain authors, their voice is like a song in my head. That is because it feels like they are speaking to me, straight out of their heart into mine. As a reader, you probably can recognise this phenomenon, that of feeling the ‘song’ of a writer’s voice.
Style can be taught – it has some rules, like not wearing socks with sandals or how to dress for Ascot’s royal box. On the other hand, personal voice needs no rules whatsoever. It’s the lines on a writer’s face, the stories inside them.
It is useful to understand the differences between style and voice. But in the end, when we get to the actual writing, these two aspects are best tackled as one, using the old principle, ‘the whole is more important than the sum of its parts’. Your voice will constantly be influenced by whatever style you need to effect in your writing. But once you’ve established which style you’ll take for a particular piece of writing, your voice can, and should, fully influence it.
Writers talk about ‘finding’ their voice. It’s there, you just have to search for it.
In the OCA writing department, you’ll hear us say that ‘personal voice’ is gained with writing experience, and we don’t expect it to be perfectly present from the beginning. We can demonstrate and guide style to students, through form and genre, but we can’t ‘find’ your own voice for you. However, there is a large aspect to the OCA writing journey that will help in this regard; we expect you to write. You’ll be asked to write about lots of different things and in lots of different styles, straight from the start and all the time.
Writing practise is the only way to become assured about your voice, I think. The more you write – and, as important – the more you think about writing – the clearer your voice will shine through, from your thoughts, from your heart, from your soul.
Featured Image: jason lloyd evans
Also published on Medium.