Most writers have heard or been told at some time that they need to work on or find their ‘voice’. Readers remark that some author’s have a distinctive voice and the publishing industry is forever searching for outstanding ‘voices’ in literature.
But few can define exactly what ‘voice’ is made of. What are the specific craft components that some writers utilise in their writing that qualifies them as having a strong or original voice? What’s ‘voice’ made of?
People say they could pick up a book of an author they are familiar with and recognise the voice immediately. But what if that author has penned a novel that is outside of their usual genre? What if a well-known crime novelist, also wrote romance? Would the author’s ‘voice’ remain true to expectation?
When Rowling moved from writing fantasy fiction to writing mystery/crime under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. Without the subsequent revealing of who the mysterious Galbraith actually was, I’m not sure any of the readers who had purchased her book in those first few months had any idea that they were reading a Rowling. Why then? Why did they not ‘hear’ Rowling’s voice in Galbraith’s pages? Because ‘voice’ can be manipulated by the author at a conscious level to suit the mood or tone of a particular work they are working on. So, on the surface it may seem that a writer’s ‘voice’ may change from genre to genre, but there is a level where a writer’s voice does stay the same regardless of what genre or mode they decide to write. I would urge you to check out the first six lines of Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows and the opening of Rowling’s The Cuckoo’s Calling. Compare the sentence structure and her use of adjectival and adverbial phrases and you’ll soon see that her ‘voice’ is similar when you look for it.
As far as I can tell, any writer’s voice is made up of two things: The unconscious composition of prose and the conscious composition of prose. Each of these things contain a number of other stylistic devices.
The Unconscious Composition of Prose: This makes up the common patterns of language that perhaps are not necessarily the complete fingerprint of our voice but are long ago learned speech/language patterns. This covers the author’s use of function words (words like: the, a, an, it, of, by, on, she, he, they, etc); these smaller words are related to grammar and give meaning to the content of the author’s sentences. The use, distribution and frequency of these words are dependent on a person’s background, education and socioeconomic past and present. Unconscious composition also includes:
- Sentence length preference
- Word length and distribution
- Rhythm or sentence cadence
- Linking words or conjunctions
- Common word pairings—such as, ‘to be’, ‘on the’, ‘and then’.
- And so on…
It might all sound very technical but these words govern the flow and rhythm of a writer’s work. Would Austen’s prose have sounded so witty and romantic if the sentence length were shorter? Or take for example this sentence from Joyce’s EVELINE:
One time there used to be a field there in which they used to play every evening with other people’s children.
It’s Joyce’s preferred use of function words that gives the prose its distinctive voice. Although it must be some kind of sacrilege to interfere with a genius’ work, have a look at the same sentence written with different function words:
One time there WAS a field there in which they PLAYED every evening with other children.
Once there WAS a field…
In Joyce’s sentence it is the density of function words that gives the prose its beautiful rhythm and makes his voice immediately recognisable. Over time a well practised writer may become accustomed to their own writing patterns and they may decide to alter them but most won’t completely because this pattern is fundamental to the uniqueness of their voice, so why change it?
The second thing that makes up a writer’s voice is the Conscious Composition of Prose.
- The Conscious Composition of Prose covers aspects that the author purposefully works on to set a particular tone or mood dependent on what they are writing. This is influenced by the amount, complexity and presence of the following writing devices:
- Descriptive language including: imagery, simile, metaphor, choice or adjectives, verbs etc
- Use and frequency of free indirect speech
- Perspective or point of view that the author is writing from
- Narrator intrusion or attitude.
The first part of ‘voice’ or the unconscious composition is what comes naturally to us and I think when combined with the second part of ‘voice’ or the conscious composition makes a particular author’s voice unique to them. The first will be influenced by a writer’s background, schooling and upbringing and I suspect this is why some argue it cannot be taught. The second is all down to practice and development of craft. It is the second that writers like Rowling use when shifting genres. But there are certain ‘patterns’ that are difficult for the writer to escape from and why should they, it’s these patterns that make their writing shine. It is the conscious composition that amateur writer’s need to learn to manipulate. This is the area that they should work on to reveal or ‘find’ their voice. The unconscious composition will already be there.