Write it now: voice and style in action

It seems to me that writing style differs from voice. To me, voice is the framework authors use to express themselves, the characteristic ‘sound’ that identifies their work, conceptually, as theirs and sets it apart from that of other authors. Style is the detail of how that expression takes place, word by word, and it can vary – indeed, some authors tailor their style to suit the purpose of their book.

My "Illustrated History of New Zealand"
My “Illustrated History of New Zealand”

A couple of years ago I had opportunity to revise and re-publish my Illustrated History of New Zealand. This was a massive volume of 120,000 words and 600-odd photos which I’d written in 2003, published in 2004 by Reed New Zealand Ltd. It sold very well indeed, and though it went out of print in a flurry of corporate take-overs, I obtained the publishing license and offered it to a new publisher – David Bateman Ltd.

The book had to be re-made from scratch – but that made it possible to revise the whole. This was positive; some of the text could be re-written completely, reflecting the way research and discoveries about New Zealand’s far past in particular have changed since I originally wrote the text.

But I also reviewed the entire interpretation. Even where there was nothing major to change, there was still room to re-nuance the argument – to tweak, tweeze and re-polish the closer meanings, which I did often by changing a few words only. The idea was to change the meaning a little, but not too much – in effect, adjusting the voice. Novellists face the identical challenge when directing the emotional response of readers.

However, the resulting text couldn’t be allowed to stand with just those amendments. These simply rendered it a stylistic patchwork of old and new. I wanted something more consistent. I also wanted something more modern. I originally wrote the text for this book in 2003, styled specifically for the tastes of the general reading audience then. Time had moved on, and I figured it was essential to re-style the whole into a single form; chattier, more in tune with what’s needed now – yet still reflecting the voicing I had incorporated. For me it was an exercise in knowing the pitch, knowing what the audience wanted, and knowing what I wanted the style to be.

The point being that both first and second editions still reflected my ‘voice’ as a writer – yet quite consciously used different written stylings. For me it was part of the revision.

So yes, voice has to be unique to the author – their characteristic ‘sound’. But has to be understood; it has to be managed. Through that, it is possible to bring that voice to bear in any style.

That management comes from understanding – from understanding how ‘voice’ works to convey meaning and colour. It comes from accepting that, yes, it is more than just flat-out creativity. From knowing your own voice, through experience, and being able to apply it in any writing situation.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Shameless Plug: You can buy my illustrated history from Fishpond, New Zealand’s largest online bookstore.


7 thoughts on “Write it now: voice and style in action

    1. I thought it might be fun to share something of the underlying workings of how I actually write the stuff I do – which is a pretty controlled process.

      The book’s been a 12-year project so far – two years from contract signing to print, originally; then a period in print, and then another three years from discussing it with the new publisher in 2010 to the re-issue. The opportunity to write a single-volume national history is a rare one. There have been some shorter efforts and a couple of big multi-author volumes in the last 20 years, but I’m one of only three solo authors to write a volume to this scale in the same period. The opportunity to get a second bite at the cherry is almost non-existent – I’m the ONLY author in New Zealand to produce a fully re-written re-issue of a 120,000-word single-volume history of the country. Ever.

      There’s more to come with this book – soon…

  1. What would you suggest doing to try to narrow down what one’s voice is? I have a vague notion of mine, and can redirect style as far as word choice goes, but I read the lines about “I recast the entire thing based on the market” and mentally blanched. I don’t have the first clue how to do that.

    1. It’s something I’ve been able to do only with experience. After a while it becomes possible to judge changes in popular styling and style your own voice to suit. I don’t think I can explain it as a process because it’s more a ‘feel’ thing than a specific process, a balancing act.

  2. What’s interesting to me is I can easily identify the “voice” of another writer and even characterize it. But I can’t do the same with my voice. I’m not sure that I have one. It seems to me that it changes often with my mood, or even with what the story demands.

    1. You have an excellent and distinctive writing voice – it comes through clearly in the stories of yours I’ve read. If you separate the ‘voice’ (what you want to say) from the style (how you are saying it), both become more controllable by conscious direction – though it takes a while to really get into the groove of it. The way to get it comes not from reading the work of others (though that’s important) but from writing stuff of your own – deliberately ‘in the style of” others, just to get the idea of how they did it. I should really post on this!

Comments are closed.