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.
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.