"The Difference between Style and Voice," by Mayra Calvani

What is the difference between style and voice?

Style is the particular manner of writing individual to an author, the unique way an author puts his words together.

Different authors have different writing styles and sometimes their styles are directly related to the type of book they write. For example, historical writers may write in an old-fashioned, archaic style; romance writers may write in a rich, florid style; an experimental writer, on the other hand, may write in a clipped or minimalist style. Each style has its own flavor and none is better than the other, though some styles may become more popular or ‘accepted’ than others depending on the times. For example, until Hemingway arrived to the scene, the accepted style was more embellished and convoluted, with an overuse of description and adjectives and adverbs. But Hemingway made his simple, straight-forward, plain style so popular, a lot of writers started to imitate him and began to shun the earlier, more elaborate Victorian approach.

Sometimes an author’s style depends on his main character. For instance, if a protagonist is a crazy person and the novel is written in first person POV, then the narrative and style would have to reflect the deranged thoughts and speech patterns of that character.

Though the terms ‘author’s style’ and ‘author’s voice’ are sometimes used interchangeably, the truth is they are two separate concepts. The term ‘voice’ is evasive, even more evasive that ‘style,’ especially for beginners.

While an author’s style relates to words and the way he puts them together, an author’s voice is the way the author looks at the world, a unique sensibility that pertains to that particular author. An author’s voice comes deep within the soul and heart of that author.

Besides an author’s style and voice, there’s also the voice of your main character. You must have heard it from agents and editors: “We want a strong character voice.”

While style applies to the whole book and the way it is written, a character’s voice is the way the author narrates the story through the eyes of that character, or the way the character’s behavior, thoughts, mannerisms and dialogue are expressed in the story. You can have different voices for your hero and heroine. Through their particular voices, their personalities come alive. You can have different voices in different books depending on your characters. Many times, though not always, the character’s voice matches the author’s voice.

An author can have different character voices in different books, yet his writing style may be the same. Take Hemingway, for example. His writing style was always the same—minimalist, straight forward, unadorned—but each of his characters had different voices in his different books.

Let’s take another example: Anne Rice. Her style is rich and embellished. She's said herself that she'll use as many adjectives as she has to in order get her point across. She loves going to excess. However, the voice of her characters is different in each of her books. In Interview with the Vampire, her main character Louis is gloomy and depressing. His voice permeates the manuscript throughout, affecting the tone of the story. In The Vampire Lestat, however, Lestat’s voice is defiant and willful, and the tone of the book is affected accordingly. Lestat’s voice infuses the text with his own particular energy. In both books, the voice is strong, but in a different way because both characters have different ways of looking at themselves and at the world around them.

But what about her author’s voice?

Rice has an author’s voice that is independent of her writing style and of her characters’ voices. She has a unique way of looking at the world. She is an utter romantic, and by this I don’t mean romantic in the sense of a ‘love story’ or sentimentalism but romantic in the way Beethoven was a romantic, by believing and expressing deep emotion. She goes deep where the pain is, where the pleasure is. She has an immense regard for art, history, music, philosophy and theology. She has an almost obsessive love of beauty and learning, an almost morbid obsession with death, and all of this comes across in her books in one way or the other.

“Style can be the downfall of many otherwise talented writers,” states Noah Lukeman, author of The First Five Pages, but he goes on to say that “When handled well, style can add a new dimension to the text that nothing else can, give it an unnamable charm; when handled expertly, it can go so far as to advance the overall message of the text.”

The truth is, most beginning writers feel intimidated with style and voice. They don’t trust their own vision and in trying to develop a strong style and voice, they try to force it to make their manuscripts appear more original. This almost always doesn’t work and the result is that the writing comes out unnatural and exaggerated.

Whether you style is embellished or minimalist, a strong, compelling style is usually about contrast—the combination of long sentences with medium-length sentences with short, clipped sentences.

We all have our own styles and we all have our voices because we’re all different people with different backgrounds and experiences. But what happens is, we often lack the confidence necessary to trust and follow our own vision. If you still feel frustrated because you don’t think you have a distinct, definite style or voice yet, experiment with different ones and see what happens. But do your best to have trust in your self and talent and avoid imitating other writers, though this is also fine when you’re starting. Sometimes the learning process starts by imitating until you find your own unique way.

“To set your voice free,” advises Donald Mass, author of Writing the Breakout Novel, “set your words free. Set your characters free. Most important, set your heart free. It is from the unknowable shadows of your subconscious that your stories will find their drive and from which they will draw their meaning. No one can loan you that or teach you that. Your voice is your self in the story.”

About the author:

Mayra Calvani writes fiction and nonfiction for children and adults. She’s co-author of The Slippery Art of Book Reviewing, a ForeWord Best Book of the Year Award Winner and a 2011 Global eBooks Award Winner. She’s had over 300 stories, articles, interviews and reviews published both online and in print, in publications such as The Writer, Writer’s Journal, Acentos Review, Bloomsbury Review, Mosaic, and Multicultural Review, among many others. A reviewer for more than a decade, she now offers numerous book reviewing workshops online. She also offers workshops on the art of picture book writing. She’s represented by Mansion Street Literary and Savvy Literary. For her children’s books, visit www.MayrasSecretBookcase.com.


Shirley Corder said...

Interesting article, Mayra. It's something we need to watch when we're editing others' work. We want to point out things they need to improve on, but we don't want to take away their style.

Anne Duguid Knol said...

Thankyou Mayra. I have struggled with writer's voice for ages. One of those concepts you think you know but can never explain. An excellent article.

Margaret Fieland said...

Mayra, thanks for a really interesting article and for the in-depth, explanation of style and voice. The examples you used made the concepts come alive for me.

Mary Jo Guglielmo said...

An interesting take on style and voice. For me, I first have to find my voice and then it helps shape my style.


elysabeth said...

Thanks, Mayra. I had a question from a student that I posted last week on my blog and wasn't really sure how to answer the question. This article is a better explanation than my answer since I wasn't really equating style versus voice in the answer - I was trying to say this would be the author's voice but in reality it turns out to be the author's style to the way she would write a certain thing - I'm posting along with a reason for this to be better than my answer - lol. Thanks for sharing with us - E :)

Elysabeth Eldering
Author of Finally Home, a YA paranormal mystery
"The Proposal" (an April Fools Day story), a humorous romance ebook
"The Tulip Kiss", a paranormal romance ebook
"Bride-and-Seek", a paranormal romance ebook

Magdalena Ball said...

Good post Mayra - I find that the author's voice is a subtle notion that often distinguishes the beginner writer from the experienced one - it's critically important to discover it.

Karen Cioffi said...

Mayra, interesting post and great references. You did a wonderful job describing the difference between style and voice.

I think style can change if a writer writes in different genres.

I wrote my middle-grade fantasy Walking Through Walls based on ancient China, so I used phrasing like, "he is," rather than "he's."

In my science fiction WIP, the style and tone is much different.

Karen Cioffi Writing and Marketing

Margot Willows said...

This is a very helpful post!

It was recently brought to my attention that my charcacters' voices tend to reflect my own (and therefore are very similar) and was asked for some variance. Your clear explanation of the difference between these things and style really helped me get a better idea of how to go about making changes and stregnthening my characters.

Thank you very much! :)

patti.mallett_pp said...

I have a feeling my work has similar issues as Margot mentioned. This was a very helpful post! Thanks, Mayra!!

Kelly McClymer said...

I love this take! Thank you. I know that I choose a different style, dependent upon the story I'm telling (my teen witch Pru does *not* sound a bit like any of my historical romance heroines, nor my ghost in my darker YA). But my author voice does rely a lot on the words I have come to love through my own years of voracious reading.

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