Defining a writer’s “voice” has always stumped me. It came up again recently, when a journalism professor put me on speaker phone with her class of college freshmen, who had a straightforward question:

What is the difference between personal style, and voice?

I did what I usually do when I need to buy some time to think: I threw some questions back at them, beginning with asking what they meant by “personal style.” That led to a decent discussion about the range of publication styles — AP, Chicago, academic — but didn’t resolve what constitutes “personal” style, and how that does or doesn’t differ from what is often called “voice.” Is one how we shape sentences, and the other the attitude or even opinion we bring to those sentences? Does one refer to our range of vocabulary and the other to the perspective we use (first, second or third person)? Is style a form or structure, and voice a degree of distance or intimacy? Is the first professional and the second conversational?

I doubt I was of much use to the students, but at least I was honest about my reluctance to provide a definitive answer. As often as I’ve sat in on panels or workshops about voice, I’ve never come away clear. I once moderated a panel on voice with three of the Wise Men of narrative writing — Mark Kramer, Jack Hart and Roy Peter Clark. I could go on a loudly voiced riff on why a panel on voice was given over to male voices, but that’s for another time and place. For now, let’s just say it was a robust discussion, and called on all my experience of corralling four brothers.

I also told the class about the time I was not offered a job in the Washington Post’s Style section because my writing voice was not the right fit: “Too Midwestern and earnest.” (I’ve been working on my cheek factor ever since.) Then there was the time I lost a book contract because an agent decided my voice was “too newspapery” for a book-length narrative, even though I offered to remove the “paragraph return” key from my keyboard. I offered tales of sitting in the newsroom, late at night, with other editors as we did dramatic readings of various story drafts and bet on who the writer was based on the voice of the writing.

After completely confusing these eager young writers, I kept thinking about our conversation. Later I sent my professor friend some added thoughts. They go no further in reaching certitude about how to define voice or teach it, but are fun ways I’ve found to  open the door to discussion. This is a variation on what I sent:

  • Finding our voice as writers might be a bit like finding our signature moves as an athlete or musician or artist: We have to study the pros, know the basics, and practice, practice, practice those basics before we can really play or paint our own way. And we probably have to copy (model) a lot of other voices as we do that.
    • It can feel like the particular requirements of journalism ask us to abandon our own voice, but I have found that’s simply not true. We’re just trying to understand and internalize some of the techniques of the masters, then incorporate them into our own work. We might subjugate (quiet) our own voice for awhile as we’re learning the craft, but it’s still there. And the more we know the underlying craft, the more we can let our own voice shine.
  • Voice should not be confused with opinion. Two people with the same opinion can state it in very different ways — different voices. One can be calm and reasoned, the other passionate and emotional. And opinion is too often bluster or blather without foundation to support it.
  • A corollary: While voice cannot be separated from what we have to say, it is more about how we say it. And the what, for any writer, has to come from reporting.
  • Some fun things to try when exploring voice:
    • Find versions of the same song by different artists. I first heard this when someone played three versions of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” I’ve done it myself using Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” (I have a CD w/ 14 versions of it.) The song is word-for-word, almost note-for-note the same… but in the “voice” of each artist, completely different. You can hear different stories in the same story.
    • Find two writers and compare how they write about the same thing. Hemingway and Steinbeck on WWII. Charles P. Pierce and Alexandra Petri on the impeachment proceedings.  Charles M. Blow and Leonard Pitts Jr. and Nikole Hannah-Jones on race.
      • In writing workshops, I often use  Jack Hart (from “A Writer’s Coach”) and Roy Clark (from “Writing Tools”) in passages about the exactly same issue, and ask participants to talk about how different their writing voices are. When I ask them to describe Jack and Roy based solely on what they surmise based on their writing styles — or voice — they always nail it.
  • No matter what else you do, read your writing out loud. Not in a rush, but so you can actually hear it. Brain science says that people still hear, in their minds, as they read. While writing for the page is different than writing for the ear, we still need to write to be heard. And that means learning to listen to ourselves.

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