Authentic voice: the indispensable quality of good writing

May 4, 2018

Of all the effects created by writers, none is more important or elusive than that quality called “voice.”  Good writers, it is said, want to “find” their voice. And they want that voice to be “authentic,” a word from the same root as “author” and “authority.”  If the writer went on a quest to find a sacred object or special power, it might very well be called “voice.”

In the digital age, voice is more important than ever.  Writers need to develop their own “brand,” an identity that suggests reliability and quality.  With so many sources of information to choose from, readers scan their computers and mobile devices for writers who deliver. Those writers, I would argue, have recognizable voices, not in the way they speak, but in the way they write.

(When I thought of a writer’s voice in the digital age, it led me to this brainstorming list of sub-genres and modes: blog posts, status updates, tweets, text messages, Upworthy headlines, snark, shaming, trolling, mansplaining, linking, tech jargon, and branding, to name a few. )

One word often used to describe this distinctive manner of writing is “style,” as in Strunk & White’s famous guidebook, "The Elements of Style." I prefer voice for this reason: Style, by one definition, feels like an external quality, something that you wear, a fashion; voice, though it can be modulated, expresses a more durable integrated quality, something that comes from within.  

Elton John can wear outrageous glasses as a stylish trademark, or not. His voice, whether he sings a rocker at Wembley Stadium or a ballad at the funeral of Princess Diana, is distinctively, authentically his. As jazz singer Diana Krall described it to Elton John: “At the beginning, you were a piano player who sang. In the end, you became a singer who played the piano.” That description could apply to Krall herself and to other musical greats such as Nat King Cole. To think of a writer as a singer is not much of a stretch. To “make it sing” has always been newsroom slang for good writing. The language we apply to music — rhythm, theme, sound, crescendo, reprise, composition, and, yes, voice — explains effects in writing as well.

Like that classic definition of pornography, we know voice when we see it — or hear it. William Safire and George Will were both older, white, male conservative columnists, yet their readers could easily distinguish between them, even without benefit of a byline. Few readers would confuse Anna Quindlen with Maureen Dowd, even though both write from a liberal, feminist perspective. The voices of these writers are so distinctive that they shout their identities to the reader off the screen or the page.

The fact that voice is to some extent integral rather than added on can be illustrated in an anecdote from the poet David McCord. He remembers how he once picked up an old copy of St. Nicholas magazine, which printed stories written by children. One story caught his attention, and he was “suddenly struck by a prose passage more earthy and natural in voice than what I had been glancing through. This sounds like E.B. White, I said to myself. Then I looked at the signature: Elwyn Brooks White, age 11.” McCord recognized the elements of style — the voice — of the young author who would one day grow up to write Charlotte’s Web and so much more.

There are good books on writing that try to get at the meaning of voice, the best being "The Sound on the Page" by Ben Yagoda. What I have looked for but never found was what we musicians call a “Fake Book” for writers, a simple, straightforward text on the music of writing that includes practical strategies for setting, tuning, or modulating your writing voice. If my old colleague Don Fry is correct, that voice is the “sum” of all writing strategies, which of those strategies are essential to creating the illusion of speech? To answer that question, think of a piece of sound equipment called a “Graphic Equalizer.” This is the device that mixes the range of sounds in a sound system by providing about 30 dials or levers or stops, controlling such things as bass and treble. Push up the bass, pull down the treble, add a little reverb to configure the desired sound.

If we all had a handy-dandy writing voice modulator, what ranges would the levers control?

I’ve identified and isolated these choices:

1. Level of language: What is the level of language?  Is it concrete or abstract or somewhere in between? Does the writer use street slang or the logical argument of a professor of philosophy?

2. Choice of person: What “person” does the writer work in? Does the writer use “I” to create a familiar voice? Or “we” to express the collective, as in a labor union? Or “you” to sound conversational? Or the most common “they” to seem more detached? Or all of these?

3. Source and range of allusion: What are the range and the sources of allusions? Do these come from high or low culture, or both? Does the writer cite a medieval theologian or a professional wrestler? T.S. Eliot or Wild Bill Hickock?

4. Density of metaphor: How often does the writer use metaphors and other figures of speech? Does the writer want to sound more like a poet, whose work is thick with figurative images, or a journalist, who only uses them for special effect?

5.  Sentence length and structure: What is the length and structure of the typical sentence? Is it short and simple? Long and complex? Or mixed?

6.  Distance from neutrality: Does the language sound neutral, objective, dispassionate?  Or partisan? Or on fire and engaged?

7.  Inclusive to Exclusive: Does the prose exhibit a plain style, a common voice, one that invites in many readers from many discourse communities? Or does it speak to an exclusive club of readers, either through slang or jargon.

8. Conventional to Experimental Frames: Is the voice what we might expect to hear from a particular genre or platform, be it a sonnet, headline, or blog post? Or does it seek to cross conventional boundaries to create something surprising or even shocking?

9. Original to Derivative: Is the voice clearly borrowed from another writer or text, the way that musicians “sample” musical phrases from the familiar work of others?  Or does it seek to be radically original, a voice that readers regard as distinctive?

Consider this simple example. In Toronto, a man pleads guilty to the rape, murder, and dismemberment of a 10-year-old girl. No one can be neutral in the face of such horror, but it is instructive to see the different approaches to this story by the fiercely competitive Toronto newspapers.

  • The Sun, a tabloid in the British style, offers this headline:  “ROT IN HELL.”
  • The Globe and Mail gives us:  “HEART OF DARKNESS.”
  • The Star weighs in with: “HIS ‘DARK SECRET.’”

The voice of the headline writer differs in each of these approaches and the difference can be marked by the distance from neutrality. The least neutral is, of course, “Rot in Hell” a phrase the headline writer picks up from the local columnist inside the paper. His lead, for the record is “Rot in hell, you son of a bitch ….”

Less evocative, but still opinionated is the Globe’s “Heart of Darkness,” which a small percentage of readers will recognize as an allusion to the title of a Joseph Conrad novella. This choice is inspired by Christie Blatchford’s lead: “The darkness of a man’s heart is a story as old as the hills, but rarely has there been offered such a stark and intimate viewing of it as yesterday at the main Toronto courthouse.”

Closest to neutral is the approach of the Toronto Star. The quotation marks in “His ‘Dark Secret’” indicate to the reader that the words come from a source and are not necessarily the opinion of the writer or the newspaper. Not surprisingly, the lead to the story is the most straightforward: “Michael Joseph Briere described it as his ‘dark secret,’ an overwhelming desire that consumed his life, a fantasy, he told detectives, to have sex with a young child.”

Here’s a larger point: That the writer’s voice may be more audible when it is shrieking or shouting or cursing. But the voice of the strategically neutral writer is still a voice, one that we need when we try to get at the truth without fear or favor.

Here are some exercises to help you find your authentic voice:

1. Read a draft of a story aloud to a friend or editor. Ask your colleague, “Does this sound like me?” Discuss the response.

2. Read a draft of a story aloud. Can you hear problems in the story that you cannot see?

3. Read any edition of a daily newspaper. Read as many of the leads as possible. Mark them according to their distance from neutrality. Which sound neutral or objective? Which sound opinionated or partisan? Which ones are hot? Or cold?  

4. Read a selection of your stories. Who are your Pips, your back-up singers?  Who do you call on, through allusion or quoting, to harmonize with your voice?

5.  After re-reading some of your stories, make a list of adjectives that you think define your voice, such words as “heavy,” or “aggressive,” or “tentative.”  Now try to identify the effects in your writing that led you to these conclusions? Finally, what strategies in your writing caused these effects?

6. Name a writer whose voice appeals to you. Why? Read a passage from that writer aloud. Pick adjectives that describe that voice: confident, consoling, savvy. Choose the elements in the passage that made you choose those descriptions.