A few days ago, a friend asked me how to develop her voice as a writer. Voice and style are two facets of writing that we hear about all the time, but sometimes, the terms are mixed up or used interchangeably. Voice is the sort of thing, where in the moment that you actively look for it, it disappears; when you try to deliberately create it, the end result never looks quite right. In my view, voice is the absence of artifice in writing. It’s what you have when you have just yourself.
I told my friend to look at logs of her instant messaging conversations and any other textual remains of casual conversations she’d had with good friends. That kind of writing is the closest thing we have to visual records of spoken conversation. And usually, voice shines through in those instances.
I know that critics love to laud a writer’s voice. Don’t let that send you into a panic. Don’t worry about developing your voice–you’ll recognize it when you see it. And it will develop on its own, if you keep writing. If you want to see an example of excellent use of voice with a very pared down, academic style, The New York Review of Books published a rebuttal in reply to a letter to the editor (which was written in reaction to a book review). The entire kerfuffle happened over 10 years ago. But the ensuing discussion serves as a perfect example of well-developed voice and Spartan style (not to mention perfect use of language to deconstruct a fallacious argument).
Style is the opposite of voice. We see style in the intentional flourish. The topic of Tim Burton films came up just yesterday at the copy desk–specifically, his adaptation of the creepy soap opera, Dark Shadows, is on my “must watch” list. My co-workers politely voiced their distaste for Burton productions.
Why? Mostly, they don’t like his style–they don’t enjoy the macabre humor, the darkness lingering just beyond the punchline, the insinuation that the visible monster is nothing compared to the darkness that can be found in the human heart. Burton’s work is often playful, occasionally depressing, and quite willfully and consciously created. These characteristics are characteristics of style; I bet Burton is playful by default, but he deliberately focuses on that trait and nurtures it in his work.
In short, don’t worry about finding the “perfect” style and voice. If you want to, work on finding a style you enjoy; it may very well change from piece to piece. Leave voice alone; it will come around on its own. And enjoy watching both your voice and style change as you continue to grow as a writer.
Jane Silverman is a good copy editor and a lousy cook. She likes dinosaurs and martial arts.