In a nutshell, “Voice” is what you have when you get a sense of the writer’s personality from reading his/her words. You can’t see the writer’s face, but you get a sense of who they are from their voice.
The Voice is the writer coming through the words, the sense that a real person is speaking to us and cares about the message. It is the heart and soul of the writing, the magic, the wit, the feeling, the life and breath. When the writer is engaged personally with the topic, he/she imparts a personal tone and flavor to the piece that is unmistakably his/hers alone. And it is that individual something—different from the mark of all other writers—that we call voice.
—Source: random piece of paper @ 2004 from a graduate course that I recently retrieved from the floor of my home-office
People often have a characteristic rhythm to their speech and an overall perspective. The voice of a company comes across as the sense of perspective you get from reading the company’s literature. What kind of “person” are we? Are we intelligent? Coddling? Liberal? Wild? Direct? Indirect? That all comes across in voice.
Literature provides some great examples of voice:
Dr. Strauss says I should rite down what I think and remembir and evrey thing that happins to me from now on. I dont no why but he says its importint so they will see if they can use me. I hope they use me becaus Miss Kinnian says maybe they can make me smart. I want to be smart.
—Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like “I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive….” And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas.
—Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson
Sergey Ulasen is not the sort of person you’d expect to find at the center of an international incident. The thirty-one-year-old Belarusian has close-cropped blond hair, a lean boyish frame, and the open face and affable demeanor of someone who goes through life attracting few enemies and even fewer controversies.
—Countdown to Zero Day by Kim Zetter
But after a month or so I began to hesitate again. It struck me that it was playing it a bit low-down on the poor chap, avoiding him like this just when he probably wanted his pals to surge round him most. I pictured him sitting in his lonely studio with no company but his bitter thoughts, and the pathos of it got me to such an extent that I bounded straight into a taxi and told the driver to go all out for the studio.
—Carry On, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse
Once these preparations were completed, he was anxious to wait no longer before putting his ideas into effect, impelled to this by the thought of the loss the world suffered by his delay, seeing the grievances there were to redress, the wrongs to right, the injuries to amend, the abuses to correct, and the debts to discharge.
—Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
With each passing year she looked more like a human being. (I can’t say as much for most of my friends.) I felt embarrassed changing my clothes in front of her. My friend Sevostyanov used to say, ‘She’s the only normal member of your family.’
—Ours: A Russian Family Album by Sergei Dovlatov
‘You are surrounded by loving machines, hating machines, greedy machines, unselfish machines, brave machines, cowardly machines, truthful machines, lying machines, funny machines, solemn machines,’ he read. ‘Their only purpose is to stir you up in every conceivable way, so the Creator of the Universe can watch your reactions. They can no more feel or reason than grandfather clocks.’
—Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut
These are a few examples of Voice and there are many, many others, of course. From the examples above, test yourself. Who is the speaker? What kind of person are they? Why do you think so? Are they reliable? Do you trust them? Do you want to hang out with them? Are they interesting? Entertaining? Honest? Smart? Dependable? Exhausting? Someone you’d trust with your money? Or, your wife?
The question I encounter is how do you write as though you were someone else? And this is how I break it down:
If I’m a smart person, I’m going to give you some facts. I’m not going to hedge. I can prove it and I will.
If I’m an honest person, I’m going to take a stand on an issue. You might not like where I stand, but I’m going to let you decide. I’m not going to take that away from you. You’ll know who I am. You know you can trust me because I’ve trusted you with something you might not like about me. Something that might make you decide to walk away. I’ve taken that risk even though I want you to stay—maybe more than anything.
If I’m reliable, I’m going to keep my word. I’ll do what I say. How does this come across in voice? I’m not sure, but I won’t be doing a lot of talking. My reliability is so much a part of me that I don’t have to prove it. I don’t have to rely on cunning or an excess of words and explanation. I am straightforward; I use direct speech with little embellishment.
If I’m an innovative person, an inventor, a leading edge thought leader, I’m going to be excited about that. I’m going to have a passion for discovery. I might talk a little more quickly and display a little more energy. There’s an inner happiness that stems from my joy of discovery that I’m going to share with you. I want you to come along with me. I want you to see the cool things that I see.
Well, anyway, that’s how I perceive Voice.
- Does the reader feel a strong interaction with the writer? Do you sense a person/personality behind the words?
- Writer reveals who they are, their attitudes, opinions. They take a risk.
- You find yourself thinking about and reacting to the writer’s point of view.