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Understanding Voice and Style

Understanding Voice and Style

Feb 20, 2013 - Posted to  Writing in General
We all know that writers use different styles depending on what they're writing and who they're writing for. For example, if you look at an online gossip site and textbook side-by-side, it's probably going to be pretty easy to tell the difference. But what sets apart diverse types of writing? Besides the content (which is obviously one of the big differences between a gossip site and your math book) writers also have to adopt their writing style to suit the many different uses we put words to every day. After all, even two websites covering the same topic can publish articles that sounds pretty different, so what exactly produces a writer's distinctive style?

Style, voice, and tone

Style is the particular personality that a writer brings to his or her work. This is often referred to as the writer's voice, and just like how everybody's voice sounds a little bit different, so too does every writer's voice look a little bit different from everybody else's. Think of a writer's voice the same way you would a singers voice: two singers can take the same lyrics and instruments and make two completely different sounding songs. A writer's voice is the result of the choices he or she makes about issues like word choice, punctuation, and sentence construction (more on that later). Tone, which is a similar concept, often gets lumped in with voice and style, but it's actually its own separate category that describes the mood of the work. If we compare writing to singing again, voice would be the personal style the singer brings to a song, and tone would be the mood of the music itself.

What goes into creating a voice?

Every time you sit down to type, whether it's an academic paper or an email, you're making choices about what kind of words you use and how you use them. You might include a funny joke in an email to your friend or use technical jargon in a lab report for chemistry class. When you're making those decisions, you're actually creating a voice for yourself without even realizing it. Every little choice you make when you write adds up to a distinctive style, but there are a few key categories that help define a writer's voice.

Diction/word choice

One of the biggest distinctions between writing styles is word choice. The English language is full of words that have closely related meanings and there are often dozens of ways you could choose to communicate your ideas, which means that the words your choose are usually a reflection of your own style. For instance, in a persuasive piece aimed at teenagers you might choose to use slang or abbreviations, while for academic writing you might rely on more technical vocabulary. But even within the same genre, writers can create widely differing types of works just playing with word choice - think of the southern, simple dialect used by the characters in a William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying versus the eloquent and introspective narrator of The Great Gatsby. Of course, there are lots of other stylistic differences between those novels, but the languages used by the characters is one of the most important.

Sentence structure

A sentence needs to have a subject and a verb, but other than those two rules, a writer has a whole lot of leeway in how they choose to put sentences together. You can stick with a straightforward "subject-verb-object" style, or you can add flourishes like prepositional phrases and subordinate clauses. A lot of these choices will depend on who's reading your work. For example, material aimed at younger readers should have simpler sentences that texts produced for older or more sophisticated audiences, and scientific writing tends to favor simpler constructions as well. On the other hand, writing long, intricate sentences is a hallmark of many famous fiction writers, and choosing to use more complex syntax is a way to create a distinctive voice.


Much like sentence structure, as a writer you have a lot of leeway when it comes to deciding what type of punctuation you want to use. Now, it might not seem as dramatic or obvious as some of the other issues listed above, but it can make a difference when it comes to how your work is perceived by the reader. For example, punctuation such as dashes and exclamation marks are generally seen as more casual, so when you use them it will make your work more conversational than academic. Another example of how strongly punctuation can inform voice can be seen in the work of writer Cormac McCarthy, who creates a distinctive style by not using quotation marks in dialogue.

Literary devices

The use of literary devices such as metaphors, alliteration, and foreshadowing will also help build an author's signature voice. There are dozens of these literary tricks out there (way too many to get into here), and every writer is going to use them in his or her own way. But, no matter what kind of text you're working with, literary devices almost always part of the writing and reading experience.

How to develop your voice

Every time you start working on a writing project, you should have some idea what kind of voice you want to project. Keep in mind that, as a writer, your voice doesn't need to be identical in everything you write. While it's likely that many of your particular stylistic quirks will pop up no matter what you're working on, it's still possible, and often necessary, to tailor your voice to meet the needs of specific project.
  • Think about your audience. Knowing who's going to be reading what you write is the first key to developing a strong voice. Every text is written with a purpose, so know what you want to accomplish before you start writing. Will you work be for a specific teacher? For publication in a professional journal? For an online newspaper? Once you've identified your audience, ask yourself how you can tailor your work to their needs. Are there specific terms they already know or that will to have defined? What is the audience's reading level? Do you need to keep things simple or should you use more complex details?
  • Be clear about your message. Before you start to write you also need to be clear with yourself about what you're trying to tell the audience you identified. What message or information do you want readers to take away from your work? Whatever the point of your writing is will inform your voice. If you wanted to convey factual information, you would use simple sentences and clear language, but if you wanted simply to entertain the reader, you might rely more on off-the-wall word choices or the clever use of literary devices.
  • Decide how you want to be perceived. Knowing how you want readers to perceive you as a writer will also affect what kind of voice you choose to use, so think about how you want readers to respond to your work. Do you want them to think that you're a reliable source of unbiased information? Just another fun, friendly guy? An authority on a particular topic? Issues like word choice, sentence structure, and the use of literary devices all shape how the reader thinks about you, which in turn will shape how they think about the content of your work.
Once you've clarified these three ideas, it's time to think about what you can do the shape your writing voice to fit those needs. Clearly there are too many types of writing projects out there for this article to cover them all, but there are a few things you can do to help improve your control over your writing style. By far the best advice for learning how to build a voice is simply to read a whole bunch. Then, go read some more. It's the best way to figure out the options you have for changing up your style as well as choices you can make when it comes to how you present your work. As you're reading, take note of your reactions to the text and what aspects of the style created that feeling. Then, next time you want to write a piece that projects a certain voice, you can look back at similar works to see how other writers accomplished their style.
The best thing to remember about voice is that it's personal. Your style should be a reflection of who you are as a writer; it should showcase what you think is important, entertaining, or effective. There are as many styles of writing as there are writers, which means you shouldn't be scared to strike out on your own and create a unique, authentic style that's special to you. Be careful, though, that you use that style wisely. While it' great to experiment with diction, sentence structure, and everything else that goes into writing, you want to make sure that the finished product meets the needs of whatever project you're working on.
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