When Billie Holiday, Janis Joplin, or even Rob Thomas sings a tune, you know exactly who is singing before the artist is identified. Another person could sing the same lyrics in the same tone, but wouldn’t have their unique voice. For example, here are clips of Billie Holiday and Janice Joplin singing Summertime:
Background: Great writers also have a unique “voice,” –but if it isn’t in their exact words, then what is it and how is it achieved?
Kurt Vonnegut wrote about EB White:
“No one would care how well or how badly [he] expressed himself, if he did not have perfectly enchanting things to say.”
To me, the author’s voice is between the words. It’s not his style, but underneath that. The voice is what the writer has to say: thoughts on life and the idiosyncrasies of individuals. Yes, the voice comes through themes, word choice, pacing and tone … but it’s deeper.
Voice isn’t something that an author should “try” to achieve. For example, I write mysteries, but certainly hope I’m expressing thoughts on the human condition between gunshots and interrogations. My “voice” is those ideas expressed between the words. That’s why people love crime fiction, because of the human foibles it brings to the surface.
So to me, the “voice” is what the writer has to say; the style is how he dresses it (with words, plot, characters, punctuation, etc.).
An author’s voice grows and changes with the author’s growth as a person. If you want to work on your voice, live a great life. Do interesting things, cross boundaries, and master the rare art of listening.
PS: This blog is based on a post I made to the Absolute Write Water Cooler, an international writers forum. I highly recommend joining (it’s free) because our best thoughts come through communication. If two heads are better than one, imagine 10,000!