Author Topic: The wonderful thing called voice  (Read 381 times)

Joe Carillo

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The wonderful thing called voice
« on: July 09, 2024, 06:50:49 PM »
Voice is the sound of writing done well, whether read silently or spoken aloud. Many attempts have been done to define it, but there simply is no way to tell what it means in a few words. To say that voice is the hallmark of a good writing style, to say that it is writing that succeeds in some way to becoming music, is to beg the question. But of one thing we can be sure: voice is the signature sound of a writer who knows his subject delightfully well and feels about it deeply, someone who can deftly orchestrate the various instruments of the writing craft to make an intimate connection with the unseen reader.

To get a better idea of what voice is, let’s first take a look at an otherwise competent writing that doesn’t seem to show emotion or feeling about its subject:

“One point of view envisions light as wave-like in nature, producing energy that traverses through space in a manner similar to the ripples spreading across the surface of a still pond after being disturbed by a dropped rock. The opposing view holds that light is composed of a steady stream of particles, much like tiny droplets of water sprayed from a garden hose nozzle. During the past few centuries, the consensus of opinion has wavered with one view prevailing for a period of time, only to be overturned by evidence for the other. Only during the first decades of the twentieth century was enough compelling evidence collected to provide a comprehensive answer, and to everyone's surprise, both theories turned out to be correct, at least in part.”

That scrupulously technical description by two US-based scientists, Kenneth Spring and Michael Davidson, has been divested of all emotional content to achieve objectivity. The writers evidently didn’t want to be perceived as being even a little bit personal about the subject.

Now compare that passage with this one that speaks with a truly authentic voice about light:

“It’s so bright. Some years ago they measured the light at Siorapaluk in Greenland. From December to February, when the sun is gone. People imagine eternal night. But there are stars and the moon, and now and then the northern lights. And the snow. They registered the same amount of lumens as outside a medium-sized provincial town in Denmark. That’s how I remember my childhood, too—that we always played outside, and that it was always light. In those days we took light for granted. A child takes so many things for granted. With time, you ask to start questions.”

This is Danish novelist Peter Høeg speaking through Smilla Jaspersen in Smilla’s Sense of Snow, and it’s delightfully obvious that he not only knows the Scandinavian light intimately but feels strongly about it and isn’t afraid or ashamed to say so.

The two passages above clearly show at least three important requirements for achieving voice in writing. First, we must feed our prose with the fuel of facts; the more facts we have in our head about the subject, the more confident and convincing we will be in talking about it. Writing that aspires to be read seriously cannot proceed with the skimpiest backing of facts. We can be convincing only about the things we know very well, and our knowledge and informed opinion can only come from experience or honest-to-goodness research. Rarely are readers interested in the many fleeting views and whimsies that percolate in our minds; they want to know how our knowledge and thoughts can fill in the gaps in their own knowledge and confirm or debunk their own beliefs or conjectures.

Second, we can have a convincing voice if we really know our readers well, for only then can we address them properly. Discovering their wavelength is thus as basic in writing as calibrating the register of our voice for our day-to-day interactions. We know, for instance, that we instinctively use a different language register when talking to our superiors, peers, subordinates, family members, and strangers; a wrong register could be catastrophic to our relationships.

Our writing register should be arrived at with the same care and precision, and it greatly helps to clearly visualize in our minds just one single person as our reader, writing to that person and to absolutely no other. This approach is like having a fireside chat with the reader, a congenial situation that can effectively insulate us from the distracting predispositions and demands of other readers who may not really be interested in what we have to say.

Third and last, we need to invest our very own views and feelings into our writing. We have to show in no uncertain terms our own emotional attitude toward the subject. The first passage we gave as example has a preponderance of facts, but its writer chose to take a hands-off attitude about them. The second by Peter Høeg has a similar preponderance of facts, but he embraced them and invested in them his unique personal view of the world. That makes all the difference between writing without a voice and writing that rings true with one.

This essay first appeared in my “English Plain and Simple” column in The Manila Times and subsequently became Chapter 123 of my book Give Your English the Winning Edge, ©2009 and published by the Manila Times Publishing Corp.

Read this essay and listen to its voice recording in The Manila Times:
The wonderful thing called voice

*Check out Chris Freese’s “Voice in Writing: Developing a Unique Writing Voice” in

Next week: The sensible way to write      (July 18, 2024)

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« Last Edit: July 11, 2024, 12:10:18 PM by Joe Carillo »