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January 13, 2010
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A Writer's Guide to Style vs. Voice

Here on dA, there seems to be a lot of confusion and general mass hysteria when it comes to the subjects of writing style and voice.  What are they?  What's the difference?  Can you write one without the other?  How important are they, anyhow?  Do you really need either of them?  Wait, what are they again?

Style is the form and structure with which you write.

Voice is the attitude and perspective with which you write.

In other words, voice is the emotion and feeling of a piece of literature, and style is the technical way of communicating that emotion.

Clearly, there is a tangible difference between the two.  Style is a delivery system for voice.  While voice can and should affect the form with which you write, you can most certainly write one without the other.  However, the best writing is a masterful fusion of both.  

I'm here to illustrate for you the difference between style and voice and to define exactly what they are and how you can use them together to create a powerful piece of literature.  To do that, I'll share four examples.  

Example #1 - Bad Style and Bad Voice:

Shelly had woken up on the wrong side of the bed.  She'd had a bad dream, and now she was in a bad mood.  She would probably be in a bad mood for the rest of the day.  She wasn't even hungry for breakfast.  Shelly didn't think she would be in the mood to hang out with her friends at school that day.

Why does this piece have bad style?  Because every sentence is structured basically the same way.  It starts with the subject and states directly what the subject did.  There's no variation, no pep, no life, no flow, no spark.  It'd just there.

Why does this piece have bad voice?  Because it's completely passive, which is revealed by the use of the words "had," "was," and "be."  The author is telling us how the character feels instead of letting the character show us for herself.  Also, it's bad because it exudes no dynamic attitude or perspective or tension.  It's just there.

Example #2 - Good Style and Bad Voice:

Shelly woke up on the wrong side of the bed.  After having a nightmare like that, there was no way she'd be in a good mood--probably so much so that she'd bail on her friends after school.  She wasn't even hungry for breakfast.

This piece has good style because it mixes up sentence structures and adds a bit if spice with punctuation and phrasing.  Even though it says almost exactly the same thing as the first piece, it's more dynamic because of the way it's structured.  The format keeps your eyes moving and your mind engaged.  It keeps connected thoughts and ideas flowing throughout a single sentence while breaking out different thoughts into their own, simpler sentences.

This piece has bad voice for the same reason the first example has bad voice.  It's still passive, even though it seems to be more active because of the improved style.  The character herself still shows no attitude or perspective.

Example #3 - Bad Style and Good Voice

Shelly woke up panting for breath.  Adrenaline rushed through her body as the images from her nightmare faded.  She suddenly heard a scratch at her window and screamed.  She realized it was just a tree and took a deep breath to calm herself.  She knew she would be on edge all day after this and doubted she'd feel like hanging out with her friends like she'd planned.  She slowly willed herself to get out of bed.  The fear in the pit of her stomach made her feel like she might vomit.

This piece has bad style for the same reason the first piece has bad style--the sentences are structured almost identically.  There is no flow of ideas, no stylistic emphasis to breathe life into the voice and compliment it.  It's just there.

This piece has good voice, on the other had, because it actually gets inside the character's head.  It shows the reader what she's doing, thinking, and feeling.  It gives us pictures instead of just words.  We begin to feel what the character feels, to see what the character sees, and that's the whole point of storytelling.  It's about connecting with your reader on an emotional level.  Then they'll care what happens to the character and keep reading to see what she'll do next.  That requires that she actively does something, not that something simply happens to her.

Example #4 - Good Style and Good Voice

Shelly woke up panting for breath, adrenaline rushing through her body as the images from her nightmare faded.  Something scratched at her window, and she covered her mouth in a muffled scream.

Once she took a few deep breaths, she looked more closely at the window and realized the noise came from a tree branch outside.  She still felt jumpy but slowly willed herself to get out of bed.  Would she feel up to hanging out with her friends after dark that night like they'd planned?  She doubted it--the fear in the pit of her stomach already made her feel like she might vomit.

This piece gives perspective and attitude as well as delivering emotion in a dynamic way.  Yes, it takes more space than just telling, but showing brings emotions to a head.  It gets the reader involved in the story, which should be every writer's goal.  

Hopefully, these visual examples have helped illustrate the difference between style and voice as well as how they can be used together to create dynamic and vivid prose.
As a disclaimer, I'm not a professional writer or editor, and I've never seen style and voice defied exactly like this in any book. However, I have studied the subject of writing enough to have discovered this on my own. Whether or not you think I'm correct or a credible source is up to you.

For more information on writing style, check out my other articles on the subject: [link] & [link]

I also recommend this great article form [link] and The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr., which you can read for free online here [link]

For more detail on the subject of active and passive voice, check out this article by ~onewordatatime: [link]

More of my writing articles can be found here: [link]

:bulletred: Note me with questions or comments. :bulletred:
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