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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: fav.me/d29trfr & fav.me/d69wzol

I also recommend this great article form dailywritingtips.com: www.dailywritingtips.com/sente… and The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr., which you can read for free online here www.crockford.com/wrrrld/style…

For more detail on the subject of active and passive voice, check out this article by onewordatatime: onewordatatime.deviantart.com/…

More of my writing articles can be found here: illuminara.deviantart.com/gall…
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:iconl-k-hollander:
L-K-Hollander Featured By Owner Dec 18, 2014
Passive voice is not just using a helping verb.  S had had a bad dream... . is NOT passive voice.  It is  a VERB FORM, specifically the past perfect tense, which like all other verb _tenses_, indicates time and shows when something happened.  S had had a bad dream--the dream began and ended in the past.  S probably would be in a bad mood... .  Future conditional tense and so forth.

Passive voice consists of a from of the verb 'be', the past tense of another verb and 'by'.  Passive voice would be:  S was surrounded by empty tables.  'Was' is a conjugation of 'be' (S is; S was).  'Surrounded' is the past tense of the verb 'surround'; and 'by' informs the reader by what S was surrounded. 
The ACTIVE VOICE describing this situation would be:  The empty tables surrounded S.  This, however, puts far too much emphasis on the tables.  They become the subject, the actor.  If the author wants to focus on S, she uses the passive voice, which describes S's condition. 

The recent usage of 'active verbs', 'strong verbs' and 'weak verbs' leads only to confusion.  The classic 'strong' verb is an 'irregular' verb, a verb that changes the internal vowel to indicate tense.  Drink, drank, drunk, had drunk; I am, I was, if I were, etc.   Weak verbs use 'ed' ending to indicate past tense:  I walk to the library; I walked to the library; I had walked to the library.  That's all weak and strong mean in connection with verbs. 

Strong verbs may be used in passive voice.  Here it is in the past perfect tense:  The potion had been drunk by S yesterday.  (Active voice would be:  'S had drunk the potion', which action was finished in the past).  So can weak verbs:   'The dog had been washed by S earlier today' is the passive voice and the past perfect tense.  Active voice would be:  'S had washed the dog'.  Again this is the past perfect, describing an action completed in the past.   

 
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:iconleeviii:
leeviii Featured By Owner Dec 7, 2010  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Thank you so much for this, you're a lifesaver (:
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:iconilluminara:
illuminara Featured By Owner Dec 7, 2010  Hobbyist Writer
Glad you liked it! :aww:
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:icondawn5:
Dawn5 Featured By Owner Jul 18, 2010
Yipee! :D I'm not "doomed as a writer"! Good Style and Good Voice ;) I gotta practice more :P This is very helpful :worship: Thanks!
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:iconilluminara:
illuminara Featured By Owner Jul 22, 2010  Hobbyist Writer
Glad you liked it. :aww:
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:icondeenuke:
DeeNuke Featured By Owner Jul 17, 2010  Hobbyist General Artist
Wooo! I passed the test! ;)
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:iconilluminara:
illuminara Featured By Owner Jul 22, 2010  Hobbyist Writer
:w00t:
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:icondeenuke:
DeeNuke Featured By Owner Jul 22, 2010  Hobbyist General Artist
;)
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:iconarthemis-pink:
Arthemis-Pink Featured By Owner Jun 30, 2010  Hobbyist General Artist
This is actually very very very very helpful, even if you aren't a professional writer or editor! thank you for sharing this with us!
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:iconilluminara:
illuminara Featured By Owner Jul 1, 2010  Hobbyist Writer
You're welcome. I'm glad you liked it!
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:iconkeyboard-ninja:
Keyboard-Ninja Featured By Owner Jun 18, 2010  Student Writer
Huh, I hadn't really thought of it like that (or perhaps even at all) until you brought it up in your article. It's certainly given me something to think about... :plotting:
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:iconilluminara:
illuminara Featured By Owner Jul 22, 2010  Hobbyist Writer
=D That's the goal.
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:iconkeyboard-ninja:
Keyboard-Ninja Featured By Owner Jul 22, 2010  Student Writer
:) Well then, I'd say you succeeded admirably.
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:iconcharanty:
Charanty Featured By Owner Mar 18, 2010
I'm not native english speaker so could you please explain what is a voice? As far as i get it's not about the voice we speak with.
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:iconilluminara:
illuminara Featured By Owner Mar 18, 2010  Hobbyist Writer
Voice in fiction is basically the personality of your writing. When you speak, your voice takes on the tone of your emotion: calm, excited, sad, sarcastic, etc. In writing, it's the same way. Except instead of using voice inflections to convey tone, you use things like word choice, sentence structure, etc.

Does that make sense?
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:iconcharanty:
Charanty Featured By Owner Mar 19, 2010
A lot. Thank you)
Reply
:iconspiritglade:
SpiritGlade Featured By Owner Mar 1, 2010  Hobbyist Writer
Helpful! Thank you! I find it easier to write with a voice in first person, but I mainly write in third.
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:iconilluminara:
illuminara Featured By Owner Mar 1, 2010  Hobbyist Writer
Glad it helped! Yeah, I find that voice is easier to write in the first person, too.
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:iconspiritglade:
SpiritGlade Featured By Owner Mar 1, 2010  Hobbyist Writer
Yep, it definitely is. But my novel's in third, so I just need a feel for their voices and that's all.
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:iconilluminara:
illuminara Featured By Owner Mar 1, 2010  Hobbyist Writer
Ah, well good luck with that!
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:iconspiritglade:
SpiritGlade Featured By Owner Mar 2, 2010  Hobbyist Writer
Thanks!
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:iconasjjohnson:
AsjJohnson Featured By Owner Feb 16, 2010  Hobbyist General Artist
hmm... I find myself starting most sentences with she/he, but it's hard for me to figure out a different way to word it. ^_^"
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:iconilluminara:
illuminara Featured By Owner Feb 16, 2010  Hobbyist Writer
There are lots of ways to construct a sentence. I have this whole list at home, but I'm on vacation now and can't get to it. :P Let me see if I can find a good link. Ah-ha, here's the simplest explanation of the six ways to start a sentence ever written: [link]

And here are a couple others that look good: [link] and [link]

Maybe that will help?
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:iconasjjohnson:
AsjJohnson Featured By Owner Feb 16, 2010  Hobbyist General Artist
yeah, those might help. ^_^
I didn't mean to make you look stuff up, though. ^_^"
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:iconilluminara:
illuminara Featured By Owner Feb 16, 2010  Hobbyist Writer
lol I like looking stuff up. Now I have links for future reference and can point people to them instead of having to explain it myself. :XD:
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:iconasjjohnson:
AsjJohnson Featured By Owner Feb 23, 2010  Hobbyist General Artist
hmm... Today I thought I'd work on a Bleach fanfic I'd started awhile ago.
After awhile, I kind'a realized I started every sentence with "he" or some version of it. >_>"
I looked some at those links you gave me, but... I still can't figure out another way of wording things without changing the meaning. v_v (and I almost used "lay" three times...)
Could you point me in the right direction...? ^_^"

Ichigo lay on the blue, tile floor. He looked peaceful, with his head facing up at a slight angle and his bangs falling to the side. His eyes were closed and his eyebrows were just barely furrowed. His chest rose and fell in long, slow breaths. His left arm lay partway over his chest, while his right was outstretched. His zanpakuto, Tensa Zangetsu, was a few inches from his open palm.
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:iconliquid-etherealism:
liquid-etherealism Featured By Owner Feb 10, 2010   Photographer
Finally explained! So helpful to me! :heart: I read a bunch of your tutorials on Saturday :D. They're thorough without the wordiness, and I've learned quite a few things.
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:iconilluminara:
illuminara Featured By Owner Feb 11, 2010  Hobbyist Writer
Glad to hear it! And I'm glad you liked them. I'm a proponent of keeping the world BS free.
Reply
:iconliquid-etherealism:
liquid-etherealism Featured By Owner Feb 12, 2010   Photographer
LOL! That's great :D
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:iconskysongma:
SkysongMA Featured By Owner Jan 26, 2010  Student Writer
Very nicely stated. There is little bullshit in this, which is always the best judge of advice on writing. Especially since most stuff written about style and voice is nothing but.

Also, I liked how you actually had examples. That makes it so much easier to understand the difference than just a definition (as well as making this a tool instead of just a reference).
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:iconilluminara:
illuminara Featured By Owner Jan 27, 2010  Hobbyist Writer
Thanks. I abhor BS, and there seems to be a lot of it going around. I think people resort to it when they don't really know what they're talking about.

Indeed. I don't know about you, but it's always helped me to see things visually. Anyhow, glad you liked it!
Reply
:iconskysongma:
SkysongMA Featured By Owner Jan 27, 2010  Student Writer
EXACTLY. I mean, I know the difference, but I also know I couldn't define it, and I wouldn't try because I'd totally be pulling it out of my ass. I think a lot of people try anyway to sound smart.

Your writing about writing is just fantabulous. :)
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:iconilluminara:
illuminara Featured By Owner Jan 28, 2010  Hobbyist Writer
lol yeah, they do. It's annoying when people think they know everything but really don't. I don't claim to know everything, but I try to explain what I do know in a way other people can understand. And sometimes I don't realize I know something until I sit down and think about it. Then, cue writing tutorial. :XD:

Thanks!
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:iconpjfriel:
PJFriel Featured By Owner Jan 16, 2010  Professional Digital Artist
Nicely explained. I enjoyed reading this and will be sure to tuck it away for future reference. :)
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:iconilluminara:
illuminara Featured By Owner Jan 17, 2010  Hobbyist Writer
Thanks. Glad you liked it and found it useful!
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:iconnihilio:
Nihilio Featured By Owner Jan 15, 2010  Hobbyist Writer
Actually I think #4 also has a bad style, for reasons oppossite of #3: It is too busy showing off its style it becomes bad.
But I can see your point and that matters here.

Overall, nice article and passes the point quite effectively.
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:iconilluminara:
illuminara Featured By Owner Jan 19, 2010  Hobbyist Writer
Gotta exaggerate for illustrative purposes. ;)

Thanks. The point isn't that you should write exactly like this but simply that you should apply the basic concept to your own writing.
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:iconnihilio:
Nihilio Featured By Owner Jan 19, 2010  Hobbyist Writer
I know
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:iconstarcraftor:
Starcraftor Featured By Owner Jan 14, 2010
I think referring to this will probably help more with my writing all my years in public schools. Thank you, first off, and secondly, I'll let you know how much it helps.
Reply
:iconilluminara:
illuminara Featured By Owner Jan 15, 2010  Hobbyist Writer
:aww: Thanks! I'm glad you found it useful, and I hope you're able to continue to improve your writing skills.
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:icondrizzerey:
Drizzerey Featured By Owner Jan 13, 2010  Professional General Artist
I keep going back and forth between all four examples in my own writing, and every time I try to fix it, I still see it either doesn't sound right or it is just plain weak so I keep re-writing it over and over, and I swear I have done all of these examples at least several times in the same piece >.>;
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:iconilluminara:
illuminara Featured By Owner Jan 13, 2010  Hobbyist Writer
It sounds like you need to give yourself a break! Just take a deep breath and think about what you're trying to accomplish with what you're writing. Think about what the character sees and does and how they feel and how you want the reader to feel, and then just write it.

Concentrate on the feeling rather than trying to word everything just right. You can change things around over and over without really fixing anything if you're too focused on the form of your words rather than the emotional impact of them (at least in my own experience). You don't have to be perfect to effectively write what you see and feel.

I hope that helps!
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:icondrizzerey:
Drizzerey Featured By Owner Jan 14, 2010  Professional General Artist
well I write every once in a while, and I guess I never really concentrate on what I want to put down, there is just a scene playing in my head and I try to get it down before it drives me insane.

Actually I like that advice alot, it simplifies what I usually try to write that ends up being a series of run on sentences cause I can't make up my mind and keep trying to put all this detail down, then later delete alot of it cause I hate too much detail. Thank you :)
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:iconchaldemone:
Chaldemone Featured By Owner Jan 13, 2010
Is it just me or are there two spaces between all sentences (in the same paragraph)? Also. Example two. It's "bail", not "bale".
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:iconilluminara:
illuminara Featured By Owner Jan 13, 2010  Hobbyist Writer
There are two spaces. Thanks, I'll fix it!
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:iconchaldemone:
Chaldemone Featured By Owner Jan 13, 2010
No problem. :)
Reply
:iconulyferal:
ulyferal Featured By Owner Jan 13, 2010  Hobbyist Writer
It took me a couple of years of writing to get my style and voice working in tandem. I'd like to think my current work reflects how much I've improved since I started.

I love this explanation. It's perfect and clear and just what I needed to see to know I have learned my lessons and learned them well.

Thank you for taking the time and simplifying it for us all.
Reply
:iconilluminara:
illuminara Featured By Owner Jan 14, 2010  Hobbyist Writer
I know the feeling. It took me years to even figure out what voice is and even longer to figure out what good style is.

Thanks! I'm glad you like it. :aww:
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:iconwolvenmoon:
Wolvenmoon Featured By Owner Jan 13, 2010  Hobbyist General Artist
Thanks for the info!

I'm still simply flailing about in my writing style and voice, but this brings me closer to my end goal of writing a publishable novel.

Being critical, I'd say you might want to make a bigger distinction between active versus passive voice.
Reply
:iconilluminara:
illuminara Featured By Owner Jan 13, 2010  Hobbyist Writer
You're welcome! Glad you liked it.

It takes some time and experimentation to figure out what your writing style is all about.

I could, but that's a different topic for another time, and there are already good articles written on the subject.
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