“Preserve the author’s voice,” editors are commonly told. But what IS voice?
What Voice Is
Voice is that quality of writing that makes you recognize the author. It is word choice, rhythm, order of thought, tense, a tendency toward open or closed punctuation. It’s the author’s way of putting words together into a unique perspective.
Voice is how you recognize the words of Tina Fey or Terry O’Reilly in print immediately, though you’ve only ever heard them speak before. It’s how you know a text is from your mother. It’s how you recognize any impersonation with your eyes closed.
It’s why the exact same set of story facts can be covered by an entertainment rag and an international news outlet and yet read completely differently.
How to STET
“Why use a five dollar word when a fifty cent one will do?” a copy editor* once queried on my article. “Because, voice!” I wrote back. Not to mention that my word choice was a better fit for the meaning I was trying to convey, and (as the managing editor put it) “our readers are sophisticated enough to handle this word.”
If the change you want to suggest is an option—not “wrong” and not a change demanded by the style guide—let it stand. Though vs although is a matter of voice: formal vs informal (or less formal).
If it doesn’t compromise content, reading level (accessibility), or copy fitting—let it stand.
If it’s “not the way you’d say it,” let it stand (that's what STET means, in editor shorthand).
How to Practice Recognizing (and Writing) Voice
Volunteering as a narrator at the CNIB (Canadian National Institute for the Blind) made editor Dimitra Chronopoulos pay closer attention to words: “It’s another thing to read them out loud. Reading aloud increased my appreciation for language and the variety of language,” Chronopoulos said. “Hearing what things sound like aloud builds an editor’s ability to hear the music in language.”
Expand beyond the printed page to engage your ears in identifying voice. Listen to audiobooks and radio. Consider the particular tone of the characters in movies and television shows.
It can also be insightful to examine which suggested edits your authors accept and which they reject, Chronopoulos said. “When I talked to [one] author about why she accepted some edits but not others, it was all about the rhythm and sound of it. That, to me, is fascinating.
When to Eliminate Voice
There are some times voice doesn’t matter. In fact, sometimes it’s not appropriate for the writing to have personality: Voice can get in the way of understanding technical instructions. And sometimes we need a multi-contributor work—I can’t call them authors when they’re writing eight sentences each—to sound like it was written by one person.
Of course, boring is a particular voice, and there are documents where that is desirable. Contracts would be one example, schedules and itineraries are another likely example.
There are also genres in which passive voice is favored; academic journals are one traditional example. Even that is a “voice.”
*I have been guilty of making this same author query myself. Seeing it from the other side of the desk puts it in a whole new light.