What’s That You Say? (One Editor’s Definition of “Voice”)

Well, here it is — the infamous “voice” post you’ve all been waiting for. I’ll admit, I’m more than a little concerned about it living up to expectations, but I guess we’ll wait and see. (Also, for those who missed my warning on Twitter earlier in the week, get ready for quite a lot of snark.)

Before we dive into the meat of it though, I’d like to provide a little context. Recently, I’ve noticed a distinct lack of understanding regarding this concept. Not just in the rightly confused writers, but in my fellow editors, in beta readers, and even in critique partners (not mine, I should note. Mine are awesome). And since my mission is often to help provide those looking for answers with a new, probably somewhat unconventional avenue for finding perspective on all things literary, I decided it was time to tackle the hydra known as “voice.”

Normally, I like to focus on the fundamental mechanics of storytelling, the foundation beneath the words. And if you’ve spent any time here, you’ll know that I usually advocate for seeing beyond the letters printed on the page. Not today. Today, we’re going to pay attention to the actual words. This one, in particular:

“Voice”

How many of you shuddered as you read that just now? My guess would be several. Because “voice” is one of those literary terms that quickly becomes the bane of a writer’s existence. It floats around the outskirts of Pretentious-ville, trying too hard to fit in with the cool kids and avoid being “defined.” Which is why you end up with a plethora of obfuscated explanations and half-assed deflections that leave you feeling just as lost as when you started. Am I right? Not even the industry pros can always define it. (Which, by the way, is a great test for choosing who you work with.) So then, if it’s so hard to explain, what the heck is it?

The short answer is that there are at least two layers to voice: author and character. (And, if you really get the wrong industry pro, editor. But that’s bad. You should never hear us in your  work.) Still with me? Good. Now, let’s define those a little more.

  • Author Voice = the particular way an author weaves together a narrative. It’s one part style, one part storytelling sense, and one part personal experience.
  • Character Voice = the specific filter an author puts over the story to create a unique persona, otherwise known as character. (Why, thank you, Captain Obvious.)
  • Editor Voice = what happens when you get either a Grammarian editor, who then strips both of the above from your work, or what I call a Personal Preference Editor, who morphs your voice to fit their own perceptions and style. Hence why I said this category was bad.

Now, if you’re at all like me, your brain is probably slamming on the brakes with the same effort it does when faced with math. Which is to say, an all-out, mind-numbing denial topped with a resounding “huh?” Don’t worry, though. I’m gonna fix that.

This is the point where most conversations on “voice” wander away from the topic, letting it drop quickly and with as much recognition as one would give that weird fourth cousin everyone avoids at the wedding because they can’t possibly be from your family. Why? Because this is where someone either proves they understand the concept or steps royally in the massive steaming pile of road apples.

(Please, God, let me avoid the road apples.)

All right, so, the formal definition of “voice” is this: “a combination of common usage of syntax, diction, punctuation, character development, dialogue, etc.” Right, so that encompasses pretty much everything. Helpful. (See? I told you the industry pros couldn’t always define it.)

My definition of voice is a little different, probably because I, myself, am a little different. Anyway, I define it like this:

Author Voice = the camera we view the story through.

Character Voice = the lens used to alter the way we perceive it.

I’m about to mix some crazy metaphors, so bear with me. Basically, I view an author like a director. Every single decision they make is made with a conscious intent to convey something, from the way they build the scenes, to the angles they show the action from, to the perceptions of the characters and their individual motivations. Regardless of how the story is presented in terms of point-of-view, narrative tense, etc, the author’s consciousness pervades the entire thing.

Character voice, on the other hand, is used to create a specific interpretation, like placing a fish-eye lens on a camera or a filter that paints everything with a red tint. Character voice is a costume placed on top of the author’s natural one, creating something completely separate and yet still intrinsically part of the author. Think actors in a play. Same underlying person, different “personas.”

Both types of voice rely on things like syntax, cadence, diction, personality, emotion, and motivation, but they use them in distinctly different ways. The best analogy is music. (I told you I was going to be jumping around in my metaphors.) Think about the vast difference between a rock song, a folk/acoustic song, and a country song. Same basic instruments — guitars, drums, vocals, maybe some strings — but entirely different effects. Which leads me to the point that spawned this whole article:

“Voice” can (and should) be literally heard while reading.

This is the key to a brilliant editor, beta reader, or CP, and it’s the thing I’ve noticed many missing lately. Editors MUST be able to distinguish not only the author’s voice, but the character’s as well. Which is a skill that goes way beyond simply understanding the rules of grammar. Good editors have ears as finely tuned as a musician’s; it’s how we identify areas that need to be fixed. We literally “hear” it.

(I’m not talking about structural development here, just to be clear. Structural/Developmental editing is an entirely different beast, and is much more visually oriented. In my opinion, “voice” falls within the realm of line/copy editing, because that’s where most of the problems lie, line by line.)

What does “voice” sound like to an editor? Well, ideally, it sounds like someone sitting there and telling us the story. We hear their accents, the cadence and rhythm to their voice, the unique way they spin a sentence, the word choices they make, all the things you would notice if you were talking to someone face to face. Which makes it super obvious when you come across the written equivalent of someone stumbling over their words, or a character suddenly using a word that’s so outside their normal vocabulary its painful. It’s jarring. In its most minor form, it’s like hearing an off note in an otherwise rockin’ song. At its worst, it makes your character suddenly sound like a completely different person.

I even have the perfect example for you: (Oh, don’t scoff. We all know you’ve secretly sung along to this in your car at least once.)
 

 
Okay, did you hear it? Cookies to whoever guesses where I’m going with this first. 😉

If you didn’t catch it, play it again; only this time, don’t watch the video, just listen. Notice how that final line suddenly sounds like a completely different person? It isn’t; it’s still Idina Menzel, but her voice shifts completely, to the point that I had to look up whether the speaking-voice actress and singing-voice actress were the same. (It’s common in animation for them to be different people.) Anyway, that’s what it sounds like to an editor when there’s a problem with “voice” in a manuscript.

But identifying it is the easy part. Even normal readers can do that. It’s what comes next that requires real skill.

See, once the problem has been identified, the editor has to make suggestions for how to fix it. And that brings us back to my initial comment on the importance of them understanding voice. An effective editor will provide the exact suggestion to fit a) the author’s underlying voice, and b) the character’s. It should fit seamlessly into the overall style of the manuscript, stay true to the speech patterns established for the characters, and feel like a natural extension of the author’s thought, be it the placement of punctuation, the overall clarification and flow of the sentence, or finding the correct word choice to substitute and/or encompass what the author was trying to say. It should never — let me repeat that, NEVER — sound like the editor’s voice or personal preference.

For example, my own writing tends to avoid using “that,” as I often find it to be extraneous. But in a recent project, I found myself putting those back in after someone else had stripped them out. Why? Because the character involved was kind of a formal person, prone to highly intelligent word choices, refined sentence structures, and an overall tone that simply required a more formal approach. In essence, I stepped into that author’s (and character’s) voice and mimicked their syntax, diction, and rhythm like a parrot. This is what good editors do.

The take-away from this, authors, is not that I’m the world’s greatest editor and you should only ever hire me. There are plenty of brilliant editors in the world (and I may or may not count myself among them). No, the point was to give you a way to assess your potential assessor. Any decent editor, agent, or critique partner should be able to answer this one simple question: “How do you define voice?” If they can’t or they offer one of the vague, half-assed, standard responses and then quickly change the subject, run. They just stepped in the road apples.

At the end of the day, it’s your work, your voice, that needs to shine through. And without someone who truly understands exactly what that means, there’s a very real chance that won’t happen. So proceed with caution, writers. Find someone who can break down, like I just did, the definition of voice. It may not be the way I said it, but it should be obvious that they get it. And hopefully, after reading this, some of you now have a better understanding as well. 🙂

11 thoughts on “What’s That You Say? (One Editor’s Definition of “Voice”)

  1. >>For example, my own writing tends to avoid using “that,” as I often find it to be extraneous. But in a recent project, I found myself putting those back in after someone else had stripped them out. Why? Because the character involved was kind of a formal person, prone to highly intelligent word choices, refined sentence structures, and an overall tone that simply required a more formal approach. In essence, I stepped into that author’s (and character’s) voice and mimicked their syntax, diction, and rhythm like a parrot. This is what good editors do.<<

    That was Forsyth, wasn't it? 😀

    GREAT post. I will be sharing this.

    • Hahaha, no, actually. It wasn’t Forsyth, but a character that definitely has some similarities in the style of voice. So I’ll be doing much the same for him, I’m sure. 😉

      And thank you for sharing! Much appreciated. ❤

  2. I completely agree that good editors can hear the text they read. (Then again, I’m a bit biased!)

    I’m also glad I’m not the only person who noticed the Menzel shift when she turned on her “singing voice.” I remember sitting in the theater during this scene, feeling taken out of the viewing experience because her singing voice was so IDINA it wasn’t “Elsa” anymore.

    • I actually saw this video of the song well before the movie, and I cringed at that last line. I love Idina Menzel in general, but I can barely listen to the “official” version because that shift is just so darn jarring to me. But I will say it made the perfect example for what I was trying to point out. Haha.

      Thanks for reading and commenting! I’m glad you enjoyed it. 🙂

      • I always wondered if I was just too familiar with Idina’s voice, because I still watch that video and can’t put the animation and the singing together, haha. I didn’t have that problem with Anna/Kristin Bell.

      • I think the fact she’s so well-known from Wicked definitely doesn’t help. But that last line in particular throws me off every time. They must have recorded it separately from the actual singing, because it’s not even the same recording quality. O_o

  3. I remember you telling me exactly the same when we first worked to gether on my MS! There is no better explanation on the term of “voice” than yours!
    Thank you for the post! 🙂

    (I do sing “Let it go”, mostly 3-4 times a day!) 😉

  4. This is a wonderful, wonderful post, Kisa. My biggest fear when editing is that I’m going to accidentally take the author’s voice away when suggesting changes to their manuscript, which means that every time I find something I want to suggest I force myself to stop and ask myself whether it’s truly going to improve the voice already established, or if it’s simply personal preference. I try to help myself along by adding comments trying to explain why I’m suggesting something, but I’m absolutely terrified that I’ll make the mistake of stripping a manuscript from the author who wrote it.

    You did a wonderful job of explaining all of the different kinds of voices and the complicated job that an editor has in trying to preserve the balance of author voice vs. character voice vs. general grammar and syntax rules (and funny enough: I have a habit of using “that” a lot in my writing, and my CP always points them out and tries to get rid of them).

    Whoa, long comment. My bad. Anyway, thanks for putting together this post, Kisa; it’s a wonderful eye-opener and reminder!

    • Thanks, Rae!

      I think that fear of stripping an author’s voice is what separates a potentially great editor from a not-so-great one, because it does really force you to understand the difference between “voice” and “preference.” I will say though that the use of extraneous words (such as “that”) is not usually something that negatively impacts an author’s style. Unless they were intentionally trying for that more formal feel, in which case it does. It’s sort of like passive voice, filtering, and telling in that sense: generally to be avoided, but sometimes stylistically necessary.

      Thanks for the comment, though. And I don’t mind the long ones. 😉

      • I totally agree about the passive voice thing; while in most cases it’s best to avoid passivity and filtering, there are situations where it’s absolutely necessary to create the right tone/feel for a line (or even just to make sense in general). 🙂

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