Tips About Style and Personal Voice

  • Sensory material awakens a fuller spectrum of your reader’s intelligence.
  • Embody the themes/ideas of your piece in the quality of the language itself.
  • Paint the picture.
  • Sensory writing is similar to conversation.
  • Allow yourself to enjoy a robust and rangy vocabulary.
  • Experiment with form.
  • Read your work out loud.
  • Style can emerge at any point of the writing process.
  • Treat yourself to a visual art class and/or a poetry workshop.
  • Compose the pace.
  • Have fun.
  • Read the work of people you love.
  • Rewrite.
  • The personal voice does not necessarily mean “I.”
  • Find your own style.

Rick Bragg, Emily Hiestand, and Jim Collins.

Because of my background as a visual artist and a poet, my strengths really lie in the particularity of language. And as a magazine editor and a literary consultant, most of what I’m doing when I help other writers is giving them a hand with texture and color, with imagery and tone and rhythm and cadence, almost the molecular level of prose. These ingredients add up to prose style.

These are techniques and particularities that are the toolkit of poets. A lot of this can be imported directly into your prose and with very good results.

I’d like to start by paying homage to what Mark Kramer and maybe others here call “news voice,” the conventional, most typical voice in journalism. It’s crisp, lean, quirk-free, just the facts ma’am. And that, of course, is a style. In my view, it’s a great style. It is a thing of beauty. It’s a great accomplishment and of enormous importance in our civic life. It isn’t full of personality and color, but it’s a very elegant, stylistic achievement. News voice and personal voice do different things, and we really need them both.

I see dozens of essays every year written in personal voice, and many of them would benefit from your good reporting skills. Your training as journalists is a tremendous platform on which to layer or from which to develop a personal voice. And much of your journalistic ethic is completely germane to writing in a more personal voice.

When you write in a more personal voice, you have most, if not all, the main journalistic responsibility to be scrupulous, to get it right, to have as much intellectual humility as you can, to fact check, and to report thoroughly. And you add to those responsibilities some additional literary responsibilities. And the additional responsibilities come because the personal voice is, of course, quirkier and more idiosyncratic, and it reveals inevitably more of your own humanity.

In the personal voice, you are not only allowed to be, but you are expected to be, exploratory. The personal voice is the realm of why and how, and it almost always brings in more description and more interpretation. And it relies very, very strongly on sensory knowledge. Not just sensory data, but sensory knowledge rather than the sheer accounting of fact.

We have a multilayered intelligence, all of us. When we include a great deal of sensory materials in our writing, what we are doing is awakening in ourselves and in our readers not only the analytical intelligence but also our visual intelligence, our auditory intelligence, our emotional and kinesthetic intelligence. So in the personal voice, whether it’s the lyrics, essay, or piece of narrative journalism, what we’re doing is engaging in a much fuller spectrum of the reader’s mind. That’s why I think when the personal voice is good and authentic, it touches us on such a deep and lasting level. That’s why this kind of writing can be so memorable and why it has legs. It’s because it’s working on so many levels.

Embody the themes and ideas of your piece in the nature of the language itself. This tip comes out of the idea that language is itself the idea. The particularities of your language, the tone, the color, the rhythm, the cadences, the elusive qualities, the alliteration, all those textural particularities can embody the idea of your piece. Whatever else your words are overtly expressing, the quality of the language itself is a source of information for your readers. And it’s a source of information on a very deep and memorable level. So this is really a central point about style, that the language is itself the idea.

“‘Learn how to see the world through an artist’s eyes.'”
– Madeline Bodin
The title of my story, “Neon Effects,” refers as much to the nature of the language as it does to the artifacts of the neon tubes. I wanted the language of that story to be sort of flashy, to have kind of a jazzy, glowing feel. And that feel was juxtaposed in the piece.

By saying that you can embody the subject in your language, I’m not saying that the personal voice is a kind of chameleon, that it simply takes on the coloration of whatever the subject is. Your voice, your personal voice will, of course, have a signature, will have a steady and recognizable signature that is your own. And is identifiable from work to work. I think it represents an exploration and a kind of research that you are making in the piece. It’s kind of an investigative strategy.

If you decide you want to try this, you want to try bringing the quality of the subject into your writing, into the language itself, let yourself feel and think, “What are the basic qualities of my subject? Is this subject fizzy or elegiac? Is it majestic or funny? Or is it some combination of all of these things?” Then simply create language that is itself that way.

Paint the picture. Readers feel really respected—and rightly so—when you give them the picture and the whole experiential surround and trust them to make the interpretations. So be like a painter. Be like a sound engineer. Give your reader the fullest possible sensory experience. All the colors, the sounds, the details, the impressions, that you yourself have experienced in a place.

I’ve seen this kind of attention to detail called immersion reporting. Here’s where you as trained journalists are going to be so much more skillful than many other writers at noticing and getting down these important details. I don’t remember every detail, so I encourage writing down even more than you think might be important in the moment.

I’m proposing that the sensory surround is the meat, the field of texture and observation out of which other kinds of insights can arise and arise with more power. Now, obviously there are different tones, and you may very well want to move more into setting out of fact or background or history. But that doesn’t have to suddenly be in this other voice, this dry voice. The same qualities, the same attention to cadences and rhythms and great word choice can be sustained through the whole piece.

“‘The voice is you.'”
– Nan Talese
The way you talk. This is closer to your conversational voice when you’re talking with friends and family. The written version of your personal voice will, of course, be shapelier and more well wrought and more layered than conversation. It’s very akin to good conversation in that it has this animated, intimate voice. And it’s quirkier. It can shift. It can go from being very colloquial and familiar to being more formal. Just the way we do in conversation.

Allow yourself to use a robust and rangy vocabulary. One of the things that poets do, and great prose stylists, is to work with words that have been forgotten or that have been damaged from overuse or improper use, or words that have been sullied in some way. As prose stylists, you can restore these words, redeem them. This adds a great spectrum of words that may seem off limits.

Have fun with vocabulary. And listen for specialized ways of talking, for the lingo of subcultures. The way that neurologists talk, or auto mechanics, or urban teenagers. Much great new language is actually being generated by people in subcultures. So scope that out. That is a gold mine. I would really urge you to use in your writing and as much as you can in journalism as well this more personal writing you’re doing, any words that intrigue your ear, even if they are unfamiliar to most people. If anything, a rich vocabulary keeps readers with you because you are a source of surprise.

Experiment with form. The form that a piece of nonfiction writing takes can be very elastic. Those of you who are really involved in creating this movement of narrative journalism are doing exactly this. You are in the midst of an experiment with form. You are redefining a genre and really part of an emerging form.

While I’m talking about form, I wanted to mention one reservation that I have about narrative form. I love narrative structure, partly because it comforts us, because it suggests an order in a world that seems to be lacking. And because I think it can actually show us how to bring more shapeliness in our lived lives. But my reservation about narrative structure comes from knowing in truth we are always in the middle of things. The influences of the past are not always understood and the future is always uncertain.

So narrative is more like science. It offers a provisional truth. It’s the best we can do right now, based on limited knowledge. While I think as much as anyone I enjoy that structure of a beginning, a middle, and an end, I’m also very fond of structures that are more experimental, that do not necessarily offer closure, that may be more cubistic.

A good thing to do in narrative, if you feel stuck or there isn’t enough energy in your story or you feel it’s too predictable the way it’s proceeding, is just shift the lens. Stop there. You don’t always have to just continue in a chronological sequence. You can just stop and come from another point of view or another time and let those layers accumulate.

Read your work out loud. Reading your work out loud is a minor miracle of the writing process. When we say the words out loud, we get a better sense of the rhythm and the meter, the pace, the flow, the way the sentences work or do not work with the breath.

Style can emerge at any point of the writing process. It can be an establishing tone, or it can be layered.

Treat yourself to a visual art class or poetry class. A lot of what artists are doing in art school is learning to see. Even if you never plan to practice as a visual artist, or never plan to practice as a poet, this can be a fabulous way to increase your ability to see.

Compose the pace. Readers are in your hands; they will go with you at any speed. You don’t need to rush as long as you are giving them the sense of immersion in the story.

Have fun. Write about not only what you know, but also what you think it would be fun to find out about.

Find your own style. As Dexter Gordon wrote in “Round Midnight,” “You don’t just go out and pick a style off a tree one day. The tree is already inside you—it is growing naturally inside you.” It’s about mastering craft and then letting your own bone-deep, built-in, inimitable style emerge naturally. The style, your style, is in there. It’s in you. It’s like a tree growing inside you. It’s your own unique, emotional, intellectual, aesthetic, spiritual, moral response to the world translated into words. Or it is sometimes discovered, often discovered, through the act of using words.

That’s why style is so important. It’s a tree inside you and it keeps evolving as you do. And that’s why it’s so important to readers. Great style tells them that some other human being is really alive and present to them on the page. They pick up that something human is going on, and they respond to that humanness and that imagination.

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