As a beginning writer, I didn’t understand all this talk about voice. Writers were writers, not talkers, and thank goodness for that. Then, in a writing workshop with memoirist Chris Offutt, I finally heard a definition: “Voice is the writer’s personality expressed on the page,” said Offutt, stretching out his Kentucky drawl. (Keyboards clicked. A student in the front row raised her hand and said, “You said ‘Voice is …’ and then I spaced out. Could you repeat what came after that?”)
Okay, I thought. Voice is a writer’s style — yet it’s more than style. It’s unique, like handwriting, and it expresses something — maybe not everything, but something — about the person behind the words. Over time, as both a writer and an editor, I’ve come to understand that voice is one of a writer’s most important assets. No matter the subject or genre, voice can draw a reader in as surely as the ideas themselves. In science writing especially, voice can succeed where every other tool fails, slicing a clear path through a prickly thicket of information.
The Sound on the Page by Ben Yagoda is the only book I know of that takes the full measure of the writer’s voice. Through interviews with writers ranging from Tobias Wolff to Dave Barry to Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, Yagoda illuminates the subtleties of individual voices and explores how each relates to the writer’s content. His tips on voice development are practical and encouraging but not overly directive, appropriate for what can be a lifelong and very personal process of discovery.
As freelancers, we’re rarely free to use our voices in their purest form: Depending on the assignment at hand, we may be asked to be prim and proper one day, snarky the next. But even so, we can let our personal voices shine steadily through our work, and as The Sound on the Page reminds us, learning to do so is one of the most enjoyable and rewarding parts of the writing life.
[Editor’s Note: Michelle’s post kicks off The Bookshelf, a new feature in which science writers discuss or dissect meaningful books already on their shelves. Happy reading!]