Posted On August 13, 2010 by Print This Post

Voice vs. Style

Good morning and welcome to Chaos Theory of Writing! It’s my great pleasure to welcome RITA and Nora Roberts Lifetime Achievement award winner Jennifer Greene. I first heard Jennifer’s workshop on voice and style a few years ago at my local RWA chapter. The way Jennifer defines these elusive qualities really resonated with me and I couldn’t wait to have her as a guest on RU.

Without further ado, here’s Jennifer!

When writers talk about ‘effective storytelling’, they often use the ‘style’ and ‘voice’ words, because both are so critical to memorable stories.  Unfortunately we all seem to disagree about what they are, so I want to work with you on clear definitions.  Naturally these are MY definitions and you don’t have to listen to me. 🙂 But let’s see if these make sense for you….

STYLE is the writing technique that we CHANGE, depending on the nature of project we’re writing. A cozy mystery reads differently than erotica.  A short contemporary reads differently than a Y.A. or a paranormal story.

Naturally, each genre is defined by a lot more than just style—but style gives us INFORMATION about the required language for each one.  Style is about adjectives and adverbs, the length of sentences, the choice of words.  Every book or story you write has a style—and YOU’RE in charge of it.

From the first line in a book, you start making PROMISES to the reader—it’s how you build trust and a relationship with a reader—and those promises are all delivered through style.  If you start out with a short, snappy opener, then your reader will expect short, snappy language throughout.  If you started out with eloquent description, you essentially promised your reader that she’ll experience that nature of eloquence through the story.

Style also has a direct effect on content.  You might think of style as the DOORKNOB that opens the door to the story’s content.  For instance, if you start a cozy mystery with an erotic, spit-swapping kiss that involves nudity and four letter words, I strongly suspect the reader will quickly put down the book.  That reader might love erotica, but at that moment, if she’s in the mood for a cozy mystery, she’s expecting the tone and language (the STYLE) of a cozy mystery.

Style is craft.  It’s nothing you were born with.  It’s something you learn and apply.  And one of the side effects of style is that it’s your primary tool to CONTROL PACING AND TENSION.

Ever have an editor say “where’s the tension’ or ‘you lost the conflict here’ or ‘moving too slow in this section’ ?  If you’ve ever had such criticism, consider this.  Pacing isn’t about speed.  It’s about the IMPRESSION of speed.  The words you use in different scenes create that impression.  The delivery system is STYLE.  It’s ALWAYS style.

Now onto VOICE….Voice is the opposite.  It takes no work, no craft, nothing you have to fight for.  Voice is what you bring to every single thing you write.  It’s your gut.  Your truth.  It’s your vision of the world that no one else has…and no one else can duplicate.

When you hear that saw about ‘it’s easy to write; all you have to do is open a vein’—that blood pouring out, that’s VOICE.   When you hear writers talking about hanging out there naked—the naked part, that’s VOICE.

I can explain this easiest through example.  We only have space for a couple.  From FLAWLESS, by Joshua Spanogle:  “The heat woke me.  I became aware of perspiration through my scalp, of a rusty orange glow behind my closed lids.  I opened my eyes and saw crisp light dance through a palm tree outside.”

Hear it?  The ‘rusty orange glow’ and ‘crisp light’ are images you recognize as describing fire—but those aren’t images that you and I would likely think up.  They’re unique to that author.  It’s what the author sees that we don’t.  It’s what an author offers us that we can’t offer ourselves.

Another example, from Toni Causey’s BOBBIE FAYE’S VERY VERY VERY BAD DAY.  “You know how some people are born to Greatness.  Well, Bobbie Faye Sumrall woke up one morning, kicked Greatness in the teeth, kneed it in the balls, took it hostage, and it’s been begging for mercy every since.”

I don’t know what YOUR takeaway from that voice might be, but this is what I heard—a Southern voice, a voice that was a church goer (probably Baptist), a voice that was raised in a home where the mom didn’t work but could make biscuits from scratch.  If your takeaway is different than this…it’s fine.  That’s one of the unique aspects of voice.  The reader offers us something of herself…and we readers each takeaway something personal that makes sense to us.

Now…to sum up.  STYLE is the flavor of the story.  VOICE is the food itself, the nutrition, the take-away.

Is one more important than the other?  Of course not.  They’re a package.  You need both to have a great book, a memorable book.  But one of the keys to creating a great book is understanding what those two elements are, and how they work together.

Hope this has made those two elements a little clearer…and I’d be glad to discuss them with you, or answer questions!

* * *

Thanks, Jennifer!

RU Readers, do you have a better understanding about the difference between voice and style? Be sure to ask Jennifer any clarifying questions you may have!

Join us again on Monday when author Heather Weber discusses cross-genre books.

Jennifer’s bio:

Jennifer Greene sold her first book in 1980, and since then has sold over 80 books in the contemporary romance genre.  Her first professional writing award came from RWA, a Silver Medallion in 1984, folowed by over 20 nominations and awards, including being honored in RWA’s Hall of Fame.  In 2009, Jennifer was given the RWA Nora Roberts LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD, given only to an anuthor who is ‘uniquely recognized for significant contributions to the romance genre’.
–Upcoming releases :
Three Romantic Suspenses (a trilogy)–
A new Special Edition–
I just sold my Berkley backlist to Carina Press, so all my ‘Jeanne Grant’ books will be available through Carina, starting in November, 2010.

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25 Responses to “Voice vs. Style”

  1. I’ll be in and out all day, hoping you enjoy the post…and looking forward to any questions or discussions you might want to pursue!

    Posted by Jennifer Greene | August 13, 2010, 6:26 am
  2. Jennifer,

    Finally! I understand this!You have clarified the meaning of style and voice in a way that has sunk in. For that I thank you. I find it amazing how I can hear the same things several times and it is like Greek to me — then POOF someone that speaks my language gives me the gift of understanding.

    Also it is a relief to know that of the two, one is a natural talent and the other can be developed. So now the trick is to open up enough to get the voice on the page while concentrating on learning and developing the style.

    Question: What would you recommend as the best way to develop and strengthen both style and voice?


    Posted by Holly | August 13, 2010, 6:58 am
  3. Hi Holly!
    On your question about how to develop and strengthen both style and voice–
    1) relax. I think ‘voice’ is the scariest concept, because it comes from within; we don’t have control over it. Revealing voice is also where we reveal ourselves, so there’s an extra vulnerability there.
    I don’t think you have to do anything but write–and write, and write!–to have your voice become naturally stronger.
    But one thought on this: when you conceive of a story, or sell a story, try to think of why YOU’re the best story teller for this particular book. Or what you’re able to bring to that story that another writer can’t. Then….enjoy that answer. 🙂 Whatever it is, should help bring your voice naturally loose.
    2) on strengthening style….read in the genre you’re writing in. (Read the best.) You’re not looking to mimic what any other authors do, ever….but if you read the first chapter in 3 good Romantic Suspenses in a row…then the first chapter of 3 historicals…I’m guessing you’ll be able to see/hear the style that’s desired in those genres.
    Whether you want to write in those genres or not–I’d suggest reading outside just what you want to write. Cozy mystery ‘style’ is so easy to see, for example. So if you’re trying to get a grasp on style, just seeing the difference from genre to genre might help.
    Am I getting too long winded here? 🙂 🙂

    Posted by Jennifer Greene | August 13, 2010, 7:41 am
  4. Hi, Jennifer. Thank you for a wonderful post. I ran into this issue with my WIP. I typically write romantic suspense but my WIP is a women’s fiction. I had been struggling with the opening and fell back on my romantic suspense style to punch up chapter one. One of my critique partners went through and highlighted all the action words to show me the difference in style between chapters one and two. It was a great learning experience.

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | August 13, 2010, 8:24 am
    • Hi Adrienne,
      I remember when I first switched from category to single title…I kept asking, what’s the difference? And the answer I kept getting was ‘just write a bigger book’.
      But after years of this…I think that’s what editors perceive…but it’s not a ‘writer truth’. What’s true is that each nature of book calls for a different style–a different way of ‘delivering’ the story. Style is intrinsic to each genre? It’s not actually ‘bigger’ or ‘littler’…better or worse…it’s just different.
      Your comment on all the ‘action words’ in RS…what a good ‘clue’ to the style in that nature of book!

      Posted by Jennifer Greene | August 13, 2010, 8:45 am
  5. Morning Jennifer!

    Great post! Your have such a variety of books! How do you keep your writing style true to each book when there are so many different styles you’re writing?

    Hope that makes sense…lol… brain may not be on full power yet this morning!



    Posted by Carrie Spencer | August 13, 2010, 8:40 am
    • Carrie, I haven’t a clue. 🙂 🙂 Except that I’ve tried to do the things we’ve been talking about….reading for style ideas in each genre.
      So many times, I hear writers talk about pacing. (Me, too.) Yet we’ve all read fast-paced books that only took place in a short period of time (like some of Sandra Brown’s ST’s.) I’m convinced that pacing is about the impression of speed….not speed itself…and that when a reader picks up a book in any genre, she’s anticipating a certain pace, a certain ‘reading journey’ that makes her believe she’ll like that type of book.
      Anyway….that’s partly what I do when I write. (And partly why I’ve enjoyed switching to different genres.) I get to take a different ‘writing journey’…by working to give the reader that writing experience/journey she wants.

      Posted by Jennifer Greene | August 13, 2010, 8:49 am
  6. I agree with everyone else — this really clarified things for me. 🙂 I like to write in different subgenres, so now it makes sense how my “voice” can cross over those different styles.

    I’ve enjoyed so many of your books, Jennifer, and it’s time for me to read some more of them! Thanks again for a great post.

    Posted by Donna Cummings | August 13, 2010, 8:45 am
  7. Thanks, Donna! So glad you’ve liked my books!

    Posted by Jennifer Greene | August 13, 2010, 8:50 am
  8. Hi Jennifer,

    Thanks so much for joining us today! After writing a number of books, do you hear your own voice? Have you been able to “define” it to others, or did a reader have to define it for you?

    My writing has been labeled gritty/edgy (I write historicals). I thought those terms reflected my voice, but now I’m wondering if it’s more style.


    Posted by TraceyDevlyn | August 13, 2010, 9:15 am
  9. Hi Tracey!
    You asked if I hear my own voice…and the answer is: that’s exactly why I took on this topic. Because I don’t. Because I’ve been terrified of that invisible thing that has power over our writing (and our ability to sell) — yet it’s pretty impossible to control something you can’t pin down.
    Other writers (and readers) have told me what my voice is. My agent seems to think it’s obvious. Ditto for editors (and I’ve been lucky enough to have many terrific ones.)
    When they talk to me about ‘my’ voice…what I hear is: what they see as a take-away from my books. Sometimes it’s never what I intended at all…but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that readers get an individual takeaway when they read a story. That there IS something.
    You mentioned ‘gritty and edgy’ as others describing your writing.
    I think ‘edgy’ is one of those in-words…it implies something good, something desired in certain genres. But otherwise, not sure it’s helpful–for the writer–to hear. (I mean, what are you supposed to do with it? Other than be happy they can see that quality in your writing?)
    I suspect most editors try to tag us. Whatever ‘in’ word they can use is what they’re thinking when they market us.
    But what I heard when you said ‘gritty’, edgy’…is that you take chances. You push beyond the easy, the safe. You ‘get down to it’ without pulling punches or softening it up. You don’t softsoap the reader or the story.
    That can be both voice and style? It’s not as if there isn’t often crossover.
    But if those things are true in everything you write, think you’re talking more about voice…
    What a wonderful forum, Tracey!

    Posted by Jennifer Greene | August 13, 2010, 9:35 am
  10. Jennifer –

    Thanks so much for joining us at RU today!

    I think one of the reasons writers are confused about the differences in style and voice is that we’re often given feedback from others who don’t understand the difference either. My question is this: are both style and voice unique to a particular writer?

    This is a great topic, a lecture I’ll re-read a number of times to better internalize the difference in these two elements!


    Posted by Kelsey Browning | August 13, 2010, 12:19 pm
  11. Hi Kelsey, I think ‘voice’ is intrinsic to each writer–but style is definitely something we learn (and relearn–depending on what genre we’re writing in.)

    I read a quote somewhere… “Sometimes a story finds a story teller, instead of the other way around.”

    I know, that sounds a little like a sound bite :(….but I think what it means is:
    if you’re a writer, you write. Maybe you can write all kinds of stories, because you have the talent and the skills. But when you find a story that YOU can write uniquely different from anyone else….that’s when your voice will come out the strongest.

    We’ve all read NY Times Bestsellers, where we scratch our head and say “Huh? That book has more holes than a sponge.” And many do. (We also know how fake the bestseller lists are, but that’s a topic for another time. 🙂 The point is: the books that soar out of nowhere don’t necessarily seem to be the ‘best’ books–as in the most competent, the most perfectly crafted. They’re the ones that snag our hearts, open our worlds, make us sigh when we finish them.

    That’s voice. It transcends flaws. It transcends everything. Always, always concentrate on your strengths instead of your flaws. (The best advice I can give any writer!)

    On what others have given you in feedback….get five authors in a room, pour some wine, start talking about defining voice and style, and I’d give them, say, five minutes before an exuberant fight starts. 🙂

    I haven’t given you my definitions as if they were ‘sacred ground’–the only definition others have. No one seems to agree on this. But…differentiating the two this way has worked for me for so long…that I hoped you’d all find it of value.

    Posted by Jennifer Greene | August 13, 2010, 3:09 pm
  12. Hello Jennifer!

    Wonderful post!

    Kelsey wrote: I think one of the reasons writers are confused about the differences in style and voice is that we’re often given feedback from others who don’t understand the difference either.

    Great point. It took me a while to figure this out when I received my first crits and contest feedback. My crit partners know my personality and my sense of humor, so they know my “voice” (I hope). 😕 However, I’ve had contest judges rewrite entire paragraphs of my entries because they said it was better their way. It’s very confusing since the same paragraphs were left untouched by other judges. So I figured the rewrite judges didn’t like my voice. I’m not opposed to making changes, but I felt they were imposing their voice/style on me. 👿

    Your point about voice transcending flaws… so true! If I like an author’s voice, I’ll read every book they’ve written even if I’m not keen on the story premise. Sometimes, it’s not so much the story, but the way it’s told.

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | August 13, 2010, 5:46 pm
  13. I had one editor who changed chocolate chip cookie–to brownie. I asked her way, confounded about what I’d done wrong. She answered that she liked brownies better.

    When editors–or critiquers–want you to change something, they always have an agenda. Sometimes it’s a good agenda–they think it’ll be stronger their way, for whatever reason. Some…not so much. Some want the power of criticism, the power to have had their hands on your story/altered it/owned it a little.

    A few people just plain don’t know what they’re doing. Y’all may have noticed this. 🙂

    I’ve never written anything perfectly. Am always happy for an editor’s eye, a reader’s suggestion. But Susan Elizabeth Phillips has a sacred adage–that it’s up to you to ‘protect the work.’ Not protect YOU. But guard what you know is right in your writing. I know you’re all insecure. (We’re all in that club.) But you need to trust yourself. Pretty hard to fly if you can’t get those particular wheels off the ground.

    On voice, specifically……imo, when anyone criticizes voice, there’s an agenda there. It’s a guaranteed way to hurt you, to devalue what you’re writing. It’s not like saying, ‘this conflict needs beefing up’, or ‘the pacing is slow.’ You may not like hearing that, but you can face it, work with it. But someone says ‘the voice isn’t strong’….well, that’s a total stab in the gut, yes?

    So I would suggest: NEVER listen to that. I don’t care who’s saying it. It’s not about someone trying to improve your writing. It’s about someone taking the power to make you feel ‘lesser’. Don’t let ’em.


    Posted by Jennifer Greene | August 13, 2010, 6:23 pm
  14. That second line was supposed to be ‘why’, not ‘way’. 🙂

    Posted by Jennifer Greene | August 13, 2010, 6:24 pm
  15. Jennifer,

    Thanks again for joining us! We really appreciate your candid answers.

    Have a great weekend!

    Posted by TraceyDevlyn | August 13, 2010, 8:48 pm
  16. Thanks for inviting me! Hope to see you all again in another discussion sometime!

    Posted by Jennifer Greene | August 14, 2010, 7:05 am
  17. 😐 Oh, I’m so sorry that I didn’t keep up w/ Romance U, and join the conversation, yesterday!
    Jennifer Greene, what a treasure she is! So much clarity and substance!
    Thanks for your insights…even a day later I feel better informed.

    Posted by Christine S. Foutris | August 14, 2010, 1:04 pm
  18. Now Chris, you may be a little biased. 🙂

    Posted by Jennifer Greene | August 14, 2010, 8:13 pm
  19. Hi Jennifer,

    First, I’m flattered as hell that you used Bobbie Faye to illustrate voice. Thank you! And also… I’m just a little bit freaked out that you nailed my past so well, with one tiny exception: mamma made Bisquick biscuits and did work outside the home. 🙂 but you know, that’s pretty damned close.

    I absolutely love the distinctions you made with voice vs. style. I have taught a few classes on “voice” and I sum up by saying nearly the same thing–that “style” is all of the conscious decisions you as a writer bring to the book–from the socioeconomic backgrounds and worldviews of the characters to choices in language and pacing. Voice is what you bring of yourself, and the mistake I’ve seen so many new writers make is trying to write “like” someone else, which just voids or waters down their own voice, their own unique take on the world. Voice is the confidence that you know this story and you know you’re the one who should be telling it. It’s trusting yourself that what you have to say about this world is worth saying.

    Posted by toni mcgee causey | August 15, 2010, 1:38 pm
  20. Chuckling, Toni. As you might have guessed–I loved your book.

    And everything you said about voice versus style is a me-too. The bottom-line key, imo, is ‘trusting yourself’. So hard for a writer to do…yet your voice can’t become strong & honest if you feel you have to pretty it up/change it/adapt to publishing concepts/please someone else. We may have to do all of that in different books…but not at the voice level.

    Your book was an immersion into another world, from line 1…feeling the stresses and worries in my day get put behind a locked door, while I dove into your vision of the world. So glad to meet you. !

    Posted by Jennifer Greene | August 15, 2010, 2:02 pm


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Adrienne Giordano, carrie c spencer. carrie c spencer said: RT @RomanceUniv Voice vs. Style […]

  2. […] Mr. Bransford’s post begins with a mention, in brackets, of “[commercial voice]” and everyone seems to have their own definition of what “voice” is. Jennifer Greene just made a wonderful post at Romance University discussing her thoughts on the difference between voice and style “Voice vs. Style” […]

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