Finding a Voice

Augustus with a mobile phone

In literature a voice is often defined as an author’s individual writing style. You may hear discussion about use of syntax, diction, punctuation; and in literature, character development and dialogue. But what does all that mean?

Before we get on talk about the use of voice in corporate or commercial writing, lets’ discuss its use in literature to make it clear what we mean.

Many of us have come across an historical novel say where the language and dialogue seem out of place. Maybe the author employs 21st century street slang in Victorian London or ancient Rome. This use of language can jar the reader and distract them from the narrative. More to the point it undermines the authority of the author. The wrong word can be as out of place as a wristwatch on a gladiator.

What one wants to find is a style of writing that suits the place and time of the subject. It need not be accurate, in the case of historical fiction anyway, but it needs to comfortable. Ideally the reader should not even notice the voice of the piece at all.

So what about the use of voice in commercial non-fiction?

Most organisations have a house style, which may or may not include notions of the tone that may be used. But few, in my experience, have ever addressed themselves to voice. That is the tone of the company wants to take.

Is it chatty and friendly, is it authoritative and academic, or somewhere in between?

A voice that is too informal may come across as not being serious, or as having no respect for the reader or the subject. On the other hand, a piece that is too dour and takes itself too seriously may be impenetrable or boring even.

There are at least two things to consider here.

First and foremost we must consider the target audience. Are they employees, or customers, technically minded or casual readers? On the whole voice is more important in longer pieces of text because the author expects the reader to invest more of their time in the work and wants them to stay with it. For their part the reader wants to be informed in a way that feels inclusive and not alienating.

This brings us to the second consideration. The nature of the subject will often dictate the style of voice that is appropriate. A technical manual will be concise and to the point; usually stripped of all distracting softening of the text. Whereas a newsletter that seeks to engage the casual customer or employee may be lighter and conversational in tone.

Maybe you have never considered your own voice when writing before. Be assured you have one. Perhaps you might take time to think about it and shape it.

I could say more but duty calls.

If you find yourself writing something particularly fine – strike it out

george-orwell

I am in the middle of a small project just now and I haven’t had a chance to blog much. Obviously I can’t say much about it but suffice to say I am unpicking a lot prose by people who struggle for various reasons with the written word.

Many of the clients don’t have English as a first language, which is fair enough. But the texts that I find the most challenging are by business executives and non-writers who are having fun with it.

One can’t blame them I suppose, but it is often hard to actually focus down on what they are trying to say and often there are 500 words about nothing much at all so the copy ends up down to 100 words or fewer without losing any information.

I’ll have more to say on writing, good and bad at some point, but in the meantime remember George Orwell.

Below I have paraphrased his ‘five’ golden rules.

1. Avoid clichés or over used phrases.
2. Never use long words where short ones will do.
3. Remember word economy. If it is possible to cut a word out, then cut it out.
4. Use an active voice rather than the passive.
5. Avoid jargon and pretensions foreign words if a simple clearer English word will do.

6. Know when to break these rules if it enhances communication.

You have probably heard these before, but I like to remind myself too. More soon

First Words

So many questions and so many different responses.

I get so much correspondence about things as varied as ‘do you put a dot after the address mister or not?’ to ‘what do you charge for being on call as opposed to a day rate?’ Neither question has a simple or a one-size fits all answer. Nor do I pretend that I can answer all questions here, but maybe we can prompt some discussion and together explore the best editorial practice.