Devices that create voice, part 1 of 3

Here are the devices that create voice when used consistently, along with the effects they cause.

The first thing a reader will perceive is the level of language in a piece: high, medium, or low. Medium would be the normal wording used in everyday speech by educated people, i.e., conversational but mostly correct. You’re reading medium-level diction now. Let’s change the level for different effects:

MIDDLE: You’re reading medium-level diction now.
LOW: This’s the way people talk.
HIGH: Readers would experience the diction embodying this document as appropriate to the discourse community of university-educated, middle-class speech. (Okay, that’s a parody.)

This first impression, largely based on diction level, helps readers estimate if they’ll understand the piece. If the diction is inappropriate for the context, readers will grow suspicious of the voice. We would say that it violates “decorum.”

Breadth of vocabulary also registers here. Most people use the same 750 or so words in their daily speech, and recognize a few thousand more. Using words beyond that range will make the voice seem elevated, sophisticated, and even stuffy. Using “street language” would imply youth, hipness, and lack of seriousness.

Slang makes prose sound conversational, and lots of hip slang makes it sound young. Slang can shade over into jargon, as any adult can tell you after listening to teenagers discussing the gadgets in their pockets. Extreme use of professional slang and jargon creates distance between persona and readers.

Dialect always creates such a gap, since it is perceived (unfairly) as a mark of someone who does not or cannot speak Standard English. Even a charming dialect, such as Irish brogue, elicits snobbery. If you must use dialect, use very little, except for comic purposes.

Archaic language has the same effect as a wide and unusual vocabulary, and can even lapse into quaintness. Even used in quotes, it makes the voice sound older and odder. Think about words like “wraith,” “vainglory,” and “happenstance.” Take a look at any page in The Lord of the Rings.

Readers don’t have to know much if anything about grammar or usage to assess its formality when they read it. Distinctions such as “that” versus “which” or “who” versus “whom” raise the level of formality. If you write formally and then use “ain’t” for effect, it leaps off the screen. Stricter, more formal grammar and usage create a sense of distance and sophistication, which can be welcoming or forbidding, depending on context. You would use “disinterested” formally in Harper’s and informally (or not at all) in Taste of Home.

Skilled punctuation makes sentences easy to read, and lack of punctuation makes readers struggle. Easy sentences create authority and trust and a sense of friendliness. Hard sentences can give a sense of sophistication, unless they become impenetrable.

Sentence clarity mostly flows from simplicity: short or no left branch, subject and verb together, open to the right, and nothing inserted inside anything else.

Readers do not share that template with writers, but they experience the simplicity or complexity of sentences. Simple sentences seem conversational. Oddly enough, even long simple sentences sound like conversation. Complex sentences, regardless of length, prove daunting. They create distance, and suggest learning and sophistication. In extreme form, we associate complex sentences with intelligence. In fact, it’s much harder and takes more brainpower to write simply. As an editor once advised me, “Easy reading takes hard editing.”

Readers can see sentence length. A lot of long sentences make the page gray; graphics people call it “a tombstone.” Big gray pages make readers want to go read somewhere else.

Long sentences make the voice seem a little tedious, no matter what the complexity. A mixture of sentence lengths creates variety of sound and experience, and moves readers along. A series of sentences about the same length sounds monotonous, and probably is.

[Stay tuned for parts 2 and 3 next week.]

Published in: on December 11, 2009 at 1:59 pm  Leave a Comment  

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