Devices that create voice, part 3 of 3

Journalists avoid the first-person singular “I” because it makes them sound unobjective. Overused, it sounds egotistical; lightly used, confessional and personal. The first-person plural “we” sounds inclusive; I use “we” a lot in this blog to include you in the fraternity of writers. The second-person “you,” singular and plural, addresses readers directly, and involves them, unless you use it too often or in a commanding way. Third-person is the norm of prose, but has a slight distancing effect.

Most writing involves the past tense, again a comfortable norm. Shifting into the present tense creates a sense of immediacy and presence, but staying in the present becomes mannered and tiresome.

A confident tone creates authority and results from sounding sure of what you’re saying, accompanied by clarity. Have you ever noticed how scientists seldom sound confident? They put a lot of qualifiers in their sentences; they keep telling how they’re not sure, concepts are theoretical, and the evidence is not totally solid. Natalie Angier explains, “By accepting that they can never know the truth but can only aproximate it, scientists end up edging ever closer to the truth.” But that hedging makes them sound uncertain. You can adjust assurance by the number of qualifiers you include. (Just because you know you’re a phony doesn’t mean you have to tell the reader.)

References to works outside the text create a sense of breadth and depth. A persona explaining the reference will come off as helpful, unless the explanation is condescending. Unexplained references imply sophistication and either learning or hipness, depending on the thing referred to.

Natalie Angier says, “Obviously my sense of scale has been out of whack and off the map, a puerile version of Saul Steinberg’s often imitated Manhattanite’s view of the world.” This iconic cover hangs as a poster in millions of rooms, and Angier assumes you know it, although she has not described or explained it. My son drops names of rock groups and websites that I don’t get, and I weave in medieval names that mean nothing to him. Density of references and their explanation or not create a relationship with readers. You can share what you both know, you can bring new information, or you can puzzle them with things they haven’t heard of.

Where you draw references from will characterize your persona. My friend Bill Blundell used masculine references only; he once said, “I went to Houston, and talked to the guy in charge there, and she told me….” I apologize because we’re now in the realm of stereotypes, but stereotypes shared with readers help create voice. Lots of sports or military references imply maleness, while domestic imagery suggests the female. And so on.

Personal names form a large part of reference, and can create the illusion that the persona actually mixes with the people mentioned. Lots of current names suggest a persona who’s an insider, and the familiarity of the reference can increase it. Consider the effect of “First Lady Michelle Obama” versus “Michelle.”

Many authors consciously or unconsciously imitate the rhythms, language, and imagery of recognizable texts, especially Shakespeare and the Bible. Melville often sounds like the King James Version. (In view of our discussion of reference above, notice that I did not spell out Herman Melville or the King James Version of What.) Such echoes give depth and a sense of sophistication. If the imitated passage is recognizable, it interacts with the text.

Imagery functions somewhat like references. Certain images and clusters of images become a signature in voice. My friend Roy Clark falls into images of sex, and I tend toward military metaphors.

Humor is funny, while wit is merely amusing. Humor or the lack of it inform voice. The sophistication of the humor determines its effect, whether it elevates or deflates prose. (A piece of advice: don’t make humor part of your voice unless you’re a funny person. I’m not.)

Point of view is where the persona views the world from, mostly determined by references and names. Columnist George Will always speaks from the inside, Woody Allen from the outside. Point of view can also seem spatial. Some voices see everything from high altitude, others up close. At a larger level, voices can have a world view, essentially a stance toward nature and the human race. The higher the world view, the more remote the voice.

Some voices show enthusiasm for what they’re writing about, and for life in general, and some show the opposite. Cleveland Amory, despite his love affair with cats, was grumpy about almost every thing else. Zest engages the reader, and suggests youth.

Published in: on December 16, 2009 at 9:36 am  Leave a Comment  

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