The Writer's Voice in Literature and Rhetoric

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In rhetoric and literary studies, voice is the distinctive style or manner of expression of an author or narrator. As discussed below, voice is one of the most elusive yet important qualities in a piece of writing

"Voice is usually the key element in effective writing," says teacher and journalist Donald Murray. "It is what attracts the reader and communicates to the reader. It is that element that gives the illusion of speech." Murray continues: "Voice carries the writer's intensity and glues together the information that the reader needs to know. It is the music in writing that makes the meaning clear" (Expecting the Unexpected: Teaching Myself--and Others--to Read and Write, 1989).

From the Latin, "call"

Quotes on Writer's Voice

Don Fry: Voice is the sum of all strategies used by the author to create the illusion that the writer is speaking directly to the reader from the page.

Ben Yagoda: Voice is the most popular metaphor for writing style, but an equally suggestive one may be delivery or presentation, as it includes body language, facial expression, stance, and other qualities that set speakers apart from one another.

Mary McCarthy: If one means by style the voice, the irreducible and always recognizable and alive thing, then of course style is really everything.

Peter Elbow: I think voice is one of the main forces that draws us into texts. We often give other explanations for what we like ('clarity,' 'style,' 'energy,' 'sublimity,' 'reach,' even 'truth'), but I think it's often one sort of voice or another. One way of saying this is that voice seems to overcome 'writing' or textuality. That is, speech seems to come to us as listener; the speaker seems to do the work of getting the meaning into our heads. In the case of writing, on the other hand, it's as though we as reader have [to] go to the text and do the work of extracting the meaning. And speech seems to give us more sense of contact with the author.

Walker Gibson: The personality I am expressing in this written sentence is not the same as the one I orally express to my three-year-old who at this moment is bent on climbing onto my typewriter. For each of these two situations, I choose a different 'voice,' a different mask, in order to accomplish what I want accomplished.

Lisa Ede: Just as you dress differently on different occasions, as a writer you assume different voices in different situations. If you're writing an essay about a personal experience, you may work hard to create a strong personal voice in your essay. . . . If you're writing a report or essay exam, you will adopt a more formal, public tone. Whatever the situation, the choice you make as you write and revise . . . will determine how readers interpret and respond to your presence.

Robert P. Yagelski: If voice is the writer's personality that a reader 'hears' in a text, then tone might be described as the writer's attitude in a text. The tone of a text might be emotional (angry, enthusiastic, melancholy), measured (such as in an essay in which the author wants to seem reasonable on a controversial topic), or objective or neutral (as in a scientific report). . . . In writing, tone is created through word choice, sentence structure, imagery, and similar devices that convey to a reader the writer's attitude. Voice, in writing, by contrast, is like the sound of your spoken voice: deep, high-pitched, nasal. It is the quality that makes your voice distinctly your own, no matter what tone you might take. In some ways, tone and voice overlap, but voice is a more fundamental characteristic of a writer, whereas tone changes upon the subject and the writer's feelings about it.

​Mary Ehrenworth and Vicki Vinton: If, as we believe, grammar is linked to voice, students need to be thinking about grammar far earlier in the writing process. We cannot teach grammar in lasting ways if we teach it as a way to fix students' writing, especially writing they view as already complete. Students need to construct knowledge of grammar by practicing it as part of what it means to write, particularly in how it helps create a voice that engages the reader on the page.

Louis Menand: One of the most mysterious of writing’s immaterial properties is what people call 'voice.' . . . Prose can show many virtues, including originality, without having a voice. It may avoid cliché, radiate conviction, be grammatically so clean that your grandmother could eat off it. But none of this has anything to do with this elusive entity the 'voice.' There are probably all kinds of literary sins that prevent a piece of writing from having a voice, but there seems to be no guaranteed technique for creating one. Grammatical correctness doesn’t insure it. Calculated incorrectness doesn’t, either. Ingenuity, wit, sarcasm, euphony, frequent outbreaks of the first-person singular—any of these can enliven prose without giving it a voice.

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "The Writer's Voice in Literature and Rhetoric." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Nordquist, Richard. (2021, February 16). The Writer's Voice in Literature and Rhetoric. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "The Writer's Voice in Literature and Rhetoric." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 28, 2023).

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