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Three Necessities!

Posted on Wednesday, May 30, 2012 at 10:08 AM

Exploit your individuality, prove your competence, and provide atmosphere.

By Peter P. Jacobi

We need to remind ourselves once in a while that writing is not only an exercise in self-expression. Ultimately and more importantly, it is a gift to readers. They complete our creative act. What do we need to do to make them consenting readers, more freely willing to enter into the literary substance we provide?

Here's a call for voice, style, and tone.

They must be more than vaporous presences that flit about as you verbalize your material, more than shadows that lurk at the boundaries of your labors. Their presence must dominate. They are musts in the fabric of your content.

Voice: Necessity Number 1

Voice means the release of you in your writing. It means the release of your (or your writer's) individuality, that which separates your (or your writer's) work from that of others. I may have quoted Andre Gide, the French man of letters, previously, but even if so, his words are worth sharing again:

"What another would have done as well as you, do not do it. What another would have said as well as you, do not say it; written as well, do not write it. Be faithful to that which exists nowhere but in yourself -- and thereby make yourself indispensable."

When considering voice, I think about honesty and perspective and urgency. I think about approach and vision and personality. I think about Mozart and Beethoven: no matter whether it's a concerto of theirs or sonata or symphony, choral piece or opera, no matter whether the substance is sad or happy, weighty or light, the music is recognizably Mozart's or Beethoven's. So it is with a distinctive painter: a Rembrandt, a Cassatt, a Chagall. So it is with Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, or Toni Morrison.

As the philosopher R. Buckminster Fuller preached, "Never forget that you are one of a kind. Never forget that if there weren't any need for you in all your uniqueness to be on this earth, you wouldn't be here in the first place."

Joyce Carol Oates speaks of "a rhythm, a unique music, a precise way of seeing and hearing that will give the writer access to the world he is trying to create."

Jorge Luis Borges explains voice as "unobtrusive skill," not allowing the reader to be "aware of a sense of effort," writing that seems "inevitable as well as easy."

And speaking of voice, if your article features a major character, then not only should the whole of your piece have your own creative stamp, but you must strive to capture the voice, the distinctive personality, the special nature of that character as well.

Style: Necessity Number 2

As for style, let me say first that an effective voice employs an effective style. But style involves word choice and sentence structure, flow and continuity, grammar and punctuation and spelling -- the basics of good writing. Style calls for unity of copy and coherence as well as matters of emphasis such as pace, proportion, and climax. Style demands clarity.

For language maven Roger Rosenblatt, style is "spare writing. Precise and restrained writing. I like short sentences," he says, "fragmented sentences, sometimes. I enjoy dropping in exotic words from time to time. Either they put off readers or drive them to the dictionary. I do it anyway."

Advising a schoolboy essayist, Mark Twain wrote: "I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. This is the way to write English -- it is the modern way, and the best way. Stick to it. Don't let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch adjectives, kill most of them -- then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse or flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other voice." And thus, Mark Twain spoke of style without naming it.

I know good style when I see it. So do you. Here's the rub: It is far easier for us as readers to recognize good style than for us as writers to produce it. Sensitive editing can help, of course. Style is the essential element we strive across a lifetime to perfect. Perfection eludes. We simply have to keep working away at issues of style to keep improving.

Style: your mastery of words and technical skill at putting them together, your ability to make language work for you.

Tone: Necessity Number 3

Concerning tone: Every piece of writing must possess tone, whether that tone be serious or slapstick, formal or friendly, dynamic or gentle, cheerful or angry, lofty or earthy, mushy or strident, passionate or dispassionate, sunny or ominous, weighty or whimsical, happy or sad, flamboyant or restrained.

Tone must suit your attitude toward the subject you're writing about and must also announce that attitude to the reader so clearly that he or she will recognize immediately where you are coming from.

When I say immediately, I mean tone must be present from the start of your copy. It must be evident throughout although, certainly, it can and must change with your story's change of circumstances.

Tone: giving your copy a feel, a mood, an aura, a color.

So, into your work, inject:

Voice -- to exploit your individuality.

Style -- to prove your competence.

Tone -- to provide atmosphere.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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