The Secret of Style


It’s the secret sauce of writing. The magical herb that transforms your stew. It’s the leaf of gold in a martini. The lemony brightness.

It’s also, no surprise, the single thing that agents most often look for in a debut work. A distinctive voice. The key to success.

Although agents are most vocal in wanting this, I’d say that the same issue matters almost as much to self-published debuts. After all, if you’re writing just another romance, the reader can buy any old romance to meet their needs. They don’t have to buy your #2 in the series. But if you write something so distinctive that there’s just no adequate substitute out there, they have to buy your #2, and then your #3, and then … No prizes for guessing which kind of self-pub author makes more money.

Right, so voice is good. But what is it? What actually are we talking about here?

Well, the dictionary definition would be something like Voice = the author’s stylistic fingerprint. A distinctive way of writing, unique to that specific author.

Voice is most obviously applicable to questions of prose style. So Raymond Chandler’s voice is immediately distinctive from the way he puts words on a page. This kind of thing:

“It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.”

Or this:

“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen.”

But voice has to do with more than just prose.

So if you think about (for example) I Am Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout, there’s nothing so very remarkable about the way she puts words on a page. For example, this:

“Then I understood I would never marry him. It's funny how one thing can make you realize something like that. One can be ready to give up the children one always wanted, one can be ready to withstand remarks about one's past, or one's clothes, but then--a tiny remark and the soul deflates and says: Oh.”

That doesn’t have anything like the showiness of Raymond Chandler. Each sentence is perfectly simple. The finish is rather flat, as though the author is painting in acrylics, not oils.

That sounds like a put-down. But the human / emotional insights are so precisely observed, so accurately and simply delivered, that their cumulative effect is overwhelming. The flatness of style is, in fact, closely married to the insight. The same kind of insight delivered in Chandler-ese would have deflected most of the attention to the writing, and removed the power of the actual observation.

It’s not hard to find voice in any author of real quality. Take Lee Child. He hardly operates at the literary end of the spectrum. You could slap a chunk of his prose down on the page and not find anything so remarkable. For example:

“Never forgive, never forget. Do it once and do it right. You reap what you sow. Plans go to hell as soon as the first shot is fired. Protect and serve. Never off duty”

That doesn’t look like authorial voice even a little bit. That looks like a chain of sentences lining up for the World Cliché Parade.

But – Jack Reacher. That’s the secret of Lee Child’s voice right there. The way Reacher thinks, acts, remembers, operates is a brilliant construct. Reacher certainly doesn’t have any of Elizabeth’s Strunk’s quietly piercing observations, but Child gives us a complete, brilliant, detailed picture of the way a fighting machine like Reacher works. The (mostly) unremarkable prose is absolutely a part of that. Reacher doesn’t do fancy, so the prose follows suit.

And, OK, all this is interesting. But we haven’t yet said anything useful.

I mean, if voice is so important, then it would be kind of useful to know where to get it, how to build it. [Stuff I also discuss in this blog post, incidentally.]

And – I don’t know.

Not really.

Or rather: I don’t think there’s a specific set of techniques you can use to go and get yourself a distinctive voice. In that sense, it’s not like problems with prose, or problems with plot, where you can simply run a fairly standard set of diagnostic tools to identify the specific issues and find solutions.

On the other hand, I can tell you what kind of person you have to be to have voice. What kind of writer.

Above all, you have to be a confident one. Confident in yourself. I love quoting Gore Vidal on this. He says:

"Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say and not giving a damn.”

The hardest bit there is the not giving a damn. It’s finding the mode of expression that works best for you, then just going for it. Taking off that inner handbrake. Following the logic of your path to its end. Ensuring, relentlessly, that you are satisfied with every last word on the page. That those words, in that order, spoken by those characters are what you want to express.

That means, in order to please an agent – you have to not give a damn about what an agent may think.

In order to please your eventual reader – you have to not care, or not care directly, about their judgements.

In effect, the finding-a-voice journey is an act of inner completion, that just happens to be executed via writing. Which is great. Which is uplifting. But which is also a real bummer, because what tools and techniques do you use to become a more complete human?

I don’t really have a useful answer to that question. I’d say my voice was kinda present in my first ever novel – it didn’t read exactly like anybody else’s debut novel. But before I had anything like a completely confident voice, I’d written five (maybe six) novels and three or four works of non-fiction. And yes, I think there’s something replicable about that technique. Write five or six published novels, and you’ll find yourself writing in a Vidal-ish, not-giving-a-damn kind of way.

But some of you might be a little more impatient than that. And yes, as a voice-acquisition technique, I’d say my own process was hardly speedy.

So instead let me recommend these two approaches:

1. Learn writing technique

One of the reasons why newbie writers end up sounding undistinctive is that they have so much else to grapple with. Is my plot working? Should I choose first person or third? Does this character feel vivid? Does this relationship have enough conflict? (etc, etc, etc).

The result is that they never really get to grapple with those Gore Vidal-ish things at all. Their minds (my mind, during those first few books of mine) are too pre-occupied with issues of mere technique.

So, lesson one, absorb writing technique until it’s second nature. The more you absorb and internalise those tools, the more your mind is freed for other things. For self-expression and self-finding.

2. Rewrite

You can’t be satisfied because something is OK. You can only afford to be satisfied when this is OK and expresses exactly what you wanted to say in the way that you wanted to say it.

And because you don’t even know what you want to say until you start saying it, you’ll find, almost inevitably, that you build your way towards something good by writing and unpicking, and then re-writing and re-unpicking, all the way until you’re finally done.

That’s lesson two.

3. Ignore anyone else’s model

The next thriller writer to be as successful as Lee Child will not write like Lee Child.

The next crime writer to make as much of a mark as Raymond Chandler will definitely not write like Raymond Chandler (because zillions of people have written in a Chandler-lite kind of way and absolutely none of them made any kind of mark.)

So forget about those models, great as they are.

Forget also about the endless peer-to-peer workshopping, practised by a lot of university creative writing programmes. That workshopping has plenty to be said for it, no doubt, but too much of it will turn your work into something that sounds like all those other creative writing MFA type products. And you don’t want that. You want to sound like you.

That’s lesson three, and here endeth all the lessons.

That’s it from me.

I am now going to take a hayfever pill and declare war on every blade of grass in Oxfordshire.



PPS: The best place to learn writing technique? Duh. That would be on Jericho Writers, of course. Among your options:

  • The Ultimate Novel Writing Course. Does exactly what it says on the tin. I think this writing course might be the finest writing course in the whole world ever. That’s certainly the way we designed it. More here.
  • Mentoring, with the mighty Daren King. We’re looking to add more mentors to this programme soon, but Daren has been doing this for ten years and he’s very, very good. More here.
  • Jericho Writers Membership. Don’t forget that membership confers access to a really complete, detailed, joyous video course on writing. If you just watched all those videos over the course of a month, you would definitely be a better writer than you were at the start. If you have a manuscript on the go at the moment, that course will show you countless ways to improve it. More on the course here. More on membership here.
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Comments (2)
  • I always enjoy your emails  but this latest one really resonated. A couple of years ago I completed an essay as part of a creative writing course. My 'voice' was loud and strong: 

    'Two years ago my brother wrote a book. If you scroll through his Facebook timeline in between the memes about his beloved Spurs you will see references to The Paderborn Connection. My brother, however, has been somewhat inactive in the promotion game. Aside from the Facebook posts – bear in mind he only has thirty or so friends – he has not advertised his book.'

    Since then I have been trying to write the debut novel. In an email to my course tutor I commented I was struggling to find my voice and thought in fact it was probably staring down from a high place sticking two fingers  up at me.

    I have come close to replicating the style of the essay but comments on the following excerpt suggested it was unwieldy and difficult to follow.

    “But you’re not wearing High School uniform”, he looked at her navy skirt and jumper, confused. “The High School uniform is brown with a brown and yellow striped tie, not blue like yours”.

     Great. Fantastic. If it’s not bad enough she has to spend the bus journey sat next to a complete weirdo, it now seemed as though she would be stared at for the rest of the day. She’d been ready for the comments she would get about the fact her skirt was a bit short - ‘ oh, I had a growth spurt over the summer, didn’t realise until I got dressed’ – but she wasn’t sure how she was going to explain it being completely the wrong colour. 

     “My name’s Tom. I go to the grammar school”.

     Shut up Tom. I couldn’t care less what school you go to. Your uniform might not fit but at least it’s the right one. 

    My novel has stalled of late - as it frequently does - but I think I now understand where my voice has been hiding. It has shut itself away, sulking a little, and perhaps somewhat embarrassed. Having had the confidence to use it once I abandoned it in favour of something more mainstream. Time for us both to put our heads above the proverbial parapet.Thanks for the insight Harry.

    • Yep, voice has a lot to do with confidence, no question. On the "unwieldy and difficult to follow" bit, just take a look at the way you jump from "not blue like yours" [Tom's dialogue] to "Great. Fantastic..." [her thoughts].

      That's jarring because you've gone from something completely external to something wholly interior. You can do that, but not as fast as you do. You need to prepare the reader from the switch from A to B. So:

      .. not blue like yours."

      She could feel herself staring at him. Perhaps even blushing. And if so, the red on her cheeks was just echoing the voice in her head. Great. Fantastic ...

      Now that's not great writing by any means, but it moves the reader by stages from exterior to very interior, and as a result doesn't jar. You can find out more about all that right here: