Voice and tone

As Anna Barker has so eloquently pointed out (Finding your voice, November 2016), an author’s voice is their most important attribute, although this doesn’t mean it should be constantly in the reader’s ear. It’s there, though. Just as habitual listeners are unlikely to mistake Rachmaninov for Mozart, so habitual readers will immediately recognise, for example, Jane Austen, James Joyce or Martin Amis. When I write a newspaper column, I want readers to know it’s me without looking at my byline. Without voice, authors might as well be robots.

Academic writing is, of course, different. It’s vital to find your own voice, but for doctoral theses and journal articles, that voice must be tempered by academic conventions. Postgraduates find this a challenge. During immersive writing sessions at the University of Glasgow, my co-facilitator and I asked doctoral students to describe their feelings about academic tone. ‘Prison’ was a favourite description. For staff and postgraduates at the Glasgow School of Art’s Institute of Design Innovation, tone was also a daunting hurdle. Their work involves living people and living landscapes. Academic tone seemed to drain all the life away.

Historical novelists face the same problem. Dialogue written in the style of the novel’s era is a real life-drainer. ‘Zounds, sirrah, prithee hie for the apothecary’ is Blackadder territory. Serious authors must discover how to evoke the period without strangling their story. Hilary Mantel is an excellent tutor. ‘Cromwell has the skin of a lily,’ she has the king say near the start of Bring Up the Bodies, ‘the only particular in which he resembles that or any other blossom.’ The tone is not 21st century: we might say ‘skin like a lily’ or ‘lily-like skin’; ‘the only particular’ would be ‘the only way’; ‘flower’ is now preferred to ‘blossom’. Nevertheless, we get the joke. Far from tone being a constraint, in Mantel’s hands, it’s fuel.

A historical novelist myself, I particularly empathise with students struggling with tone. One successful strategy for both novelist and student is to be punctilious with punctuation. Inserting every comma, every full stop, every semi-colon and colon, injects formality. Another is to study in detail the tonal technique of authors you admire – words, phrases, sentence and paragraph structure – until you understand how tone actually works. It takes time but not one second is wasted.

As for robot authors, they are already with us. Many media outlets now use software to write data-heavy stories. Some predict that a machine will one day win a Pulitzer Prize. On that day, forget voice and tone. Unless they’ve got shares in the software, the only sound will be human authors shrieking.

15 March 2017