So far in my series on voice, I’ve detailed my thoughts on voice in fiction. But now were going enter the realm of… the real (1). In addition to proper citations (see what I did there?), facts need proper voice and tone. Let’s talk voice in works of non-fiction.
First, remember this: non-fiction books aren’t all lists of facts or instructional. Many of them are stories, and need to be treated as such, including in terms of voice. Particularly autobiographies and memoirs (for the difference, see here). Let’s talk about those first.
It’s easy to think that an autobiographoical book simply needs the author’s natural voice. But in practice, this isn’t really the case. If you are writing memoirs or other first-person narratives, you aren’t really being yourself; you’re being a version of yourself. And guess what? Just like overall voice in fiction, that version of yourself needs to be consistent.
Is your autobiographical story a happy one? A thoughtful one? Or is it a roller coaster of highs and lows? Whatever it is, just like in fiction, you need to handle voice and tone in a manner that serves the story in the best way possible, from beginning to end. This might be as simple as being yourself. Momentum can often carry a writer through an autobiographical process. But lots of people can do that, and the result isn’t always compelling or well-written. Take the time and effort to make it so.
What if you’re writing a book about… say… yoga? In this context, you obviously have something significant to say about yogic practice (breathing, meditation, movement, alignment, or some combination). This could take the form of anything from a straight relating of historical fact (for example, your pictorial on the step-by-step evolution of supta baddha konasana), to presenting people with a new synthesis of yogic ideas gleaned from your own personal practice. If the former, then you’ll want to gravitate towards a more academic voice, whereas in the latter, you are more likely to feature a more informal voice that conveys a sense of discovery. A yoga teacher training manual will have a lot of information in bulleted points, photos, and lists of reference materials, but might also have the personal stamp of the teacher, making it a combination of the above. Make sure that you know what it is that you need to do before you get started and make a plan. Find a good editor to make sure that you stay on that plan!
Academic non-fiction has a style and voice all its own. Generally speaking, academic texts are much more formal, much more aligned with high school and college English essay writing than fiction. There is almost never an “I” and almost no personal stories to be found outside of a preface. Strict adherence to a style guide both in terms of grammar and citations in necessary. And make sure that you do what is appropriate for your discipline. For example, academic writing in music and art differs from that of physics and psychology. While both feature an academic voice, aspects of the voice might be different. Make sure you know what works best and what is expected.
[Bonus tip: when writing non-fiction, especially academic non-fiction, make sure that you make a commitment up front to document your sources! Nothing is worse than trying to finish up your book or manual, and not being able to remember where you lifted a quote or idea from! See this excellent resource for more on what kind of things to cite. When in doubt about whether to do so, cite it!]
And so, my series on voice comes to an end. Hope you had as much fun as I did! Let me know in the comments what thoughts and experiences you might have on voice in non-fiction.
Look for more writing tips – and maybe even a new series – soon.
1 – Wachowski, Andy and Lana. The Matrix. Directed by Andy and Lana Wachowski. Los Angeles: Warner Bros.,1999. Paraphrase of quote from the movie, Morpheus to Neo: “Welcome to the desert of the real.”