Story vs. Voice, or When Does Editing Kill the Author?


So this has been a controversial topic at my place today, and even as I settle in to do night shift on my manuscript, the spirit of this discussion hangs heavy about my shoulders.

What the hell am I talking about?  Story vs. Voice…what does that even mean?

I’ve been trying to convince my husband and ‘First Draft Editor’ of the actual existence of “voice” within a work and its importance to the writer.  Most writers understand the concept of “Voice”; it is — as I refer to it here — that particular way of phrasing dialogue, creating a description, choosing a perfect adjective…creating the mood through the words one chooses.  It’s the way that five different writers can take the same story (and I’m not even going as broad as the same premise of a story — you’ll see why in a second) and every, single one of those stories will sound different.

We’ll use “Snow White” as an example.  We have four children and plenty of books of bedtime stories; one daughter, in particular, loves this story.  I won’t bore you with the details of it; chances are you already know it (and rejoice in ignorance if you don’t — I find this story SO tedious!).  Each telling of the story is unique to the author who penned it, regardless of the fact that the story stays the same no matter what: pretty princess, seven dwarves, evil stepmother, poisoned apple, handsome prince.  How is that possible?

Author Voice.

An author chooses how to structure sentences and what words will best convey their vision of the tale.  I maintain that it’s vitally important for the author to be able to write the story in their own manner, using the vocabulary that they think best relates what they want to say.  For example:

“It was a dark and stormy night.  A carriage rolled across damp cobblestones and stopped at the front door of an ancient manor house.” 


“Clouds blotted out the stars as lightning flashed on the horizon.  The wheels of a carriage grated against the cobblestone road, halting before the entrance to a hulking manor that had long ago seen better days.”

Hopefully the two sentences are saying the same thing; I don’t claim either one is particularly good or correct.  There are a million ways to convey the essence of those two sentences.  THAT is voice.  One version of the same story will read very differently based on what words are chosen, what details are presented, etc.

Now, my dear husband sits on a different fence.  The gist of his argument is that it doesn’t matter what words are used in the telling of the story…it’s the story itself that’s unique to the author and IS the author’s voice.  He’s educated himself on the finer points of editing, and one rule that always comes up is: CUT, CUT, CUT!  Once the first draft is done, cut the crap out of it until what’s left is pure, concentrated story.

He argues that the way a story is told — and, indeed, the story itself — is far more important than the words used to convey it.  It doesn’t matter how many times “Snow White” is re-written…as soon as someone changes the storyline, it’s a different story; if the storyline stays the same, credit must be given to the original author.  It doesn’t matter what Snow White says to her stepmother when the Evil Queen gives her the apple; she has to take the apple and eat it…how you get there is irrelevant, or it’s a different story.

Hmm…are we actually discussing apples vs. oranges here?


Now, lest you think I’m being sensitive about having my own writing cut — I’m not!!  I know my manuscript is way too bloated to go looking for an agent as it stands…it needs to go on a bloody strict diet.

The reason we’re here in the first place is because I feel I’ve chosen to say things using particular words for a particular reason.  My main character is a white girl from the midwest, USA.  She’s going to use certain references or words and not others.  My husband, however, has occasionally suggested “colourful” ways to express ideas that I don’t feel fit with her character.  Similarly, there have been some suggestions in the narrative portion of the story that, to me, feel like nails on the chalkboard when I read them — they’re not the words I myself would use, and I feel like my voice is getting brushed away.  When I raise concerns, I’m told to lighten up and have fun with the words…  Things like “schmoozing”, “flabbergasted”, “bamboozled” are being suggested to me, and when taken in the spirit of my story, I don’t feel they convey the right mood (and yes, they are being used totally in the right context…I just don’t think they feel right where they are).    Again, hmm.

What are other people’s feeling about voice vs. story?  What about author voice in general — what does that mean to you?  Have you ever felt your author voice was getting lost or stolen, and why?

Since I don’t have any writer friends with whom to have these kinds of discussions, I’ll put it out to the universe and see if anyone wants to chat!


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