Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Behind the Books: A Look at Voice, Part 2

I’m going to pick up right where I left off last week—with a discussion of voice, which as three components: point of view, style, and tone. Today’s post is about style—nope, not fashion sense. If you want advice on that, you’ve come to the wrong place.

In nonfiction writing, style is the personality of the writing. It is created through deliberate choices in sentence structure, word choice, and point to view. When I think about what style to adopt, I think about the function of the passage.

Sometimes a piece should be formal and authoritative. But most of the time, a fun, conversational style is better. Here are two examples that are great for comparing because they convey almost the same information, but using very different styles.

From the Encarta Online Encyclopedia
"The outer auditory canal, which measures about 3 cm (about 1.25 in) in length, is a tubular passageway lined with delicate hairs and small glands that produce a wax-like secretion called cerumen. The canal leads from the pinna to a thin taut membrane called the eardrum or tympanic membrane, which is nearly round in shape and about 10 mm (0.4 in) wide. It is the vibration of the eardrum that sends sound waves deeper into the ear."

From my book Now Hear This! The Secrets of Ears and Hearing
"When you look at the opening to your ear canal, it’s hard to imagine what’s inside. That dark, little tunnel is about half as long as your pinky finger. At the far end, sound waves crash into your eardrum—a thin, skin-like membrane that separates your outer ear from your middle ear.

"Soft, sensitive skin lines the surface of your ear canal. Just below the surface, dozens of small sacs called cerumen glands are constantly cranking out a fresh supply of icky earwax. The gummy goo oozes through tiny tubes and seeps into your ear canal through pit-like pores.

"If your ancestors came from Europe or Africa, your earwax probably forms sticky, yellow clumps. But if your ancestors were Asian or Native American, your earwax probably forms crusty, gray flakes."

The encyclopedia is straightforward and informative, but most people wouldn’t want to read pages and pages of information written in this style. That’s okay, though, because that’s not how we use the encyclopedia. It’s a reference that is used to snatch small bits of knowledge and then move on.

My passage is longer, but it’s more lively and engaging. It’s fun to read. And it’s full of amazing details that will fascinate young readers. The comparisons are relevant to my audience’s every day experiences, and the text contains vivid, memorable images.

That’s what style is all about.

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