A nonfiction-author client of mine asked yesterday, “What voice should I write in for my self-help book?” Being an analytical guy, he spelled out four choices he was trying to choose between:
- Narrative: As I did this, my life improved
- Cooperative: As we do this, our lives will improve
- Direct: As you do this, your life will improve
- Observatory: As they do this, their lives will improve
(or When they did this, their lives improved)
“I am sure there are proper terms for these voices,” he added. “When I first started, my style was very direct and used you a lot. I looked at a number of books and decided to change it to we. What is your opinion?”
‘Voice’ Can Have Two Different Meanings
Well, first, let’s name what we have here. These are actually different author voices, but in grammar books, the word “voice” is reserved to mean something else—either active or passive voice.
Active voice sounds like this: The boy hurled the ball at the basket.
Passive voice sounds like this: The ball was hurled at the basket by the boy.
Ninety-nine percent of the time, active voice is a better choice than passive voice—for pretty obvious reasons. Which of the above two sentences is better writing? Clearly, the first. It’s less wordy, and also more natural-sounding. Writing teachers are always telling students to write in the active voice.
Choosing Your ‘Author Voice’
But my client wasn’t asking about voice as the grammar books define it. He was asking about author voice, which is something different. The grammar books actually have a name for author voice. They call it person.
- I—first person (singular)
- We—first person (plural)
- You— second person (singular and plural)
- He/she/it—third person (singular)
- They—third person (plural)
My client’s real question, then, was “What person should I write in?” He was right to be concerned about saying you a lot. Too much of that in a book can give the writing a preachy tone. It makes it sound like the author feels separate from and superior to the reader. It can also give writing a demanding or intimidating tone. No one likes “to be told what to do.”
On the other hand, too much use of we sounds phony and condescending. An example is the stereotypical nurse: “How are we feeling today, Mr. Jones? It’s time for our meds, dear.”
And then there’s the overdone first-person, singular I … which happens when a self-help book veers off into the equivalent of personal journaling. The author becomes me-centered, telling too many stories about himself, instead of keeping the focus on the reader, her problems, and the practical solutions she came there to hear. The writing turns narcissistic, and the book becomes all about you. (This is a common downfall in self-help books by first-time, self-published authors.)
How about writing in the third person, with they? Excessive use of they gives your book a stuffy, pompous, or overly academic tone. Chances are you won’t overdo the third person. That’s mostly a danger for academics, who often write in an impersonal style in hopes of giving their words an objective, scientific tone. Overdone third person appears in many academic articles and dissertations, but most nonfiction writers won’t fall into that ditch.
Don’t Over-Think It
The best approach is not to analyze it but to write in whatever person (author voice) feels natural as you’re writing. Write as if you were speaking the words to someone. When in conversation, you don’t vacillate between whether to say they, we, I, or you. Instead, you simply talk, focusing on the thoughts you’re trying to express, not on the words you’re using. In the same way, it’s best just to write spontaneously and naturally.
Afterwards, in the revision stage, you can tweak the author voice where needed. You may decide a patch of text has too much first person—it sounds too much like your journal— so you whittle down some of that personal narration. Upon review, another section of text may sound a little bullying—you discover it’s thick with you statements, and change them to we.
Natural Solves It
Bottom line: write as you would speak—naturally. Write as if you’re talking to the reader, sitting across the table, sharing coffee. If you do this, your words will assume an author tone that is pleasing and suited to the message you want to convey. Some revision afterwards may be needed—you may have jumped on your soapbox at some point or indulged in a long stroll down your personal memory lane. But for the most part, the tone will come across as natural and conversational, which is what most authors aim for in their nonfiction book. And if you have trouble deciding if a passage sounds overbearing or narcissistic—well, that’s one reason God made book editors.
Jessi Rita Hoffman . . . book editing by an industry professional