Voice is an unavoidable component of all forms of writing. To slightly paraphrase Janice Hardy, voice is the sense that there is a person behind the words. That sense of person is how the reader connects with what the writer says. If there is a problem with voice, the connection will be faulty or won’t be made at all.
How can there be a problem with voice? Isn’t the writer always the person behind the words? Well, yes and no. Yes, the writer is always somewhere behind the words, but often the writer wants to communicate or connect through a particular perspective or persona, even in non-fiction. Any time the words don’t clearly convey that perspective or persona, the connection shorts out.
Although this can happen in several ways, inconsistency is the most common problem with voice. It’s like someone changing channels during a broadcast without warning: inconsistent voice makes it hard to follow what’s going on, whether that’s a line of reasoning or a plot line. The simplest way to be consistent is to maintain the same perspective throughout a written piece (much harder than it sounds). This is not to say, however, that shifts in perspective make for poor writing or need to be avoided. When executed properly, they bring a delightful complexity and nuance to writing.
How can changes in perspective, by their very definition, be consistent? They happen in a manner that makes sense, that arises naturally from the plot or argument and advances it. They follow a structural pattern, usually visible, occurring at section or chapter breaks. They take place when a scene changes or when new source material is introduced. Here’s the real kicker: when shifts in perspective add to the plot or line of reasoning without disruption or distraction, they weave together to form a single, rich, complex voice.
The writer’s voice.