Wednesday 23 March 2011


What is 'visual voice' in fiction? Simple - the effect of layout, formatting. What the reader sees when they open a book, even before they consciously 'read' the words for meaning.
I am sure there must be a technical term for what I am talking about - if there is please let me know. But I can't find it. To explain - I have just finished going through the copyeditor's changes to the manuscript of 'The Coward's Tale', many many of which were necessary, and the novel will be better for them.
But then I started wondering about some - all absolutely correct, grammatically - because they changed my perception of the words, before I even got to them - just seeing them coming in the sentence (this required a leap of consciousness, heightened awareness of what I was feeling) was changing my attitude to the prose.
I'd better give you an example. In many cases, I had created single words out of two words that would normally be hyphenated, or stand alone. "Coaldust' as opposed to 'coal dust'. Or conversely, I had broken normally joined words into two. "Can not" as opposed to 'cannot'.
My lovely copyeditor had quite rightly corrected them. But as I was reading back, these changes were changing the way I read the work. They were altering, sometimes subtly, sometimes not, the inflections in each sentence, the voice in my head as I read. Take a look at 'coaldust' and 'coal dust' and say them out loud, and really listen. With the first, the emphasis falls on the first syllable, quite strongly. With the second, the emphasis falls more evenly over the two words. So there is a shift in the musicality of the sentence.
But more than that - especially with hyphens - they are so correct. And look at the way I write - I use dashes. Ellipses. Too many hyphens on a page where where there are deliberate dashes calls attention, even more than usual, to the punctuation. At least, it did , to me. So I gave a few pages of 'before and after' to a couple of intelligent readers who know my work. 'Which reads more comfortably'?
Answer, the 'incorrect' one.
So I suppose what I am saying is, cultivate awareness of the effects of everything. Correctness for the sake of it can clash with what the words are saying, changing the visual voice of a piece of fiction. If it needs to be correct, then marvellous. If it doesn't -have at it!
To give a good example from work that is not my own, see Jon McGregor's 'Only The Dogs'. And see the layout of the sections, the white space useage, whole long chapters where the last sentence of each paragraph hangs unfinished before white space. Technically, incorrect. But correct that and you'd ruin the novel, because you'd ruin the voice.



  1. Yes! Absolutely. I love that we can be playful with language and with space and with how the words look on the page as well as how they sound and fit together 'musically'.
    I think you need a lot of confidence to be sure of yourself when doing it (back to breaking rules and the intention of how we write) but when done well the effect can be startling and delightful.

  2. Hello Vanessa
    Fascinating topic as I am greatly influenced as a reader by typography,layout and puctuation (especially of dialogue). Always wondered how much say the author has in this.

  3. Bottom line is punctuation's used for various reasons and it was only in the decade of the 1840's that the grammatical-logical theories finally triumphed in prose. But literary prose has more freedom. In poetry the jury's still out. Details are on

    "Literary Punctuation: A Test" (in Literary Imagination 8.2 (2006)) looks in depth at 12 punctuation situations. The first is
    "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife"
    "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife".

  4. fascinating, and I so agree, especially about hyphens. And can not vs cannot has always been an issue...

  5. Hi Claire - I wonder if this is my grounding in short fiction coming out - in that I notice every single word and its effect. Whether anyone else will is anyone's guess!

  6. Hi AliB - thanks for calling in. Well, I suppose it differs from publisher to publisher, but generally the writer must have a big say in how things were meant to be - so long as they can say why, I guess.

    In the case of The Coward, much the book, about a third) is backstory related in direct speech. (This novel breaks so many rules...). Technically therefore, each paragraph ought to begin with a single inverted comma. Fine - but then what happens when there is a conversation reported within that story? Each new line of speech, by a new speaker, ought to begin with a single inverted comma - followed immediately by double inverted commas. So a quick dramatised remembrance became (for example):

    'I met Fred, and just then Joe walked in, and you should have heard them.
    ' ''Well hi Joe, haven't seen you for a long time."
    ' "No, I guess you haven't."
    ' "So where've you been since 1066?"
    ' "Who wants to know?"
    ' "I do. Still got the gold bullion?"
    'And then the biggest fight ever. You should have seen it.'

    Er - no, that is nothing whatsoever to do with The Coward's Tale (!) but just to show the triple inverted commas, although correct, were getting in the way, especially given the amount of backstory/story and direct speech within direct speech there is.
    Thank heavens, my editor saw how bad it looked! I hope you agree..?

  7. Tim, that's fascinating - thanks. Must say, both look OK, until you look harder and harder, and my brain rebels then!

  8. Vanessa - in The Night Rainbow there is a lot of dialogue and not one double inverted comma. Intentionally, of course.

  9. There wasn't in The Coward... but it became confusing, direct speech taking place within the narrative present of the novel, and past direct speech remembered within present direct speech...aaagh. Now I have a headache - as Im sure Erica at Bloomsbury has!

    Sometimes the easiest thing is to drop all speechmarks - as per Jon McG.

  10. I so agree - the rules sometimes ruin the effect of the words and rhythm. I love playful typography. Janice Galloway in The Trick is to Keep Breathing is absolutely wonderful at leaving things unwritten, letters dropping off a page - not for show, but for the meaning. White space is vital, wordplay is excellent - and if you mean coaldust then it *should* be coaldust. No?

  11. Really interesting conversation! I asked Jon McGregor about the layout of Onlythe Dogs, and also of If Nobody Speaks... they are both quite unique, quite odd. He said something like he would have liked to write Only the Dogs with just one paragraph at the bottom of each page - but his publisher objected! His layout is absolutely crucial for the story, and I can imagine yours is too. We had a fascinating discussion about this at an event here in bristol on entering short stories for competitions. One lady would not accept that you shouldn't leave a line blank between each para. But if you do, it means something completely different than a para break. Anyway, I love getting absorbed with how my writing looks on the page. Sometimes I keep speech inside the para, sometimes on a new line. Whatever feels right.

  12. Fascinating - thanks, T. I wonder why he wanted just a paragraph on each page? Maybe to point up the disjointedness, the blank spaces in the speakers' lives. They are like a Greek chorus, the dead. Fab book.

    But I can see that to only have a single para at the bottom of the page would extend the book so it looked 'substantial'. Whereas, it's relative delicacy works SO well. anyway, the reader might object to paying for so much blank paper. And the publisher would come in for criticism about point in antagonising people before they start reading.

    Mine is nowhere near that 'different'. Maybe it is because Im a ss writer, that I notice every single thing as opposed to a series of bigger pictures? Maybe it is a good thing, maybe not! But I am with you - if something works for the creator, do it! But also, be prepared to compromise - if Id left The Coward in my original formatting, all direct speech would be italicised. Thats over a third of the book... whole pages in italics... not easy in a novel, whereas in a short story it worked better.