The Terror of Voice

I like order. I love the comfort of a beautiful and functional Excel spreadsheet. I organize my CDs by genre and then alphabetically by artist. I eat three meals a day.

But my love of order sometimes butts heads with my love of writing. That’s because no matter how much attention I pay to following the rules of writing, I know that to produce writing that astounds readers—moving them, making them gasp, enticing them—I’ll have to include more than just correct writing. I’ll need to find a way to make my voice present.

And sometimes, that terrifies me with the uncertainty of it all. I sometimes wish writing excellently were like working in Excel. I know I can make a spreadsheet absolutely perfect if my formulas are coded properly and my data is lined up correctly. Writing excellently is messier than that: it means admitting the difficult truth that even when everything in my essay follows all the grammatical and mechanical rules, my writing can still lack qualities that will make my readers’ eyes pop out of their heads with delightful surprise.

I often tell my students that the difference between A-level and B-level writing is voice. In other words, essays often deserve B’s even when they have perfect punctuation and grammar, an intriguing concept, brilliant ideas, excellent and well-integrated sources, and a Works Cited page that would earn a standing ovation at the annual MLA convention. An essay can have all of those things but still feel dry and voiceless, reading like a dying man trudging through the desert, sandal-slap after sandal-slap, lifeless sentence after lifeless sentence.

So What is Voice in Writing?

“Voice” is a weird term, right? We usually say your voice is the quality of how you sound when you talk out loud—but aren’t we talking about writing?

First, let’s think about everything that makes your speaking voice distinctive. It has its own aural quality, formed by the size of your mouth, throat, and tongue, along with your distinctive habits of how you use your body to manipulate the sound of the air exhaling from your lungs.

But beyond the sounds your body naturally produces through your mouth, you also have your own way of choosing words, and that’s part of your voice, too. You have words you use more often than others, phrases you rely on, and ways you make the musical tone of your voice go up and down in distinct ways. All of those choices are partly based on how you learned to speak in your family and culture, and they’re partly based on what you bring to the table as an individual. Sometimes you just let out whatever you’re thinking, and sometimes you pause to consider how you want to sound.

Don’t miss that: qualities of spoken voice are, to some extent, chosen. Depending on where and when and with whom we’re speaking, our voice can change.

Now let’s turn to writing. I would define voice in writing as the quality of writing that gives readers the impression that they are hearing a real person, not a machine. Voice in writing is therefore multifaceted: it’s partly an unconscious, natural ring that dwells in the words you write, but it’s also related to the words you choose (stuffy and overused or fresh and appealing?), the phrases you rely on (dictionary-like or lively?), and how you affect your readers’ emotions (bored or engaged?). And it’s not something that is magically there for some writers and not there for others. Voice is something that can be cultivated, practiced, watered, even designed.  

I’m reminded of a quote from poet D.A. Powell, which I heard on the trailer for a documentary called Bad Writing. He says, “Bad art is that which does not succeed in cleansing the language of its dead—stinking dead—usages of the past” (MorrisHillPictures). Voice in writing is like that: it gives readers the sense that they’re hearing a fresh, cleansed voice unlike any they’ve heard before.

The writing in this documentary is called "bad" because of its lack of an authentic voice.


We Need Voice in Academic Writing, Too

A common misconception among writers is that writing for college, especially in a fancy-looking, citation-filled essay, should have the complexity and difficulty of Pride and Prejudice: “She is all affability and condescension, and I doubt not but you will be honoured with some portion of her notice when service is over” (Austen). That is, we sometimes assume that academic writing is where we say things with big words and in roundabout ways that seem sort of something like what we imagine talk is like around a gilded dinner table in a palace, somewhere.

I think this assumption is wrong. Even when reading essays that were written for college classes, readers don’t want to be bored or confused. They want liveliness; they want voice. Listen to veteran writing teacher Donald Graves use all of his cute-old-man powers to beg you to use your personal voice in even your standardized writing tests:

Donald Graves on the importance of putting voice in your writing

I recently taught a class that focused entirely on blogging for the first thirteen weeks of the course, followed by a final academic essay at the end of the semester. Students regularly asked me what style they should adopt in their final essay, how formal to be, what kind of voice to adopt. To most of the students, my reply was, “Write it how you wrote your blog!” To which almost all of them said, “Huh? That was informal. This is formal.” To which I said, “You’re partly right. You paid less attention to details when you were blogging, sure, but your voices were there. You used sentences that sounded like you! They were resonant! I was moved! Do you hear the italics in my voice? That’s how good your writing was! So don’t lose that by putting on a new coat of formality when it doesn’t fit well!” As the one who was going to read their academic essays, I was afraid that I was going to get a bunch of essays that sounded like Pride and Prejudice, with big words and roundabout sentence constructions. I wanted big, complex ideas in these final essays, but I also wanted stylistic liveliness, sentences that made me sit up straight and open my eyes wide. I admit that after the students had written first drafts of their essays, I backed off a little, and we talked about the ways that formal writing situations do indeed demand a different kind of voice than a blog post—but I was always insistent that no writing situation called for bored readers.

You should know this: teachers talk about their students. And I’ve heard the following story, or some variant of it, something like twenty times: “My student wrote this awful draft that confused me to no end. So I emailed the student and told him to come in to my office to talk about it. And he gets there to my office and I say, ‘What are you trying to say on page 2?’ and he explains it, and—get this!—he explains it in this beautifully clear language, and it becomes clear that he knew all along what he wanted to talk about and how to defend it and even how his ideas relate to his sources. So I asked him, ‘Why didn’t you write it that way? Why don’t you write the way you talk?’ and you know what he says? He says, ‘Because I thought I was supposed to write formally.’ I swear, sometimes I think students get into more trouble trying to write formally than it’s worth.”

I’m serious. Every semester, I hear that story.

Of course, I see the other side: there’s a place for formality in a lot of writing. Depending on the circumstance, sometimes our most formal coat is indeed what we need to wear. In your future college classes, you might not get much of an idea from your professor about what kind of coat she expects you to wear, so you’ll probably have to do some asking. (“Dear Professor X, I’m baffled about what kind of voice to use in my essay. For example, may I write the word baffled? Please send examples. Sincerely, Judy Jetson.”)

My favorite trick here is one I learned from a small writing textbook called They Say, I Say: purposefully mixing the formal and informal in a single sentence or two. If you want to talk about something using a formal term, which is often a good idea in formal writing, use the formal term but then turn around and say it again informally. Like this: “Spoken voice is affected by our use of the epithelium, the vocal ligament, and the vocalis muscle. We’ve got a lot of ways to make sound.” The authors of They Say, I Say remind us that “translating the one type of language into the other, the specialized into the everyday, can help drive home a point” (Graff, Birkenstein, and Durst 118).

That leads me to the stuff you’re probably here for: actual ideas about how to get this elusive thing called voice into your writing.