Recently, a non-native speaker mentioned that he had learned English in his country, but it was “British English.” When I asked what he meant, he said his writing always sounded the same, regardless of his audience. He characterized it as “formal,” said that it lacked “personality,” and that his friends who had been educated in the same system had encountered similar problems in college in this country. His remarks resonated with me because I had just written an article for CCA’s TRiO Program newsletter, The TRiO Tribune, on voice, audience, and purpose, which I will incorporate here.
We often forget that all writing has a voice. Some people refer to this quality as tone, which may have something to do with that dreaded remark from our mothers: “I don’t like your tone of voice.” There are slight differences between tone and voice in the sense that tone refers to the formality of our writing whereas voice is the essence that makes the writing uniquely ours. It’s as distinctive as a fingerprint. After reading a student’s first essay, an English teacher can probably distinguish his writing from that of his classmates. Voice is the quality that makes readers sit up and take notice—or not! It’s easy to identify voice when we are listening to an oral presentation because body language and facial expressions contribute so much to the listeners’ impressions. Thus, they may respond that the speaker’s voice was angry, impassioned, neutral—or dull. Voice is the person behind the writing, and readers form an opinion about the writer based not only on the topic but also on word choice, sentence structure, and, yes, even punctuation.
It’s impossible to separate voice from audience. Unless you are journal writing, you should be conscious of whom the writing is directed to. Did you notice that I’m using contractions in this piece? How would your audience respond if you ignored the rules and did as I just did when you’re composing an argumentative piece or a science report? How would readers feel about your using “I” and “you”? You would be asked to revise it to accommodate an academic audience—right? Your audience would expect a formal, objective tone. Let’s say you are writing a Reflection paper, however. One of the ways to enliven a memoir is to use dialogue. This is where contractions and first and second-person pronouns are appropriate because dialogue should “sound” like natural speech. In the back and forth of conversation, especially when it’s emotion-charged, people aren’t focused on the rules. They just want to be heard, so words tumble out. You don’t want your grandfather in Iowa who has farmed for the past forty years sounding like the CEO of Motorola addressing a shareholders’ meeting. Your account of an event that affected you profoundly should move your audience to feel your emotion. “You” and “I” pronouns minimize the distance between writer and reader; they pull the reader in to the writer’s story.
This transitions me to purpose. You might remember being taught the three reasons for writing: to inform, to entertain, and to persuade. One example of informational writing is what you get when you read the instruction manual for your new iPod. The purpose is to help you do something. Programming involves a step-by-step process. You’ve probably heard the expression “as boring as a computer manual.” This has changed over the years, however, with the realization that readers appreciate a lively voice even if they’re just reading directions. That’s how the user-friendly For Dummies series used in many disciplines came to be. Writing to entertain encompasses not only the comic element just mentioned but also the tragedy inherent in classics such as Sophocles’ Oedipus or Shakespeare’s King Lear. These plays deal with the issues of the “high and mighty” but, over the centuries, audiences at every level of society have identified with a universal theme: families torn apart by pride, stubbornness, and deceit. The language (voice) is exalted to reflect the seriousness of the themes. Perhaps there is no better example of persuasive writing than Dr. Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. King lays out the reasons why black people can no longer wait until their white “superiors” are ready to treat them as equals, arguing for the wisdom of his position. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny,” he writes. “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” He could have said, “We are all in this together, so my problem is society’s problem.” Would these words have the same poetic quality as the words he chose, though? Would they be memorable?
In the age of e-mail, texting, and twitter, we tend to forget the importance of voice, audience, and purpose—what I call The Writer’s Trinity. The young man who lamented the lack of “personality” in his writing demonstrated self-awareness. I have no doubt that, with a little encouragement, soon he will be writing in his own voice.