The top 3 things to consider before writing a single word (The Writer’s Trinity)

The top 3 things to consider before writing a single wordRecently, 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.

1. Voice
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.

2. Audience
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.

3. Purpose
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.

About the Author

Eileen Blasius joined Community College of Aurora's adjunct faculty in the Communication & English Department in 1991. She holds a Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of Denver. Currently, she is the Tutor Coordinator/Academic Advisor for CCA’s TRiO Student Support Services program.  

Comments

  1. Eileen Blasius

    September 23, 2011

    Many thanks to everyone for the responses. If you haven’t done so, I hope you will read George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” (1946). It’s a long essay, so, if you are pressed for time, jump to the last page where he lists the “rules” for using language “as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought.” There’s plenty in this essay for a spirited discussion!

  2. James Gray

    September 21, 2011

    All of this holds true in mathematical writing as well, Eileen. Learning to write mathematics well has helped me tremendously writing English well. I especially like the line, “It’s impossible to separate voice from audience.”

    • Eileen Blasius

      September 23, 2011

      When students tell me how important it is to learn the “steps” in mathematics, I’m elated. I make the connection between math and the steps we also learn in writing. The mathematicians and the writers are not so far apart after all!

  3. Eric

    September 14, 2011

    I distinctly remember reading that article and it spoke volumes, reinforcing what I had a sneaking suspicion as to how we should approach our writing. When I write, which is usually for an assigment given out in a class, I already know who my audience is going to be, which is ultimatly the instructor. However, before I begin, I look to the very essence of what the assignment is. For example, if I am writing, say, a bibliography of a person using the first person in a history class, a task in itself, I use a lot of “I’s,” and become that person as they were (past tense). I try to stay away from the “You’s” unless of course I’m giving a speech, and then only sparingly. When I’m writing a formal paper, in the third person, say, for a science class, I stay away from the “eyes” and the “use.” Writing formally is possible without sacrificing personality… :) Good Day!

    • Eric II

      September 15, 2011

      This will probably be my “Hail Mary” pass when it comes to formal writing, or speaking for that matter. So in defense of the English and their language, and of formal writing in general, all that there is to write is, replace the “you(s)” with “one” and get rid of the “I(s).” After doing this, let me know how more convincing the writing sounds.

      Now if one seems to be having trouble doing this and wants to establish a rapport with reader, including them in a more intimat discussion, try using some phatic phrases such as, “…as the reader may agree, without question, as is quite obvious, as one may conclude,” and my personal favorite, “if you will and so on and so forth…etc.”

      Using (I’m not pointing fingers here) “you,” if you will, seems like the writer is signaling out the reader, rather than addressing a multitude of people (the discussion is formal writing, right?) whom, frankly, the writer knows little of or anything about.

      On the contrary, “you,” can be appropriate in some situations; for instance, we see it in advertisements, dialogues, letters, editorials, class assignments and the like. Even then, the word “you” can be misquiding if done in an improper or less playful manner. Using “you,” to put it succinctly, and putting me in danger of sounding like an English writing instructor, is disingenuous and leaves little room for ambiguity; respectively, it gives little credibility to the writer and leaves less interpretation for the reader. Bloody hell, assume nothing and write like “YOU” own it. Good Day! :)

    • Eileen Blasius

      September 23, 2011

      Your instructor will grade your writing, Eric. However, he or she always represents a wider audience. Your work, then, is evaluated on how well you resonate with that wider readership. And, you’re right, formal writing doesn’t have to be boring.

  4. Marcie

    September 14, 2011

    This is an amazing topic. I really like the concept of the “Writer’s Trinity” Eileen’s post has added another layer and demension to my understanding of conceptual and consious writing. I personally feel that I have the “voice” of the under-educated. As a young student in middle school I had an English teacher who’s only response regardless the question was “go back and read it again” refering to our English grammer text book. As a student with Dyslexia and reading related comprehension issues, this did not aid in my ability to comprehend the basics of punctuation or general grammer and spelling will always been an issue. I find that as an adult student, it is difficult to write clearly, keeping my audience in mind and remembering proper verbage for the context of a paper. Thanks to Mike Levell, my 121 English instructor, I have a better understanding of writing and I no longer fear my writing assignments or posting to public forums however I have a long way to go regarding proper writing technique and etiquette.

    • Eileen Blasius

      September 23, 2011

      I, too, was educated in a system that did not value “voice.” Now that I’m long removed from that experience, I feel the individual voice was perceived as subversive. Like your experience in middle school, grammar rules were emphasized at the expense of imagination. It’s worth the struggle to break free!

  5. Chris Faller

    September 13, 2011

    One cannot help but recall Roland Bathes’ ‘Death of the Author’, whereby the artists own creation is subject to his or her own culture. This will undoubtedly conflict with, and be discarded, when contact and reception is made with an audience of the same or another culture…

    • Eileen Blasius

      September 23, 2011

      Maybe not “discarded” entirely. Some “creations” withstand the test of time and culture.

  6. Dusty Rose Swarner

    September 12, 2011

    I think that for many non-natives, using English in any form of writing is robotic, even ethereal because it is not their voice that sings through the words on the pages, but rather remembering the exact translations. We always lose something in translation and it’s not just that our dictionary has so many words that others do not and vice versa.

    Often in translation denotation does not give way to connotation. We might not see that a word has second meanings, the way words have second meanings in natural speech. When I was learning Spanish several years ago I came across the same feeling, that what I was saying was formal and lacked personality because I only had use of the definition of the words translated and not the the natural flow of personable, often slang words that would give the piece I wrote a voice.

    Even now when I speak Spanish with others I am told I have a very ‘white’ way of speaking and even though I think I am using the right words to get across a meaning, I often get laughed at for being so formal.

    • Eileen Blasius

      September 23, 2011

      You make so many good points here. I especially like your choice of the verb “sings”: “it is not their voice that sings through the words.” I wish I had said that myself! Recently, I heard the Spanish actor Javier Bardem interviewed on radio. He mentioned many of the difficulties of non-native speakers, saying he feels he has to have an “office” in his brain to deal with the individual concerns of vocabulary, tone, expression, etc. because English does not come naturally to him. I think that is comparable to what you characterize as “robotic.” It takes courage to learn, converse, write, and act in another language.

  7. Derek Sanchez

    September 12, 2011

    The trinity of writer, subject and reader surrounding the writing situation is an interesting concept. I am uncertain what my writer’s voice “sounds” like, but I do know that I work best under pressure with a deadline and a subject. As you stated, in this cold world of communication where emoticons and abbreviations have replaced the warmth and textures that the penmanship of old had; one certainty is that the world of English writing shall continue to change and morph into ideals and creations that could not have been considered even five years ago. The true challenge shall be to encourage others to keep writing in correct English and not become lazy and untrained in proper English and etiquette.

    • Eileen Blasius

      September 23, 2011

      The English language will continue to “morph,” as you point out. That flexibility is its strength. It gives us many choices. It’s up to us to determine how we want to “sound” and that takes deliberation. Ask readers how they would characterize your voice and see if you agree.

  8. James Fountain

    September 12, 2011

    I think that because I was taught that writing was used to inform, to entertain, and to persuade people, I feel that the topic is the most important piece. How can you do any of the above if you aren’t able to acquire the adequate information about what you are discussing?

    • Martha

      September 12, 2011

      I agree with Mr. Fountain. I have been in the position to teach “critical thinking” to students, but without a topic I found it impossible. There must be factual knowledge first and foremost. After knowledge comes style.

    • Eileen Blasius

      September 23, 2011

      Agreed. First you have to have something worth saying; then, voice, audience, and purpose come into play.

    • Eileen Blasius

      September 23, 2011

      You’re right, James, and it helps when the writer is invested in the topic.

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