What is Voice and Where Do You Get It?
Layne Porta, Consultant
I remember being told when I first started doing college level writing that I needed to work on my voice. When I asked my professor what exactly she meant by that, I was told that voice is what makes your writing uniquely your own. I was frustrated and confused: Isn’t the fact that I’m writing it what makes it uniquely my own?
Now that I am a graduate student and writing consultant, I often see the same kinds of feedback on my students’ papers. What I would like to offer here are some thoughts on what voice is and how you get it, as well as some resources that can help you along the way to finding your voice.
What I have come to learn about voice is that it is much more about practical decisions you make in your writing than some mystical quality that appears like mist in the night. The writing process itself is an unending sequence of decisions–from word choice to punctuation to paragraph breaks–and all of these decisions add up to create your voice. For example, I love to use dashes in my writing, which can make my voice sound more conversational. Voice can also come from the kinds of metaphors and similes you choose to explain concepts, or the length of your sentences. I have found that one of the biggest factors in creating (and understanding) your voice is word choice. For example, one of my least favorite words is fickle, but one of my favorite words is capricious. They mean the same thing, but my voice will sound very different depending on that decision. There are many resources that can help in making decisions about the words you want to use. For example, on websites such as visualthesaurus.com and visuwords.com, you can type in a word and it will bring up a word web that will feature synonyms and variations of that word clustered according to connotation. The example below is a screen capture of a visual thesaurus app I recently downloaded:
I have often heard the idea from both students and peers that voice isn’t as important in academic writing as it is in creative writing. I believe this is a huge misconception. Voice is crucial to academic writing because it plays a large role in engaging your audience, establishing a formal tone, and creating your credibility as a writer. In sum, voice plays a very active role in helping you achieve your rhetorical goals. Furthermore, you can have more fun with the writing you will do during your time in college or after if you embrace your voice as a writer.
If you find yourself wanting to learn more about voice and how to get it, I suggest two very helpful websites that offer comprehensive discussions about voice. The first is “Understanding Voice and Tone in Writing” by Julie Wildhaber, featured on quickanddirtytips.com. This article offers tips on defining your voice as well as some helpful examples of how voice will change according to genre. Another useful article on writingcommons.org by Kyle D. Stedman, is “Making Sure Your Voice is Present” which also offers excellent suggestions for finding your voice as well as some YouTube videos about voice.
One thing to keep in mind is that finding your voice is like everything else in writing–it requires practice. So in response to my initial question as a beginning college student: yes, the fact that I am writing my paper is what makes it uniquely my own. But voice takes this a bit further, and requires that you do some writing to see how your personality comes across. My suggestion, then is to trust your instincts as a writer. Your writing is a reflection of your thoughts and your personality. Your voice, and your awareness of your voice, will come through the more comfortable you get with writing.