When editors talk about a writer’s “voice,” we usually mean something like a writer’s style or tone or stance. Even if you’ve never given much thought to this term, you’ll know what “voice” means if you can recall a moment when you, as a child, first heard “Don’t use that voice with me, young lady.” It’s a command I remember well, delivered in its own imperial voice.
A standard piece of writing advice is something like this: Write as you would speak. As I understand this advice, it’s a reminder that we sound most authentic when we are not trying to write like someone else or say something we don’t quite believe. It also assumes we are not trying to match our [insert relevant interlocutor here: parent’s, partner’s, boss’s] tone of voice.
In the everyday tasks of workplace writing, we all have a voice and several variations of it, depending on the circumstances and our role in them. Problems with this highly individual voice can arise when we’re trying to get something done quickly — making an urgent request for action, for example, or composing a heartfelt reply to a post on Facebook. The urgency or emotion we feel when sending the message can become distorted at the other end, where the reader receives it. Our urgency easily translates into bossiness, and the use of personal pronouns can quickly shift from “we are in this together” to “it’s my way versus your way.”
Writing the way you would speak is fine if you’re a well-informed speaker and not caught up in the urgencies of the moment or the threat of contradiction. If you have time, in other words, to pause, collect your thoughts, consider your audience, write a draft, edit the draft, take out the bits that, at second glance, convey a condescending tone, and then read it over before you post it on Facebook. That kind of speaker.
As an editor, I am happiest working with writers who have developed a voice that suits their workplace role and who leave behind the voice they once used to dazzle professors. Or flatter bosses. Or imitate the adults at the big table.
To detect the false notes, sometimes a sound check is helpful. Imagine the piece being read aloud by someone whose voice you know well. This is a step beyond reading your own writing aloud, in your own voice. Depending on the context, one might borrow the vocal stylings of Trump, Trudeau and Clinton (Bill, for parallel gender). The underlying tonal variations to listen for might be something like bombast, treacle and charm. (I leave you, dear reader, to decide which description belongs to which speaker.)
Or, test the piece with specific listeners in mind, in effect creating your own version of a story where three people attend your reading in a pub: a professor, a priest and a salesman, for example.
How do you recognize and adjust voice in your own writing or the writing of others?
Previous post from Virginia Durksen: The Inner Editor: Friends, Readers, Editors.
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