Have you ever accidently texted the wrong person? Sent a text meant for your best friend to your dad or to your boss? I have; it’s horrifying. Horrifying because I was being a person that this other person didn’t know.I speak in different ways depending on I am talking to and the situation I am speaking to them in. This is why the advice to “develop your own voice” which is often given to writing students is so bewildering—no one is just one person. We talk about different things, using different words and sentence structures, employ different methods of argumentation and appeal to different emotions depending on who we are talking to and the context.
This extends to writing as well. I’ve worked with students who have taken the advice to “develop your own voice” to mean that they should write essays in the same manner that they talk to their friends as well as students who adopt in their writing the voice of the well-worn academic that they aspire to be. Neither scenario gives rise to clear, effective, or context-appropriate writing.
The key to writing in a way that is effective and clear is actually pretty straightforward: be aware of who your writing is either explicitly or implicitly addressing and write using the “voice” that you would use when you’re talking to that person."Voice" is something you already have, already know how to do; what's hard is translating that onto the page.
Step one: Think about your audience.
Before you write, think explicitly about who you’re addressing--a professor or TA, a hiring manager--and then ask yourself:
- How would you talk to them if you were in the same room?
- What words would you use and which would you instinctually avoid?
- What sorts of arguments would you make and which sorts of evidence would you employ?
Having thought about who your audience and how you would talk to them will be helpful as you approach composition.
Step two: Make it a Conversation.
While you're writing, do everything possible to make the process of writing feel as much like having a conversation.
- Pretend you're writing an email. When I’m working on my own writing—be it a blog post like this, an application letter, an essay, or an article—I draft not in a word-processing program but literally rather in the mail program. This is where it feels normal to address a particular person, where I am accustomed to sounding “like myself” in a variety of ways.
- If you use a thesaurus while you write, don’t choose words because they sound fancy or academic. The thesaurus should be a tool to help you find the best word to use in context, not to help you put on a fancy, academic voice.
Step three: Read it out loud.
While you're revising, read your writing out loud. When I do this I imagine that I’m reading to the person who your paper is for and think about whether:
- I have written something that it would be awkward to say in front of that person? Written something that I can’t imagine actually saying? Written something that I don’t actually believe to be true? If so, I delete it and revise the phrase or sentence so that it is something that I could imagine actually saying in context.
For more tips and tricks on expository writing, check out these other blog posts written by our writing tutors in New York and Boston: The Vital Importance of Writing Badly,Transitioning From One Paragraph to the Next, and How Do I Write a Good Thesis?Looking to work with an expository writing tutor on your essays? Feel free to get in touch! Cambridge Coaching offers private in-person tutoring in New York City and Boston, and online tutoring around the world.