Helping writers find their voice

One of our goals as writing tutors should be to help writers find their voice. This terminology can be off-putting for those in the sciences, but in reality the concept of voice is just as important for those writing in the technical disciplines as it is for those in the humanities. When we talk about “voice,” we’re talking about an appropriate tone that engages the reader. According to Peter Elbow (a composition theorist who’s written a ton about voice and other related issues), a genuine voice “is the sound of a meaning resonating because the individual consciousness of the writer is somehow behind or in tune with or in participation with that meaning.” Basically, what this means is that when a writer is engaged with the topic, he or she will be able to write with passion and understanding. In Elbow’s view, finding an authentic voice enables a writer to write with power.

This can seem like a difficult task, especially if the topic is something that doesn’t seem to lend itself to that level of engagement. Perhaps the topic is dry, or the voice that you’re writing in isn’t appropriate for the context you’re writing for. Fear not! Sometimes the best solution to this kind of problem is to just write. Don’t get caught up in worrying about whether the things you’re writing are grammatically correct or will convince someone else. Write to discover what you think. This process (freewriting) can be incredibly freeing. Once you’ve done this, use that information to revise what you have. Maybe you’ll be able to approach the topic in a new way. Maybe you’ll be able to figure out what kind of argument will be most convincing to your audience. Find the voice that is appropriate for the situation and run with it.

Okay, you may be thinking, that’s great, but how does knowing all this about voice help me in a tutoring session? If students are having difficulty writing in their true voices, you will be able to see this in their writing. Often, this will manifest itself in either of two extremes: too casual or too stilted. In either case, you can share tips about freewriting. In the case of someone whose writing is too casual, you can encourage him or her to keep the engagement and comfort with the topic, but modulate the language to make it appropriate for the situation. Some students openly acknowledge that their difficulty is writing too much like they speak. Many times in these situations, it is helpful to think of the desired audience and write for them. In the case of an academic essay, the audience is composed of professors and scholars, so it is often helpful to think about ways to cultivate the appropriately formal tone and solid base of evidence this audience demands.

In the case of an overly formal, stilted tone, (the kind of language Ken Macrorie calls “Engfish” because it is a form of language twisted to fit students’ expectations for assigned writing), students need to be reconnected with a more natural voice. Professors don’t like essays that have convoluted sentence structures and a lack of student engagement. To fix this, students need to become more relaxed and in touch with their authentic voice. Having then rephrase sentences in their own words during a session can be helpful because it helps them connect with their voice while letting you make sure that it doesn’t become too casual.

Voice is especially important in a persuasive essay because if you don’t write with an appropriate voice, your audience won’t be convinced. In a session, you may encounter persuasive essays that lack an appropriate voice. Sometimes the voice is tentative or disengaged, while other times the voice is combative or off-putting. In the case of tentative writers, finding their voice can be empowering. Sometimes it’s helpful to explain to these types of writers that they don’t need to qualify every statement with phrases like “I think” or “In my opinion.” We know they think it, because otherwise they wouldn’t be writing it. Instead of qualifying their opinion, they should back them up with evidence and show their engagement with the topic. Writers with an overly combative tone need to learn to moderate their opinions by thinking about their audiences and the way these audiences will receive the essay. This doesn’t mean they are being disingenuous or writing with a “fake” voice; it just means that they are discovering the voice that is right for the situation. Writers can have many real, genuine, voices, and as a writing tutor it is your responsibility to help them find the best voice for each assignment.


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