Voice can be seen as an author expressing unique word choice, sentence structure, figure of speech, humor and rhythm. Because of this, voice can very greatly from author to author. Some writers may have developed their voice subconsciously. Others may deliberately modify it in order to deliver a particular stylistic effect. However, can voice be applied to all forms of writing? We will explore this three different writing situations.
Creative Writing Voice
Some authors, such as J.D. Salinger, write through personas in order to make the thoughts of the main character more accessible to the reader. The Catcher in the Rye, for instance, would lose much of its hold on the reader if it was written in the third person rather than through Holden Caulfield’s voice.
Other authors, such as George Saunders use the third person to create extreme tension in their writing. In his short story “93990” Saunders portrays the events through the voice of a scientist writing a lab report to a haunting effect. The story opens with this:
“A ten-day acute toxicity study was conducted using twenty male cynomolgus monkeys ranging in weight from 25 to 40 kg. These animals were divided into four groups of five monkeys each. Each of the four groups received a daily intravenous dose of Borazadine, delivered at a concentration of either 100, 250, 500, or 10,000 mg/kg/day.Within the high-dose group (10,000 mg/kg/day) effects were immediate and catastrophic, resulting in death within 20 mins of dosing for all but one of the five animals.”
The detached narrator makes the story extremely haunting, and questions about the experiment left unanswered keep the reader captivated. In this case Saunders uses a lack of voice intentionally to give his story a cold mood. The key similarity between Salinger, whose novel relies on the voice of its main character, and Saunders, is that both authors are highly aware of voice. Saunders intentionally chose to remove voice from his work. Authors whose stories lack voice unintentionally probably leave readers uninterested in pursuing more of their work.
Academic Essay Voice
It is fair to say that an author’s voice should be present in a creative writing piece. What about academic papers? We asked Professor Davidson to give her thoughts on the matter.
“Well, it’s not really a yes or no answer. When a student adopts an artificially “academic” voice in their writing, it often leads to obscurity and over-generalization. But, unless you have a fairly formal speaking style, you wouldn’t want to write it in the same way you’d explain your thoughts verbally, as that can sound too colloquial. A balance works best. Some judicious use of the first person is appropriate, so long as the paper doesn’t end being more about you than your subject matter. On the whole, your goal is not literary flourishes but, rather, clarity and communication, however you best achieve that.”
Davidson gives a good response. Research writing involves a balance between interjecting one’s voice versus incorporating an academic voice. Some senior Sociology theses were composed as part personal narrative and part academic paper to utilize the sociological imagination. The methodology, literature review, and results sections are kept academic where the introduction and conclusion were written as a personal narrative.
Also, it is best to elucidate claims through poignant word choice rather than obfuscate them through academic jargon. We’ve done exercises on replacing passive voice with active voice, but writers are also tripped up by trying to be too verbose. As a rule of thumb, it is better to chose a topic that you are passionate about than to try to conceal your lack of passion with elevated word choice. Often the most interesting papers and papers full of voice come from writers who are passionate about their subject. Your voice will come to the paper through your interesting take on a subject. The reader should be compelled by your ideas, not just your adjectives.
Scientific Writing Voice
Lab Reports should be seen as a professional endeavor. It is often suggested that lab reports should be composed as if they were to be published in a scientific journal. Reports are often written in the active voice in order to concisely state findings. The results and methodology are in past tense; theory is in the present tense. This does not leave room for the author’s voice. Since scientific writing is geared towards producing results, the author is not given room to give his or her voice.
Example: (Discussion Section from an Organic Chemistry Lab Report)
“Using a different catalyst aside from the sulfuric acid could have also prevented formation of the dehydrated form of 1-butanol. The removal of water (formed during the reaction) via DOWEX or molecular sieves could have yielded a better product purity. In addition to this, washing the organic layer multiple times could have removed more of the carboxylic acid present. Finally, using other forms of esterification could give better product yields.”
Conclusion: What to Teach the Tutee
It is important to spend time with the tutee and highlight the importance of voice. Voice is something that most people do not give enough thought to. It is key to composing a creative writing piece since the voice of the author is what gives life to the medium. Research writing needs to incorporate both a professional tone, but tamed with the voice of the author in order to avoid “literary flourishes” and “over-generalization.” Scientific Writing needs to be straight and to the point in order to illuminate the results of the research . It is important for the tutee to know these distinctions to be better prepared for assignments.
Professor Roberta Davidson – Whitman College