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What is voice?
Donald M. Murray defines voice as “the magical heard quality in writing” (195). When we speak, our voice
is simply the way we talk. It is what allows us to recognize a friend on the telephone, and what people refer
to when they say, “That sounds like something you would say.” In writing, voice is used as a metaphor to
explain how different writers sound, well, different. We have many different voices within us. For example,
we speak differently to babies or cute animals than we do to our professors, friends, parents, co-workers,
waiters and so on. It is not particularly magical either. Everyone has the innate human ability to manipulate
voice for different purposes. A good speaker can change his or her voice to become a new character or to
provoke a different reaction from the audience. The same is true in writing. A characteristic of good writing
is a voice that draws us in and engages us as readers.

However, most of what we learn about voice is unconsciously absorbed and manipulated. For example, it
would probably be easy for us to humorously imitate a newscaster, teacher, or our parents, but it might be
difficult to explain how we did it.

By examining how we use voice, we can control and fine-tune our writing, thus making it more appropriate
to our audience and genre and more powerful in its effect. Manipulating voice can occur in different ways.
Using a wildly inappropriate voice can add humor or emotion to a piece of writing. It can spice up writing
by bending traditional rules. It can also cause someone to lose or gain respect for you.

The trick of finding voice in writing is two-fold:
Find out what voices you use, where they come from, and how to draw them out and develop them.
Determine what qualities compose these voices. For example, a Southern US voice includes pronunciation,
vocabulary, pace of speech and other factors.

Second, determine which voices are most appropriate for which situations. It is both useful and fun to
explore what voices we have within us, and how those voices influence our writing.

ethnic and regional influences: Our voices are influenced by our heritage. Humor, accent, life outlook, and
vocabulary are all a part of where we live now, and where we come from. Often we can tell where people are
from simply by listening to them speak.

family and friends: We constantly pick up new patterns, catch phrases, and styles and integrate them into
our speech. We have inside jokes and little snippets of family members in our heads. The voices of people
we have known, sometimes only briefly, can be very prominent in our memories. All of these things come
together to create our individual voices.

daily influences: Advertisements, movies, songs and pop culture all influence our voice. Similarly, the
academic voice of the university influences the way we speak. We constantly negotiate between voices in
our daily lives, to discover what is expected of us and what to expect from others. It is common to begin
speaking like someone you spend a great deal of time with. Similarly, it is common for writers to mimic the
authors that they read most often.

Some Differences between spoken and written voice:
It’s easier to hide or subdue our emotions when we write than when we speak. This can be a strength and a
weakness in writing. Passion for a subject is compelling to a reader when it is used well; when over-used it
can be alienating. Thus, writing can be a useful way to communicate about emotional subjects.

There are more cues for listeners to tune into in spoken voice. For example, volume, speed, accent, tone of
voice, and so on. There are also non-verbal cues, such as body language and facial expression. Writing has
the potential to portray every emotion and nuance that speech expresses verbally, sometimes in even more
powerful ways. However, writing has fewer resources to work with. Look for different examples of
variation in writing. Often, people who speak quickly will write quickly. Find writing that reads quickly (try
an email for example), and some writing that reads more dryly and slowly. What are the differences between
those two pieces? How do writers (whether on purpose or not) achieve different effects?

Formal Writing and Individual Voice
It is important to remember that correct writing needn’t be formal writing. You can be correct
grammatically, clear and succinct in your writing, and still retain a casual voice.

Formal writing is often necessary; however, it needn’t be stiff or artificial, and it can still contain individual

One technique to retaining individual voice in academic writing is to create a casual first draft that displays
voice and expresses clear ideas without worrying about grammar, formality, or tone. Then, go back over that
draft, checking grammar and sentence structure, and make it correct, changing as little of the wording as
possible. The draft may be informal and personal, but it will be grammatically correct.

At this point, a second layer of revision may or may not be necessary to create a more formal draft.
Possibilities include changing tense use, certain vocabulary terms, and perhaps switching from first person
“I” to an academic third person.

By starting with a natural style of writing, you may be able to avoid any confusion, awkwardness, or stiffness
that sometimes occurs in formal writing.

Two easy ways to become an expert at the academic voice (or any voice):
The first is to read that writing. Just as we pick up the speech habits and vocabulary of our friends simply by
being around them and listening, we will be able to get a sense of the rhythm and vocabulary of formal
writing by reading and listening to it.

The second is to practice. No actor can be expected to produce a flawless southern accent on the spot, but
with practice and a critical ear, he or she can work towards it. The same is true with academic writing, and
any other style of writing, such as satire or comedy. It is simply a manner of speaking, a tone, and a set of
vocabulary that anyone can adapt to using.

Using “I” in academic writing is not always bad!
Many lower level writing teachers imply as much because they don’t trust students to navigate all the choices
available to them in writing. They limit choices to the safest and most formal one.

However, using “I” is merely a question of appropriate voice, based on situation and genre. In some
scientific writing (which is traditionally the most formal and impersonal style of writing) it can be
appropriate to use “I” within the introduction and conclusion, but not within the body of the paper. Or, it may
be entirely inappropriate.

One challenge in writing is to negotiate a voice that is appropriate to the genre and situation, but also lively,
unique, and engaging to the reader.

Be careful of first impressions
The introduction to any paper sets the tone of that paper. If the voice is very formal, then the reader will read
the rest of the piece with that in mind. Similarly, if the voice of the opening paragraph is very casual, the
reader will judge the rest of the paper as more casual, despite a shift of voice towards formality. Be aware of
this, and set the tone for the paper carefully within the first page or so. This will allow you much more
leeway in voice throughout the rest of the paper.

Works Cited
Murray, Donald M. The Craft of Revision, 5th ed. Boston: Thomson/Heinle. 2004.

Adapted from a handout created by Dana Kuhnline, GTRA, Truman State University.

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