OASIS: Speaker-Voice

Speaker-voice: What’s your identity / role / position / attitude / tone and voice?

write 3Just as you must consider your audience’s identity, position, assumptions and values, you must also think about your own identity, as a speaker-writer, and how your identity shapes your speaker-voice. But to answer this question, you first must go back to the question of occasion—of the wider occasion for your writing. Our identities may change as we move into different occasions. Your role and identity is different when in a situation with family, or friends, or colleagues, or strangers, right? So, ask yourself once more “Where am I, what am I saying, why is it needed, and who am I speaking to?” These questions will help you determine your identity and role in your specific writing situation. For example, while arguing about the high school dress code, you may imagine that you are debating in a school auditorium; that your motivation for speaking is the belief that students’ freedom of expression is being threatened; that your audience is mainly school officials, who have the power to change the situation one way or the other; and now—who are you? Are you writing as a student, a parent, or a community member? Each of these identities would have a different voice—a different style, feeling and tone. Even though you may not be a parent, you have freedom to imagine that you are writing as a parent.

3.1 Where is your voice?

Many writing teachers talk about “voice” in writing. When your audience reads your writing, they should feel like they are hearing the true you. Authenticity, genuineness, trustworthiness, and expressing your true self—all of these ideas are related to “voice.” Writing can be an exploration of your own voices. You can try on different voices to see which ones best fit your writing occasion. You do not need to tie yourself to one identity or to one audience; you can shift them around and see how it affects your voice in writing. Consider these questions:

1) Are you able to hear your paper? How much of it can you hear?

2) What kind of voice(s) do you imagine are speaking in your essay? A timid, angry, or arrogant voice?

3) How would you speak certain parts of your paper if you had more authority? Say it, imagining that you are the president, or a CEO, or a scientist.

4) How much of yourself did you get behind the words in your paper?

5) Could you rephrase a certain part of your paper so that it sounds more like yourself?

These questions can help you to start thinking about voice. Skillful writers can hear small differences as they change their voices in writing. They know how they sound, they can listen to themselves from a reader’s perspective, and they are able to choose the voice that best fits their communicative goals, audience, and occasion.

3.2 Discourse viewpoint: What position or stance are you taking toward your topic?

Speaker-writers can talk about a single topic in a number different of ways; there is more than one way to describe or argue about something. Sometimes a paper sounds like the writer is personally interested and involved with the topic. At other times, writers seem to be distant from and disinterested in the topic of their writing. When you think about your (discourse) viewpoint toward your topic, you should ask yourself, “Is my position toward my topic  more personally involved or more general and impersonal?” You might want to approach your topic in an impersonal way to sound more professional. Or, you might want to position yourself toward the topic personally to sound more passionate about it. There are three interacting features of making your viewpoint sound more personal or more distances:

1) Orientation: As you write, who/what is most important in your mind? Yourself, the speaker? The Audience? Or the essay that you are writing?

a) Speaker-writer: Your writing seems to sound self-centered, judgmental of others, emotionally driven, showing an interest in your own specific experiences rather than others’.

b) Audience: Your writing is audience-centered; your main aim seems to be communicating some fact or topic to hearers; your goal is to make the audience understand—using lots of meta-commentary, perhaps.

c) Essay/Topic: If your paper is the main concern of your speaking/writing, your writing seems abstract, less interested in communicating to listeners, but more interested in the content of the topic; you make general claims in your writing and refer often to the text itself.

2) Attitude: Is your attitude toward the topic more objective (relying on real evidence) or do you approach the topic more subjectively (relying on personal feelings/reactions)?

a) Knowing (epistemic): Your writing focuses on the possibility or truth of statements about the topic, focusing on evidence, or lack thereof, to determine how true a statement seems.

b) Judging (deontic): Your writing sounds judgmental or prescriptive (teacherly), seeking to evaluate and/or change an audience’s behavior or opinion about a given topic based on socially shared moral standards.

c) Feeling (affective): Your writing sounds emotionally motivated, seeking to excite or evoke emotions in the reader about a given topic

3) Generality of reference: Are you describing the people and states of affairs in your topic generally or specifically? Do you rely on abstract notions or concrete events?

a) General: Your statements are general and widely applicable.

b) Specific: Your statements are specific and deal with concrete events/people.

Having a “speaker-writer” orientation, for example, would make your viewpoint more personal, especially if you include a “feeling” attitude and a “specific” generality of reference. You can mix up and use these three features to create more personal or distanced discourse viewpoint. Here are some kinds of language devices you could use to sound more personal or impersonal:

Dynamic verbs: say, vote, give, acquireStative verbs: know, believe, think, feel
Past tense verbs: claimed, argued, showedSimple present tense: claims, argues, shows
Real, concrete objects/events: a school buildingAbstract qualities, states of affairs: educational environments
1st/2nd person noun/pronoun: I, me, we, us, you3rd person noun/pronoun: he, she, it, someone, one
Singular noun: a teacherPlural noun: educators
Active voice: students wear uniformsPassive voice: uniforms are worn
Subject-present clauses: They require uniformsSubject-less clauses: to require uniforms
Events, actions with a time/place: the students protested against itGeneralized ideas: to oppose to unpopular rules

Skillful writers are able to mix these forms in order to make their writing more varied and interesting to their audiences. For example, to return to our high school uniforms topic, the skillful writer might mix, or combine, 1) a generalized, impersonal position toward the topic with 2) a specific story/incident serving as an example or illustration of the general statement, along with 3) some personal commentary on how the incident affects him/her as an individual:

1) Many educators feel that it is a good idea to have a school dress code. One could understand how a teacher might want students to wear uniforms. 2) My high school biology teacher, incidentally, once mentioned to our class about how she wished we wore uniforms so that we could focus better. 3) At the time, I snickered to myself, but now I see how important the issue of a dress code is. 4) However, I want to make it clear that the ability to focus on school lessons should not be linked with the clothing students wear.

The above example of mixing, or combining, personal and impersonal discourse viewpoints is highly compressed. In a real essay, you might want to develop each discourse position more before switching to another position. The discourse markers above are underlined to show you how skillful writers use discourse markers to clearly show shifts between personal and impersonal stances. Observe the meta-discourse marker in (4); this device serves as a link between the writer and the audience and is a hallmark of well-formed writing. Even though skillful writers mix personal and impersonal discourse viewpoints, however, they mostly stick to an impersonal discourse viewpoint: a generalized, universalized, and academic viewpoint about events, states of affairs, or topics.

Using well-formed writing in the situation

We used the metaphor of a plant to describe the writing situation: the roots were the occasion of the writing, the stems were the audience of the writing, and the leaves were the speaker/author, who uses voices to express his/her identities. You can always go back and read parts 1-3 of this guide to refresh your knowledge of the writing situation. Now, let’s look closely at the leaves—what the speaker-voice should create. We will see some qualities of well-formed discourse. Specifically, we will see what kinds of information units (part 4) and Structure/Overall Organization (part 5) help make your writing well-formed.