The First Step to Developing Your Writing Voice - The Audience

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I was an assistant to a philosophy professor for 6 years and helped many students clarify and better articulate their arguments. I’ve also helped proofread and edit original work for that professor, including one piece submitted to a refereed journal. Since that time, I’ve taken to proofreading and editing papers and master’s theses for international students.

I’m always thinking about the difficulties that international students have in articulating their thoughts in their second language, and one problem many wonder about is developing something called their “writing voice”. This problem is interesting to me because the writing voice is something that many Native speakers don’t quite grasp. To me, this is something that is built on top of already mastering the basics of good writing habits.

While voice is one of those terms that gets tossed around a bunch, it doesn’t have a concise definition - some people refer to it as “style” or “persona”. The best way to think about it is to compare it to your speaking voice. Your speaking voice has its own tone and cadences that makes it easy to tell your speaking apart from someone else’s. Someone can know it is you speaking just by the sound of your voice. In principle, if you work at developing it, the same can be said about reading your writing. In the business world, you could call your unique writing voice your brand

Most of the writing you find online falls into two categories. The first I call space food writing. It has all the components of writing, but it’s lifeless. It needs something. The other kind is overflowing with a little too much something – it puts too much effort into style that it distracts from the content of the writing. I call it hipster writing. A lot of this has to do with the fact that online writing is alien compared to the communication that takes place between two individuals who presumably understand what each other knows and doesn’t know.

Online writing, however, is more abstract than that. The writer is often trying to capture the largest possible audience, and so he can’t quite picture in his mind who this audience is. Space food writing and hipster writing happen because the writer has no concrete connection to his audience.

Let’s consider an exercise. Take your profession, whatever it is, and think about how you would explain it to different people. Take a moment now to write out how you would explain what you do to another expert in your field. Now, take a moment to write out how you would explain it to your grandma, or someone else you are close to. Write out how you would explain it to a child next.

In each of these exercises you are writing to people who are different from each other with respect to what they know and how personally close they are to you. In each of these cases, you explain something you know about in different ways – your wording changes, your tone is different, etc. This is the first step to establishing your writing voice. When you write online, rather than appeal to a generic, abstract audience, think about who will read it. What is their age range? Their professions? Be as concrete as possible so you know how to tailor your message.

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