One of the questions that has come up in several conversations I’ve had in the past week has been the question of writing voice. How is it different from speaking voice and how do I use it?
First, let me explain that writing voice, like speaking voice, is not a single entity.
What Do You Mean ‘Voice’?
Think about it. When you talk to your best friend, your language is full of fragments, gestures, and code-speak no one else would understand.
Code-speak = those moments when you say Inconceivable! to excuse overlooking an obvious outcome and both of you burst out laughing at the shared inside joke
Twentieth Century Fox
This is different from the way you speak to your children (you’d better clean your room before dinner is ready!) or how you speak to your boss (yes, ma’am, did you need that by end of day today?).
There is a persona reflected in the way you express yourself in each of these situations – the friend, the parent, the employee. That expression is what we mean when we say ‘voice.’
More than tone
But it isn’t just tone of voice that’s reflected here. Delivering a report to the board may fill your language with a lot of industry jargon – things like ROI or backlink or Chaceon quinquedens (Atlantic red crabs) – while talking to your two-year-old may be quite simplified – what did you do with the shiny (quarter I gave you two seconds ago)?
Of course, when you’re speaking, you usually have the advantage of knowing exactly whom you’re speaking to and can customize your language, tone, and gestures accordingly. With writing, you may not be as familiar with the crowd.
How Writing Changes Things
This is where things start to break down. When you sit down to write, you’re missing the glazed-over eyes of the know-it-all-teenager and the lean-in moment of the supervisor. It’s just you and the screen – or paper if you go old-school.
Your brain is full of calculations at this point. The ideas are jumping almost faster than you can type them to the page. Naturally, they’re going to be caught in the words that are most familiar to you.
If you’re a scientist, they may sound something like, “At locations proximal to the wellhead, megafaunal communities are more homogeneous than in unimpacted areas, lacking many taxonomic groups, and driven by high densities of arthropods” (Persistent and substantial impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, 2019).
Yes, I’ve actually known scientists who naturally talk like this. Yes, it can be exhausting.
However it comes out, it’s important to get your ideas down in whatever language it is they come to you. At this point, you’re essentially talking to yourself. Like talking to your best friend, it doesn’t matter if anyone else can understand what you’re saying.
But the point of communication is to communicate. You can’t do that if no one reads what you wrote because they were too lost in the words. Once you get those ideas written out, it’s time to take that next step.
The Important Next Step to Voice
If you’re writing for the Royal Society of Open Science with its audience full of interested oceanographers, biologists, chemists, and other scientists, the above statement from the Deepwater Horizon report may be exactly what the readers are expecting to hear. To them, it’s clearer than the water they’re discussing.
To the rest of us, though, it’s doubtful we got past the first comma. That’s because we’re not scientists. We may be just as interested to know that there’s still almost no life at the bottom of the ocean where the spill happened except a surprising number of deformed and diseased red crabs, but that isn’t the meaning we got from those three lines.
Since we didn’t read it, we didn’t get any meaning from it.
If we want this same information to get out to our amateur scientist, we’d need to change the words we use to make it less of an academic exercise.
You may have heard of this referred to as “dumbing down the text,” but that’s not it at all. The concepts you’re talking about will still be the same. The important part is that you are using language that is familiar and natural to the people you’re talking to.
It wouldn’t be dumbing down the language if you were to switch to Spanish instead of English when writing for a mostly Spanish-speaking crowd. You’d just be using the language your audience understands quickly.
Why is this so important?
When you convert the words you’re using to match the language used by the people you’re writing to, you allow your readers to think more about the ideas you want them to think about instead of first trying to translate the words you used.
Without changing the words you use, you might as well say, “los cangrejos rojos están muriendo.” You are effectively asking your readers to learn another language before processing your information.
As you know, attention span on the internet, or anywhere for that matter, is practically non-existent these days unless you can keep your reader interested. Your first job is to make sure the reader doesn’t have to work too hard to understand you. If you want them to know red crabs are dying, you have to say so in a way that makes sense to them.
Choose Your Language
As the example from the scientific report hopefully demonstrates to you, choosing your written language has less to do with the ideas you want to talk about and more to do with who you’re talking to.
It may be entirely appropriate in a scientific report to say, “At locations proximal to the wellhead, megafaunal communities are more homogeneous than in unimpacted areas, lacking many taxonomic groups, and driven by high densities of arthropods” (Persistent and substantial impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, 2019).
When reported in CNN and other news outlets, this same idea was expressed as, “The areas near the wellhead are missing much of the animal and plant-life that are found in other, similar, areas of the deep ocean and are characterized by a high number of red crabs.”
By the time this information reaches social media, we hear, “Nothing but crabs can be found alive near the oil spill site.”
To be fair, the report also indicates some shrimp were also found. The sentence we’ve been playing with also says nothing about the deformities or disease these creatures are experiencing by living in this toxic waste dump as they slowly starve to death, though these ideas are reflected elsewhere in the report.
To choose the language you should use, you first need to know who you’re writing to. Just like when you’re talking to people, changing your language based on the context you’re in, it’s important to change the voice of your written word during the editing phase based on the audience who will be reading it.