Voice to Avoid Writing Tips

 

Style (tip 6)

This is particularly true for e-mail. Much of the writing students do these days is on the Internet, where the absence of voice, tone, and facial expression combine with the quickness of response and the shortness of message to create horrendous failures of communication. Many a simple e-mail message has resulted in flame wars that raged on for days until finally burning themselves out. Those cutesy little computer faces, :), technically called "smilies," are a poor substitute for human presence. Anyone who has spent much time on the Internet knows full well the dangers of sarcasm. Do not use it unless you mean it, for someone somewhere will surely take you at your literal word.

Beware also of the flowery and ornate voice, unless you mean to discredit it. I include here not only the baroque rhetorical flourishes of the complete fop but also the attempt to sound more sophisticated than one usually is. Such attempts at erudition can be as hard on the ear as a phony foreign accent. This is perhaps a personal antipathy of my own. But others share it. Much of Mark Twain A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court is devoted to ridiculing Sir Walter Scott and the idiocies of Ivanhoe. Too many students today have spent too much time playing computer variations of Dungeons and Dragons that wallow in the worst sort of a revived, pseudomedieval Sir Walter Scott verbiage. Gag me with a Grue before even thinking of adopting the voice of any of the characters in King's Quest, even if you're a member of SCA.

Closely related is the kind of political BOMFOG that vomits over the airwaves every election season. BOMFOG is a useful acronym for rhetoric that wanders on eloquently about the "Brotherhood of Man and the Fatherhood of God." Such phrases say nothing while trying to give the impression of being vaguely on one side or the other without having to make any specific commitment.

And speaking of commitment, use the active, not the passive, voice. During the Iran-Contra scandal, when the Reagan PR machine finally admitted that "mistakes were made," the Washington Post ran an editorial noting the curiously evasive use of the passive voice. Who made those mistakes? The politicians were not going to say. Instead, they withdrew like worms back into the mud of the passive voice.

The main problem with the careful, correct paper is not only that it bores us but that it insults us as well. Try to put yourselves in your English professor's tweed jacket. You are sitting in but one of the prof's three or four courses. In your class alone, 38 papers, each about 5 pages long, have been turned in. That's about 190 mind-numbing pages. If the prof allots, say, 15 minutes to read and correct each paper, that is 570 minutes. Allow 30 minutes here and there to get up, stretch, go to the bathroom, get a beer from the fridge, slop the hogs, and you have 600 minutes of reading, or 10 solid hours. And we are not talking here about a good juicy novel. We are talking about the same thing over and over and over. The repetition is like eternity in a highway traffic jam, inching along, stopping, inching along, stopping. Add to this the fact that most papers written for English classes sound the same--safe, objective, third-person narratives all done in a pseudoscholarly imitation of what students think English professors sound like. And that is where the insult comes in.

Parents of small children are always horrified when they first hear their little darlings sounding just like them. They are supremely embarrassed to see themselves suddenly as others see them. "Oh, my God, is that what I sound like? Good lord, I didn't mean any of that seriously." So too with student papers. By writing in a pseudo-English-professor voice, students are imitating what they think they hear. They are telling us what we sound like to them. I cringe in horror every time. Surely they didn't learn that from me, did they?

Avoid therefore any attempt to sound the way you think an English or history or anthropology paper ought to sound. The results of such efforts are almost invariably pompous and painful. Be true to your own voice, or the voice of your paper, but consider your audience, your readers.

 
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