Thursday, January 8, 2009

Voice and rhetorical situations

I'm getting ready to go to Portland to do a two-day workshop (eek-- they are going to be so bored with me before it's over), and one element I want to address is voice. Well, nothing like choosing an amorphous concept. But I had lunch with a friend who is getting her PhD in Rhet-comp today, and she said the research now suggests that writers don't have a single "authentic" voice, but rather that writers assume a different "persona" for different rhetorical situations. Of course, we all know that we're going to "sound" different when we're writing a technical manual and when we're writing a thriller. But I think even different novels present different rhetorical situations, and a single voice, however authentic, might not be effective.

(BTW, some of the research has to do with something I've come across working in a university writing center-- following a new graduate student whose initial writing "isn't graduate enough". I occasionally tutor grad students who have been told by a prof: "You don't write like a graduate student." That is meant, btw, as a criticism, not a compliment. The voice in graduate papers is more neutral, more analytical, not "This is an amazing book," but "This comprehensive history offers insights into...." There's an expectation of a voice-- one of those "you know it when you read it," but not necessarily anything I can identify point by point.)

So... think about your own writing. Do you think you change voice when you change books? Or do you think you "write to your voice"-- maybe not trying the type of book your existing voice wouldn't fit? (For example, there's nothing so excruciating as a dramatic writer who is forced by an editor to write comedy... either you're funny or you're not, let's face it.)

Well, maybe I should ask: Do you think you can create a comic voice if you aren't (previously) funny? (I just asked my husband, and he said, "Sure," and when I demanded and example, he replied, "You." Not funny, babe.)



Susan Helene Gottfried said...

I do think there's leeway, but maybe not enough to create a comedian where there isn't one naturally. I think that you can make two characters narrate the same book (in alternating chapters!) and have them sound completely different.

But at the end of the writing session, it's still YOU pulling the puppet strings. Essentially, we're stuck with who we are.

Laura K. Curtis said...

What Susan said.

One of the things my students never believed when I was teaching rhet-comp was that I didn't have to do anything to determine whether a paper had been plagiarized but read it once I'd read one or two of their papers already.

I've always thought that one of the interesting things about "voice" is that one of the most outstanding features of a writer's voice is the cadence of his or her writing. Longer and shorter sentences, longer and shorter paragraphs, these contribute to the tempo of writing, which makes a big difference in the way a writer speaks to his readers.

But one of the more complicated features of an author's "voice" is the combination of technically correct and technically incorrect sentence structures. Sentence fragments can have a great deal of impact, especially right after a long paragraph or sentence. And yet, you don't want to *encourage* people to use fragments.

I'd love to go to your presentation...I am sure people won't be bored at all!

Julia Weston said...

I'm no expert, but I would surmise (surmise? I never say surmise) that a previously unfunny person would have a hard time shifting gears. Creating a comic voice could probably be learned, but I think it would take a looooong time before it stopped sounding forced.

Good luck with the conference.

Thanks for the great post.

Edittorrent said...

I have to say that the authors I know personally who write funny books are very funny in person. There is one author who generally writes "serious" books who is one of the funniest people I know-- but she started out writing comic novels.

But that's a small sampling.

Edittorrent said...

Laura, yes, when a student gives me a paper that sounds like it's been written by a pro, I usually think it's been, uh, written by a pro. Sometimes I want to ask, "How dumb do you think I am?" Not that I want to give advice on how to successfully plagiarize, but boy, kids, think it through. If you're going to do it, do it all the way through the semester. Don't hand in a poorly constructed, misspelled, badly written first paper and then expect me to believe the second paper is your own work. :)


Ian said...

I find humor and comedy comes to me pretty naturally. I have to work to tone it down (and edit it out!) of projects where a more serious tone is in order.

Jordan said...

Since the thread's been hijacked a bit, I'd like to add my favorite story of a student plagiarizing.

The assignment was a 4-page research paper for a 100-level class. This student turned in an optional first draft--but the paper he happened to turn in was about a current event that had happened about four months prior, and it used an invented notation style. I knew this right away because that particular current event and the notation style had been used in an assignment for the previous semester, for a different teacher.

I happened to be one of only five teaching assistants who'd worked for the previous professor; however, none of us recognized the student so we're thinking he got the paper from a roommate. THAT's against the school's honor code, and if I'd told the professor, the student might have received an incomplete or faced university discipline--however, since this wasn't for a grade at that point, I pulled the student aside and made a backhanded allegation (but not in so many words, of course).

Apparently, I scared the student half out of his mind, because when he did turn the final paper (2.25 pages) in for a grade, he included a note telling me that it wasn't plagiarized, but he didn't have any sources because he'd stayed up all night writing it and the library wasn't open at 2 AM (and yeah, it showed).

Good times, good times. I'd like to think the student learned an important lesson about honesty, particularly academic honesty. *crosses fingers*

Murphy said...

‘Do you think you can create a comic voice if you aren't (previously) funny?’

This a tricky question. I would liken it to asking the lead singer of Aerosmith to sing a Celine Dion song (darn, that’s not a very good example, now is it?) Well, any way, presumably they are both singers, right? So, they should be able to sing? But honestly, aside from (yes, I know) the song: ‘I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing’, do you really want to hear Steven Tyler singing Celine’s songs..? Or vice versa, for that matter? Wouldn’t you rather hear the one whose voice is best suited to the music, words and the overall rhythm of the piece? Sure, they could swap songs and sing them respectively, (cause they are professionals) but, I guess the question for me would be: Whose voice would be more effective, delivering the story or message that is to be conveyed?...Cause, at the end of the day, if that voice doesn’t come naturally to the artist or author, how authentic will it be to the audience it was created for,to begin with?

Whew! Now, to answer the question. I think it would be difficult for someone who isn’t inherently funny, to write funny and make it seem effortless...and isn’t that the point of well written prose? I could be totally wrong about this, though. As Alicia so graciously pointed out I am riddled with flaws. ;)

Edittorrent said...

Jordan, have you had to use that ""? That's supposed to compare student papers to other papers for plagiarism. Good idea, but I checked one student, and she was a good student, so I was surprised when it registered that she had plagiarized. Well, I checked what they had as the "source." Her paper was about infertility treatments. The "source" was about a Hawaiian couple who had opened a store. There was NOTHING in common. I never did figure it out, but I was sure glad I'd checked before I accused her of plagiarism. :)
But then I got a student who took the whole paper from a government website-- it took about 2 google-seconds.

I gave him an F on the paper, but didn't report it (more, I fear, because it's a pain in the butt than because I'm so nice), and he ended up writing a couple of good but clearly his-own papers, and passed the course. I hope he learned from the experience. We're not as dumb as they think, right? :)

Jennifer said...

Did any of you see Shattered Glass, the movie about Stephen Glass' career at The New Republic and his subsequent downfall for journalistic fraud?

Glass' pieces in TNR were so witty that some of the other writers tried to copy his style. At one point Chloe Sevigny's character gives an edited piece, marked in LOTS of red ink, back to another writer and says to her, "You just don't write funny."

I tend to agree--either you do or you don't, but I don't think you can learn it to proficiency.

My personal fav funny writer: Augusten Burroughs.

JewelTones said...

I think you can change your style but not really your voice. I have many people tell me they can pick out my writing no matter where it is, even if my name isn't attached to it. Why? "Because it sounded like you."

I know someone else who was a huge fan of romance novels and who especially loved 3 or 4 authors. She liked their writing, their style and, later, began to wonder if they were the same person. Turns out they were... plus a few more alias she'd read over the years and liked as well. She wasn't at all shocked because -- while they all wrote different subgenres from historical to contemporary to futuristic/paranormal -- she said they all sounded very much alike.

jwhit said...

On voice, there was a writer a couple years ago who wrote a tell-all sexually explicit book as Anonymous. It took about two days for those who are paid to pay attention to writers to spill the beans on who it was, purely by the writing style.

As for plagiarism, I was a hard-a$$ teacher. A student had to do a project in order to graduate, the old AV course that all teacher ed students had to take. This girl was I think going to be an elem. ed. teacher. She handed in a project that was from the year before, and I picked it, not because I'd seen it before, but because she'd put a stick-on label over the name of the other student! I didn't even want a person like that teaching little kids. Made me wonder about her other ethics, or lack thereof. I believe the upshot was that she had to take the course over.