The Professional Writing 101 series aims to inform readers on the professional writing best practices that can be applied to various industries that use professional writers. This series will explore several aspects such as professional writing pedagogies, defining and analyzing the audience, research, strategic messaging, information display, and readability design.
The Professional Writing 101 series will be divided into 6 main chapters:
Professional Writing 101: Writers as Vessels
Professional Writing 101: Responsibility of Rhetoric
Professional Writing 101: Readability Design
Professional Writing 101: Collecting and Utilizing Audience Data
Professional Writing 101: Digital Tools for Better Writing
One of the most challenging aspects of writing that writers spend substantial time developing is an appropriate authorial voice. Writers learn to analyze the authorial voice of different texts and articulate their voices in creative and argumentative pieces, research articles, and descriptive essays. The voice in writing resonates beyond the paper (or screen) and sticks with readers (or audience) after reading. Nancy Nelson and Montserrat Castelló, respectively a professor of English and a chairman of Psychology and Learning Development (2012) express their views on the widely debated definition of voice by saying:
A writer may seek to project a certain kind of voice and make choices for writing that seem associated with that kind of voice, but the voice is not realized until perceived by a reader (p.3).
Here lies the complexity and challenge of executing the right voice. Some discussions surrounding this topic will refer to an individual as a reader, but professional writers prefer to employ the word audience because they write for a group with a targeted purpose. As a result, the industry routinely refers to this group of people as a target audience. This article will refer to a specific group of readers as an audience and address a general individual as a reader.
Why is it so essential for writers in every field to establish themselves as reliable messengers? Is it only necessary to have reliable narration for fiction pieces? No, not necessarily. Stories of fact or fiction contain ideas and messages for those who listen or read. Whether a writer works in marketing, technology, journalism, or academia, they must construct a cohesive story and some calls to action. Therefore, writers function as vessels through which a message passes. Thus, questions arise regarding what writers need to include in their content to prompt an audience successfully. The answer, though quite simple in explanation, presents some difficulties in practice.
Writers may apply certain stylistic choices to construct a particular voice that matches their intent, but in the end, it is the audience that determines its success. While the goal of texts varies, any text aims to create a trusted relationship between audience and writer. The voice is something that readers "construct" themselves as they "infer human characteristics from the text. Writers’ choices in terms of textual features and content do much to communicate these characteristics" (Nelson & Castelló, 2012, p. 4). In particular, writers must conceptualize whom they are writing for and then implement elements that appeal to and guide the reader toward the desired voice of that context. The voice of an academic paper applying a certain literary analysis to a piece of literature will differ from the voice of a scientific journal. Both make claims and use evidence to substantiate them, but the types of evidence and target audiences are different. Scientific writing uses a functional, objective voice that highlights the data, while the former uses an expressive voice that either argues the reasons why their perception is the correct one or explores how a particular literary lens (Marxist, feminist, etc.) brings a new interpretation of that text to the surface.
Elements of Voice
Elements of voice are analogous to measured ingredients in baking because they must be precise to fulfill the chemical reaction for a simply delicious baked treat. These elements include diction (word choice), detailed examples and facts, syntax (arrangement of words), word order, sentence length, punctuation, and evocative imagery (Carlow University, 2021, para. 6). Using these elements well establishes a more trustworthy relationship with the audience and makes the piece stand out. Starbucks, one of the esteemed examples of a successful brand voice, uses both expressive and functional voices to promote its products and appeal to its audience. Here is one example of their description of their coffee blend, Hawaii Ka'u:
Notes from the cupping room. Hawaiian coffees are famous for their power to transport. This cup from Hawaii Ka'u certainly doesn't disappoint—one sip and you're on a tropical island, beach tote in hand, the sweet smell of coconut water and sunscreen drifting on the trade winds. We think the pour-over brewing method best brings out its flavors (Starbucks, n.d., Instore-Signage).
First, Starbucks explains the unique characteristics of this coffee blend by using use the sub-heading "Notes from the cupping room." The word notes signal a short explanation of the Hawaii Ka'u blend from a group of coffee experts. Second, the em dash indicates a sudden pivot into expressive diction that invokes the imagery associated with the coffee blend's origin. Addressing the audience directly in the second person you and the use of contractions projects a more informal voice. By referencing the "cupping room" before coffee descriptions, Starbucks can leverage a voice that holds authoritative knowledge in coffee while also marketing the blends in a captivating, approachable way.
However, these elements do not act as full-proof "plug-and-chug" mathematical formulas. Writers still need to approach their voices with intent and strategic design. Kyle Stedman (2021), a professor of English and Rhetoric, remarks that voice is multifaceted because identifying the voice is an unconscious process, but "it’s also related to the words you choose" (para. 9). Identifying which elements fit better depends on the content and the target audience. In everyday communication, people do not engage in conversation with their bosses by incorporating the same vocabulary and register as when they talk to their friends. Similarly, the choice of voice is unique to the individual, but adapting that voice according to appropriateness reveals a competence that a reader can trust. Stedman (2021) uses the terms present and lively throughout his article (para. 12) to describe word choice and language in their writing because regardless of whether a piece is informal or formal, "the reader should never leave a piece feeling bored or confused" (para. 12). Therefore, writers construct a voice through consistent practice and a heightened awareness of the audience and contexts.
Writers adapt their voices depending on the type of text, what they aim to elicit from the reader and their niche market or field's best writing practices. Some may compare this process to code-switching, which is the "process of changing from one linguistic code (a language or dialect) to another, depending on the social context" (Morrison, n.d., para. 1), but in actuality, the more accurate term for writers is linguistic accommodation. Richard Nordquist (2020), a Ph.D. professor in linguistics and rhetoric, defines this as
The process by which participants in a conversation adjust their accent, diction, or other aspects of language according to the speech style of the other participant (para. 1).
While this definition refers to verbal communication, the same relationship can be applied in written texts. For instance, if writers accommodate their writing to match the majority of their target audience, they will receive positive outcomes such as papers published in prestigious journals, good grades from their professors, or receiving funding and grants because of successfully written proposals. Moreover, for writers who produce web and social media content, the internet reduces the time lag of communication between the writer and the audience. Now, audiences deliver more immediate feedback in the form of likes, comments, retweets, and social media followers.
Voice in Practice
Writers in the fields of academia, copywriting, public relations, and technical content must produce voices that demonstrate professionalism to executives, coworkers, clients, and industry-wide audiences, and "writers who work on customer-facing materials must also combine brand personality with grammar and customer value" (Carlow University, 2021, para. 10). A consistent voice establishes an identity that stands out in a market and maintains a loyal buyer base. If a writer fails to deliver a pre-established voice in customer-facing materials, the message loses reliability and clarity. A consequent lack of trust will make readers question the competency and authority of those who offer services, products, and educational information.
In procedural information that dominates technical and scientific writing, some may assume that a voice is not required, but that is not necessarily true. Technical writing encompasses pieces of critical information from everyone on the production team, such as the "marketing’s vision, user design’s implementation, engineering’s execution, and field team’s experiences" (Logan, 2020, para. 4). It is essential to understand marketing terminology pitched to consumers, the engineering team's design concept, and the user design's insights into user interaction with the product when creating a cohesive technical document.
Refining the Message
Writers are not just vessels; they are filtration vessels. No message passes through them without meticulous refinement. They must remove all the fluff before distribution. Writers must choose their language carefully lest they accidentally sound unclear at best or condescending at worst. Risks include discussing too much unfamiliar terminology without providing a definition or over-explaining terms that the audience should already know. To mitigate ineffective language, writers may reference audience data to gain insight into their audience and identify what they already know and what they need to know. A future article in this series will discuss how writers conduct this methodology.
One final valuable point of reference for writers is an organization or company's pre-established writer's guide. Writer's guides present rules such as avoided and preferred terminology, tagline placements, formatting and grammar rules, message and branding, goals, achievements, and a defined target audience. These guidelines help maintain consistency, and writers adapt their writing to the style of whom they represent.
By following many of the aspects explained above, writers dedicate their careers to crafting clear and grammatically sound documents. They must adapt their writing styles to the given writing parameters and project voices that grab attention and satisfy audiences who gain newfound knowledge. In the writing field, the opportunity to bestow knowledge to those who can use the content to better their lives makes years of specializing in words a career that is simultaneously challenging but rewarding.
Barrow, J. (2020). Why do we change the way we speak depending on whom we’re speaking to? Altalang. Retrieved May 10, 2022, from https://www.altalang.com/beyond-words/change-way-we-speak-depending-speaking/#:%7E:text=It’s%20called%20accommodation%2C%20and%20it,whom%20one%20is%20speaking%20with.
Carlow University. (2021). How to develop your writing voice. Carlow Today & Tomorrow | Creating a More Just and Merciful World. Retrieved May 5, 2022, from https://blog.carlow.edu/2021/07/19/how-to-develop-your-writing-voice/
Logan, C. (2021). Developing a voice for technical documentation. Innovatia Blog. Innovatia. Retrieved May 9, 2022, from https://www.innovatia.net/blog/developing-a-voice-for-technical-documentation
Morrison, C. (n.d.). Code-switching. Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved May 10, 2022, from https://www.britannica.com/topic/code-switching
Nelson, N., & Castelló, M. (2012). Academic writing and authorial voice. ResearchGate. Retrieved May 5, 2022, from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/235265521_Academic_Writing_and_Authorial_Voice.
Nordquist, R. (2020). What is linguistic accommodation?. Thoughtco. Retrieved May 10, 2022, from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-accommodation-speech-1688964#:%7E:text=In%20linguistics%2C%20accommodation%20is%20the,speech%20accommodation%2C%20and%20communication%20accommodation.
Starbucks. (n.d.). Voice. Starbucks Creative Expression. Retrieved May 13, 2022, from https://creative.starbucks.com/voice/
Stedman, K. (2021). Making sure your voice is present. Writingcommons. Retrieved May 9, 2022, from https://writingcommons.org/article/making-sure-your-voice-is-present/
Figure 1: Turk, E. (2016). The Storyteller [Illustration]. Evanturk. Retrieved from http://evanturk.com/book01c.html
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Figure 3: Tubik. (2019). Moonworkers Illustration: Communication and Messages [Illustration]. Dribbble. Retrieved from https://dribbble.com/shots/5915765-Moonworkers-Illustration-Communication-and-Messages/attachments/11125073?mode=media
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