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Use Your Voice, Part III

Posted on Wednesday, January 30, 2019 at 12:18 AM

Use the elements of your voice -- and remember: without you, nothing matters.

By Peter P. Jacobi

To conclude the now-three-part pass-along of highlights from my summer 2018 keynote titled "Without You, Nothing Matters," meaning the application of your own voice in copy, or the request to your writer to offer up his or her strongest application thereof.

Show Purpose

To have voice, your writing must show purpose, a goal, a reason for being. As reader, I must sense that the writer is writing for a reason, with some sort of goal, with a need to fulfill, with heat in the belly.

I'm not saying a crusade is required, but as your reader, I want to recognize that something urgent from within has propelled you into this project, that in some evident way you have been drawn in by a story, or a feeling or a person or happening has come into your life and is pushing you to make artistic use or comment.

Purpose in Facts

Maybe, it's just FACTS that stun. Brian Doyle wrote an article called "Joyas Voladoras" for The American Scholar. "Joyas voladoras" means "flying jewels," which is what the first white explorers in the Americas called hummingbirds, creatures whose "heart beat ten times a second, whose heart is the size of a pencil eraser, whose heart is a lot of the hummingbird."

Each hummingbird, writes Doyle, "visits a thousand flowers a day. They can dive at 60 miles an hour. They can fly backward. They can fly more than 500 miles without pausing to rest. But when they rest, they come close to death: on frigid nights, or when they are starving, they retreat into torpor, their metabolic rate slowing to a 15th of their normal sleep rate, their hearts sludging nearly to a halt, barely beating, and if they are not soon warmed, if they do not soon find that which is sweet, their hearts grow cold, and they cease to be."

Here are facts that took Doyle's breath away, compelling him to share them in an essay.

Purpose in Prose

Maya Angelou had a more pronounced purpose for writing. "I write for the Black voice and any ear which can hear it," she insisted. "As a composer writes for musical instruments and a choreographer creates for the body, I search for sound, tempos, and rhythms to ride through the vocal cord over the tongue, and out of the lips of Black people. I love the shades and slashes of light. Its rumblings and passages of magical lyricism. I accept the glories of stridencies and purrings, trumpetings and somber sonorities. I write because I am a Black woman, listening attentively to her talking people."

Angelou put her purpose in lovely prose, a distinctive, distinguishable voice that reveals why and how she wrote.

Detail Is Essential

From purpose, let's move to another essential ingredient of voice. It is detail. For your writing to have distinction, it must have substance. Abstractions, generalities do not work magic. They're skippable. They're avoidable. To the contrary, there is power in details, in specificity, in facts that startle or cause ruminations that prove contention or simply reflect a sudden feeling. I return you to Brian Doyle's hummingbirds. It is the detail in those facts, the awesome specifics, that sell the subject, that so astonish me and keep me reading.

Be True to Your Writing

We turn to honesty. Bring honesty to your writing. Be honest to who you are and how you express yourself. One strives, you know, to have one's writing come across as spoken, as informal, as conversational, another sound reason for reading your copy aloud. Does your writing sound natural or forced? I hope not.

I think of writers negotiating themselves painfully through description in which words sort of float meaninglessly, rootless in the air adjectivally or passages burdened or passed along to the reader with nouns and verbs that obviously don't belong in the writer's own vocabulary and that don't belong in copy written for any audience. Writing is not a reason to show off one's vocabulary or one's dexterity using Roget's Thesaurus.

Avoid sounding phony. Be true to yourself. And think also about trying to be too show-offish with information. You've done research. You want to prove you've done research. And you pour fact after fact after fact into your copy, too excessively for your readers to grasp or care about. That's being phony, too.

Make Your Reader Feel Loved

As significant as honesty in writing is love. Let your reader recognize you love what you're writing. Love the language. Love your idea. Love information, the substance, the content of your story or article or poem: the plot, the characters, the message imparted. Love the process of writing. Love your reader. Love not your readers but your reader, the one reader in your mind's eye as you work, remembering it is one reader who will read your copy by him or herself, alone, in the privacy of place, mind, and spirit. Show me a little love.

Be Yourself

What else for voice? Personality. And singularity. We return to the you in your writing. Releasing the you, I mean not half of you or a laid-back you or a reserved you or a better-not-let-myself-go you or a better-not-get-too-bold you or an I-don't-want-to-embarrass-myself you but the full you when you are most at ease with yourself, the you that shows you as you really are as communicator when comfortable with family, friends, relaxing, just waking up, in the shower, enjoying the green or white outdoors, talking to yourself, the let-yourself-go you.

Don't be dull. Don't be dreary. Be the confident here-i-am me. You do need to cross the chasm between writer and reader. You do need to interest, intrigue, invest, inspire. Theater comes into play. Where there is good theater, there exist an author's personality and singularity, long before the performers get into the act.

Show, Don't Tell

Another huge must for voice is that you don't just "tell," but that you "show" your reader what you're talking about. Show versus tell. Take the reader there. Bring the reader up close. Make of your writing a journey for the reader. He or she may be sitting peacefully in a living room chair, physically inert while your copy offers travel through space or time or wonders. Take advantage of such an opportunity. Be a travel guide. Make your written world real.

Show versus tell. Let's go to history. Pliny the Younger left the only written account of Pompeii's burial when Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD. Serving as journalist, he wrote:

"We saw the sea sucked away by the heaving of the earth ... a fearful black cloud forked with great tongues of fire lashed at the heavens and torrents of ash began to pour from the sky. Although it was daytime, we were enveloped by night -- not a moonless night or one dimmed by cloud -- but the darkness of a sealed room without light."

What if Pliny had written, "It was horrible." "It was ghastly." "It was unbelievable." "It was unforgettable." "It is indescribable." We would have nothing of meaning. Fortunately, he "saw the sea sucked away by the heaving of the earth." Show versus tell.

Use Your Perspective

The use of perspective adds to voice. That means approaching a subject from a different, perhaps surprising, direction or view. Perspective, when different, when used from an unexpected mental angle, can startle. It can charm, it can make the reader smile. It can also bring renewed understanding of the topic under the microscope. Take charm and a smile. Let the words of Tom Wayman illustrate. Here is his poem, "The Feet":

"At night, the feet become lonely.
"Hidden away in the darkness under sheets and blankets, no wonder the two abandoned feet begin a clumsy relationship. One foot suddenly crosses the ankle of the other like a blind horse putting his head over the neck of another blind horse. The feet lie like this touching all night -- stiff, self-conscious, not saying a word."


Use the elements of voice: your voice and yours alone. Remember, without you, nothing matters.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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