Different Voices

Note the two different voices here talking about the same subject. Which boss would you rather work for?

Same person different expressionsBoss 1:

It has come to my attention that computers are not being turned off at the end of the workday. This is a possible security breach, as well as a waste of electricity, and failure to shut down electronic equipment will not be tolerated. Please ensure that your computers are off before you leave each night or there will be consequences for individuals who do not comply.

Boss 2:
Hello, everyone! I know that here at Plants, Inc., we’re all committed to a green work environment. So I’m asking for your help with respect to computers. We’ve seen a number of computers inadvertently left on in the evenings. I want to ask for your cooperation in turning off your computer before you leave, which helps conserve electricity. Thanks for your help!

Notice the different tones in the two passages. Tone is part of the voice and reveals the attitude of the writer, which can range from friendly to angry to cold to intimate.

If you’re writing a personal essay, about an experience in your life, then the voice you use will reveal how you feel about the experience. You’ll most likely write using the personal pronouns I or we. You’ll let your personality emerge in the language you choose.

If you want to convey a humorous or outrageous event, then your words and your tone will reflect that. You might exaggerate, use informal, even silly sounding words or use acerbic, or understated language. Your sentences might be short and convey energy. If, on the other hand, you are writing about a loss, your words will be more serious, your tone somber, and your sentences might be longer, more thoughtful, and reflective. As the writer, you get to decide how you want to describe your experience.

Notice the different voices and sentence structure in the excerpts from these two popular memoirs.

Memoir 1:

We didn’t call it the kitchen in our house. We called it the Burns Unit.

“It’s a bit burned,” my mother would say apologetically at every meal, presenting you with a piece of meat that looked like something—a much-loved pet perhaps—salvaged from a tragic house fire. “But I think I scraped off most of the burned part,” she would add, overlooking that this included every bit of it that had once been flesh.

~from The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson

Memoir 2:
Later I realized that I must have repeated the details of what happened to everyone who came to the house in those first weeks, all those friends and relatives who brought food and made drinks and laid out plates on the dining room table for however many people were around at lunch or dinner time, all those who picked up the plates and froze the leftovers and ran the dishwasher and filled our (I could not yet think my) otherwise empty house even after I had gone into the bedroom (our bedroom, the one in which there still lay on a sofa a faded terrycloth XL robe bought in the 1970s at Richard Carroll in Beverly Hills) and shut the door.

~from A Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

If your assignment is to write a more academic paper, then you will want to consider using the academic voice, which will be discussed on the next page.

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