Text Does Speak, but It Has Many Voices

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I really enjoyed reading Peter Elbow's balanced comparison of written and oral communication in his essay, "The Shifting Relationships between Speech and Writing" from Tribble and Trubek's Writing Material.  I also really enjoyed the fact that, although he argued both sides, he spent more time futhering his own argument that writing and speech are "essentially similar," and why both need to be like one another (142-151). 

One area of his argument that I found especially helpful, and could identify with the most, was his discussion of the importance of "voice" in one's writing.  Elbow writes, "Unless we actively train our students to speak onto paper, they will write the kind of dead, limp, nominalized prose we hate..." (143).  This is one of the most difficult ideas to capture on paper, at least for me and many that I know.  When working with young people who are, quite correctly, focused on learning to develop a well organized piece of writing, whether fiction or non-fiction, they are rarely focused on voice and style.  This often leads to the "dead, limp" writing that Elbow talks about.  I found this to also be true for middle and high school students when I was instructing a creative writing program at a public library last summer.  Some of them had an excellent grasp of this concept, but others were struggling.  They had great ideas, but could not put these ideas into words that would affect and interest others.  One way that we worked on this was to read parts of what we had written aloud, to orally critique one another, and to work on describing places, things, or people that we were less familiar with.  These exercises helped all of us to learn better strategies for appealing to our readers by speaking to them through our writing. 

This means that Elbow's idea about voice shows an affirmative answer to Havelock's question, "Can Text Speak?"  Elbow suggests that the best writing does speak to the reader, which allows him or her to be fully engaged in the experience that the text can offer.  I agree with Elbow; however, writing can have many different types of voices that are both good and bad.  Poor writing can speak to a reader, but in a very different way.  Poor writing can make someone disinterested in a topic, just because of the writing quality and with no attention to the ideas.  This shows just how important it is for us not only to capture what we want to say, but also how we want to say it.  I know this is something that I need to work on myself, but I think we can all learn from Elbow's emphasis on voice in writing.  This idea also provides a great way for us to move from a primarily oral culture to one that is influenced much more by writing, as Megan and Tiffany discuss on their own blogs about this essay.  Take a look at what they and the rest of my classmates also have to say about Elbow's ideas.

2 Comments

Maddie Gillespie said:

Erica, you outline Elbow's position on voice and relate it very well to what you've experienced with younger students in the world. I have heard from several college students as well that they have been taught to focus on having "no voice" and ascribing to the "right" style that they now have a difficult time putting a sense of voice into their writing, or sometimes following a different style. In a sense, such students as I mention have been too well trained for a culture heavily influenced by writing and have nearly forgotten how to incorporate their speech into their writing practices.

But if you want to practice using more of your voice in your writing, I'd recommend playing around with writing out different dialogues where your characters talk with accents, or something to that effect. It's not only fun but it's enjoyable too!

Erica Gearhart said:

These are really great suggestions, Maddie. I always envy your blogs in that they reflect a creative voice that mine blogs do not. I haven't had to do creative exercises like that for a while, but i always enjoyed doing them. I will have to give it a try!

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