Who are you in words?

Tomorrow in class, we’ll talk about some of the work that was done over the weekend. Once again, the subject of voice (and I don’t mean passive versus active) will come up. We’ve talked about how describing (showing versus telling) helps us as writers use our own voices and not some unnatural, unsatisfying “reporter” voice. But there’s a lot more to it.

Probably, you thought you knew your voice before you came into the reporting class. Probably, you feel as if you’ve lost it, struggled to hang onto it, or just recently regained it in your writing for the Missourian or Vox (oh, and then there’s that Vox voice).

But what are we talking about when we talk about voice? It’s the rhythm of your writing, the word choices, the phrasing, the transitions and the organization of the narrative.

It’s what the reader actually hears as he or she sort of whispers to himself/herself what you’ve written. That’s called sub-vocalization, and it apparently helps us remember, retain and understand what we’ve read.

Remember what I said about “dictating to yourself”? And that bit about how you should read your work aloud?

This is why: The reader hears you. How do you sound? Stiff? Windy (that is, your sentences are so long they cause shortness of breath)? Awkward?

Here’s a voice I admire. Dexter Filkins has tremendous authority on Iraq and Afghanistan and is still always very clearly himself when he writes. I believe I could pick out a paragraph of his writing from lots of others.

As I sit here blogging this afternoon, I read back on what I’ve written and yep, I am editing. But it’s still me: a little abrupt sometimes, sarcastic, earnest, and a little dramatic maybe.

What qualities come through in your voice? Are you using your blog to let that voice develop?


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17 Responses to Who are you in words?

  1. Lost Soldiers by Dexter Filkins– what a great example of voice. It’s not a long article and there aren’t many quotes, but I see these kids he’s writing about in my head and it gives me chills.

    His writing is so natural it comes off as effortless. In fact, I have a hard time imagining him not just sitting down and writing this up in ten minutes because it seems so clear that this is what he saw and that it couldn’t be any other way.

    How does he do that?

    I know I have a blogging voice but I’m not so sure it translates in my stories. Good thing we’re getting a lot of practice.

  2. rosiedowney says:

    Dexter Filkins is very skilled at editing himself. The images that he created in my mind with these 200-300 words were both vivid and surreal. He has a very distinct way of making experiences that are so realistic, also seem cinematic. Filkins definitely has a strong journalistic voice and I look forward to reading more of his work.

    My real world manner of speaking is kind of valley girl meets surfer dude. It’s something that I am constantly trying to edit out of my writing. I think it’s important to let your own style and personality shine through your work but at the same time, there are only so many times the audience can hear awesome, bogus and gnarly before they start to get annoyed.

  3. Regina Wang says:

    When I write, I often try to emulate a “journalistic” voice — whatever that means. I rarely ask myself, “What does Regina sound like?”

    How does one write with force, authority and personality?

    • reedkath says:

      Practice, practice, practice.
      Tips: Write letters regularly to people you know. Not emails. Email is different.
      When you’ve finished the first draft of your writing, READ IT OUT LOUD. I already said that. When you notice a sentence that sounds stiff, rephrase it in your own words without looking at the sentence.
      Relax and have as much fun with the subject as is decent. Don’t worry so much about “authority.” It doesn’t come from where you may think it does. It comes from facts, transparency, context and clarity — not “trying to sound professional.”

  4. Kurt Woock says:

    I wonder if great writers ever feel guilty about bringing such beauty to such horror. In this case, it seems as if the beauty of the words can serve to memorialize fallen soldiers. However, if one is writing about a rape, a murder, or other grisly acts (not that war isn’t grisly…), do you make your words reflect the actions by removing all the beauty you can? How? Why?

    I’m sure there are instances in which beautiful stories have been written about horrendous things. How? Why?

    It would be easier to comprehend if a poet were writing it. But a journalist is different. I’m lost on this one…

  5. When I was in high school, I tried to develop a Jane Austen-esque voice. One of my English teachers returned a paper and commented that my writing was “ostentatious.” Although I was offended at the time, I’ve since learned otherwise—Captain Bounds (yes, that’s what we called him) was right.

    Although I’ve learned to be myself more, I’m still struggling to develop my voice, and I’ve been experimenting with new ways of “speaking” in my writing. My writing tends to have a hint of optimism, and I know I have some poetic tendencies, too. I enjoy playing with the words until they are just right. My largest lament at deadline is that I don’t have time to make each sentence sing. Still, this subject of voice is tricky—I still need to work on defining mine.

    In response to Kurt’s comment, I don’t think journalism requires a lack of beauty, especially when it comes to grisly topics. Although beauty is hard to define (literary theory forever changed my perceptions of beauty), it should not be dismissed because of subject matter.

    An article can be carefully crafted, and the words can come together in a beautiful way that makes the story that much more moving, that much more powerful, and that much more urgent. I know there’s not always time for that, but when there is, I think we journalists should strive to make our writing beautiful.

  6. P.S. You know, I don’t think poetry and journalism are too far apart. Much of what Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote in “A Defense of Poetry” can be applied to journalism. Here are a few highlights:

    “A poem is the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth. There is the difference between a story and a poem, that a story is a catalogue of detached facts, which have no other bond of connexion than time, place, circumstance, cause and effect; the other is the creation of actions according to the unchangeable forms of human nature…” (As journalists, we put things in context–so our stories are sometimes more like poems in that regard.)

    “The parts of a composition may be poetical, without the composition as a whole being a poem.”

    “Poetry is a sword of lightning, ever unsheathed, which consumes the scabbard that would contain it.”

  7. danramey says:

    Wow, Filkins’ voice is really captivating. I’ve grown a little tired of war coverage because it’s something that’s been around for so long now but “Lost Soldiers” drew me in instantly and kept me there until the end.

    Thanks to Filkins’ writing, I felt that I was right there with the soldiers as they walked/drove down the bomb infested roads.

    As far as my journalistic voice, I still feel like I’m developing it. Looking back at some of my previous writing, I feel like my journalistic voice was for the most part muted. I think I was just mainly trying to regurgitate as much information as I could.

    However, I feel like this semester, thanks in large part to Liz’s encouragement, that I’m starting to develop more of a voice. She’s really encouraged me to add a lot more description into my stories. I’ve found that this has not only spiced up my stories but also made them more fun for me to write overall.

  8. Tony Flesor says:

    That article by Dexter Filkins is great, but that goes without saying.

    The last paragraph particularly. The word choice and cadence are beautiful. How do you write like that and write journalism though? “Lost Soldiers” isn’t journalism (or is it?) as much as it is “creative nonfiction” maybe. How does he know everything those soldiers say in the Humvee and how does he get away with things like “you think…” or “death rides along?”

    Obviously, Filkins gets to write things we don’t get to, and this isn’t cold reporting. My point is that it’s hard to use my voice in journalistic writing. I write blogs and I know that my voice is in there because I hear myself saying those words. When I write an article I hear myself in my reporter voice repeating back things that others told me. I cut out all of the words that sound like me because they just seem like extras.

  9. Chen Yao says:

    What I feel about the article is Filkins’ sensitive and sentimental voice~ is FEEL the VOICE grammatically correct?
    Always journalism writings especially political news just look the same, but readers can easily tell those are news, not novel, not diary. Writers’ voices can make the reports live, but they should add proper amount of voice (maybe 1/4 tablespoon?) because too much individual voice brings in emotion. How to find a balance between my voice and still be able to fit the story into newspaper?
    Find a friend or class mate and edit each other’s articles help to get to know one’s voice. Also it’s really fun to compare what you hear with what he/she says because they might not be the same.

  10. zhangyiqian says:

    It’s interesting that when I read through the comments different voices started sounding in my head…the words people wrote matched up with the ways they spoke perfectly well.

    To practice journalism is to dance in chains. There’s always a balance you have to keep, how much of your article is presenting the facts and others’ voice, and how much is your own voice. When I first started writing newspaper articles in college it was confusing to me, I felt like it was a collage, all I had to do was to piece together the quotes, and there wasn’t much writing involved, not much room to inject my own voice into. But now I’ve changed my mind. I agree with Kellie that newspaper articles can be beautiful. Despite objectivity, balance, outsider’s pov — all those values we hold dear as journalists —, we are still telling stories, and different people would tell stories in different ways. When I go through story edits with Liz, whenever she changed my wordings, she always asked whether I was okay with it, and whether I would’ve said it the same way. And that’s it — that’s the writer’s voice.

    Also, I think sometimes people confuse “voice” with “opinion”. At least it was a struggle for me at the beginning. How do I show myself just enough to be a presenter, not a commentator? For me, I avoid using words that carry strong emotions or overly descriptive. I try keeping my tone flat. But this doesn’t conflict with good writing — sometimes your writing doesn’t have to be flowery to paint a colorful picture.

    • reedkath says:

      “To practice journalism is to dance in chains.”

      Brava! Well said. And guess what? The chains get lighter as you get stronger as a journalist.

  11. baileywrites says:

    I’ve gotta say I feel like I’ve lost my voice. Granted I feel my forte is really in longform autobiographical spiritual writing, which has very little to do with news reporting. I definitely don’t regret learning all that I have at the Missourian, but lately I have had moments of panic wondering if I’ll get my voice back–is it like riding a bike?

    As for the Filkins piece, it reminded me of a scene in the movie “Hair.” At the very beginning of this clip, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fhNrqc6yvTU, it shows George Berger, who is not actually a soldier but is mistaken for one and sent to Vietnam. The fear in his face is what I thought of when I read Filkins’ opening lines about expecting to see older men in the barracks and coming across kids, too young–deer in the headlights.

    And, sorry for just ruining the end of “Hair” for you. Whoops. But this scene is so powerful! Gets me every time!

  12. Robert Johnson says:

    The Filkins story is amazing. The tone and voice immediately reminded me Of Tim O’Brien, specifically “The Things They Carried”. O’Brien was a ground soldier in Vietnam, so it always made sense to me that his style was stripped bare as he cut himself off from the emotion of witnessing the events he did.

    Perhaps it’s the same for Filkin, just because he’s not carrying a weapon doesn’t mean he isn’t as big a part of what he sees and his style is just as raw and direct. Amazing.

  13. Kelsey McQuade says:

    I actually ran into this yesterday when writing an update on the Breaktime homicide. The news release itself was kind of confusing, and I didn’t want to copy it word for word, so I tried to do it my own way while still sounding professional. But the ACE told me to write it exactly as I would say it to someone, and although I probably looked like an idiot talking to myself while typing and backspacing, but it actually worked without sounding too conversational.

    But I feel like my struggle with voice is one that has been ongoing this entire semester. It’s tricky to find that balance, and that’s what’s great about reading great writing, because they have found that balance, or even if they haven’t, they make it work and it’s great to read. I hope I’ll eventually be able to be confident in my writing voice, but this class is a great way to develop it.

  14. EmokeBebiak says:

    Have you read Filkins’ “Forever War”?
    That book pretty much changed how I see journalism.
    Journalism can be — is — art.

    • reedkath says:

      I DID read “The Forever War” and thought it was outstanding. I am a huge fan of Dexter Filkins, though I have to tell you that people who have traveled with him doing journalism in Iraq say that he is, um, a challenging person. “Not a nice guy,” as one famous journalist put it when she was here last year speaking to my class. She said she would never go anywhere with him again. I wanted to dig for details but didn’t have time.

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