Tag: word choice

Beholden and Held By The Power of Words

Rose Dyar, Writing Consultant

“Carry our stories carefully
Wrap them in soft red cloth
and place them against your
heart.” -Yolanda Chávez Leyva

Here at the Writing Center, we deal in the study of words and stories. Lately, I have been thinking a lot about how to explain why I think that’s so special, how to explain the link I see between words and justice, and how I honored I am to work with writers as they make meaning.

So here goes a humble attempt to begin such an explanation.
I believe that the study of words (e.g. literature, poetry, rhetoric) is critical to the ongoing formation of the whole human person. A bold claim, I know, but let me elaborate. This endeavor has the potential to infuse beauty and feeling and empathy into a world that actively attempts to numb us to our own humanity. And because of that, it has the radical potential to change hearts and minds. I mean radical change in two ways.

First, the etymological term. To change something radically means to change it at its root. The study of words grants us the gift of insight, or the ability to see inside of thing, to see the systems and structures that manifest themselves into parts of our daily lives, which then make their way into the stories that we read. When we know what we’re looking at, we know how to ask questions about it. Studying words and studying writing, then, gives context to social and political conditions that engender joy and suffering in our lives.

Second, I speak of words and radical change in terms of impact. We often use the word radical in order to describe major change, of the shifting of norms. And radical change necessitates action on its behalf. Which brings me to my next point. The study of words allows us to disrupt the laws of physics, to become alchemists, to remove ourselves from the center of our own axes and ask what it might take to imagine life otherwise. Empathy and understanding are byproducts of encountering stories. Empathy and understanding create conditions for change to happen.

But here is what the study of words cannot do: move on its own or by itself. Words alone do not have the arms or legs or beating hearts to use in order to advocate for change. If it is to be involved with any sort of moving, those who study the impact of words and writing must embody its movement. If we are moved by a text, we must move to make a difference. The study of words for me, then, must be paired with the willingness to act, or write, for change.

Writing and reading allow us to cross borders. We transcend from the moved to the mover and enter into a space of our own making when we do it. We are, all of us, in the wilderness. We are, all of us, voices crying out wanting to be heard from the thickets of that wilderness. We are, all of us, beholden and held by the power of words. For me, the study of words necessarily asks of me the courage to speak and write ideas and identities into existence, into being. We carry stories with us. We carry them tenderly, we carry them fiercely, and we tell them purposefully.

I believe that we tell stories, to ourselves and to each other, in order to understand what it means to be human, and it how it is that we can come to be fully human together. I believe that each story that is told is, in some part, an act of revelation. I believe that at every turn, stories are verbalized negotiations of power. I believe that we are all of us telling stories all the time, every day. Each story uncovers, even if just a sliver more, how the human experience is lived and breathed and understood in one moment, in one context, by one storyteller.

What a gift it is to encounter these stories, to study these words, to work with writers as they make sense of the stories inside of them.

What is Voice and Where Do You Get It?

Layne Porta, Consultant

I remember being told when I first started doing college level writing that I needed to work on my voice. When I asked my professor what exactly she meant by that, I was told that voice is what makes your writing uniquely your own. I was frustrated and confused: Isn’t the fact that I’m writing it what makes it uniquely my own?

Now that I am a graduate student and writing consultant, I often see the same kinds of feedback on my students’ papers. What I would like to offer here are some thoughts on what voice is and how you get it, as well as some resources that can help you along the way to finding your voice.

What I have come to learn about voice is that it is much more about practical decisions you make in your writing than some mystical quality that appears like mist in the night. The writing process itself is an unending sequence of decisions–from word choice to punctuation to paragraph breaks–and all of these decisions add up to create your voice. For example, I love to use dashes in my writing, which can make my voice sound more conversational. Voice can also come from the kinds of metaphors and similes you choose to explain concepts, or the length of your sentences. I have found that one of the biggest factors in creating (and understanding) your voice is word choice. For example, one of my least favorite words is fickle, but one of my favorite words is capricious. They mean the same thing, but my voice will sound very different depending on that decision. There are many resources that can help in making decisions about the words you want to use. For example, on websites such as visualthesaurus.com and visuwords.com, you can type in a word and it will bring up a word web that will feature synonyms and variations of that word clustered according to connotation. The example below is a screen capture of a visual thesaurus app I recently downloaded:

"Volatile" on Visual Thesaurus
“Volatile” on Visual Thesaurus

I have often heard the idea from both students and peers that voice isn’t as important in academic writing as it is in creative writing. I believe this is a huge misconception. Voice is crucial to academic writing because it plays a large role in engaging your audience, establishing a formal tone, and creating your credibility as a writer. In sum, voice plays a very active role in helping you achieve your rhetorical goals. Furthermore, you can have more fun with the writing you will do during your time in college or after if you embrace your voice as a writer.

If you find yourself wanting to learn more about voice and how to get it, I suggest two very helpful websites that offer comprehensive discussions about voice. The first is “Understanding Voice and Tone in Writing” by Julie Wildhaber, featured on quickanddirtytips.com. This article offers tips on defining your voice as well as some helpful examples of how voice will change according to genre. Another useful article on writingcommons.org by Kyle D. Stedman, is “Making Sure Your Voice is Present” which also offers excellent suggestions for finding your voice as well as some YouTube videos about voice.

layneOne thing to keep in mind is that finding your voice is like everything else in writing–it requires practice. So in response to my initial question as a beginning college student: yes, the fact that I am writing my paper is what makes it uniquely my own. But voice takes this a bit further, and requires that you do some writing to see how your personality comes across. My suggestion, then is to trust your instincts as a writer. Your writing is a reflection of your thoughts and your personality. Your voice, and your awareness of your voice, will come through the more comfortable you get with writing.