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On Finding – and Refining – One’s Voice

Posted in Reflections, and Writing

My to-do list was overwhelmingly long, and so yesterday I found myself procrastinating in every possible way. I decided, for no clear reason, that I needed to consolidate my working bibliography to incorporate all of my research sources from graduate school onward. I don’t know;  someday that might come in handy. I decided to go back and pull the works cited lists from my Master’s courses. In a further act of procrastination, I read some of my early attempts at scholarly writing. I quickly noticed two things: my bibliographical skills were horrendous (never-ending apologies, Jill Levenson! Your valiant efforts were clearly in vain), and my writing style was cringingly bad. I consider myself to be a pretty good writer. Through my thirties I wrote plays and short stories and even a screenplay or two. I honed my business-writing style continuously over fifteen years in corporate life, and am pretty confident that my proposals (and letters and white papers and emails) were compelling and persuasive. When I got to grad school I thought, ‘well, how hard could this be?’ Oh, master’s student Diane. You were so naive.

Transitioning from business writing to academic writing was so much harder than I might ever have imagined. I struggled to find a register that would combine scholarly rigor with – well, whatever is the opposite of denseness. The critical readings that reverberated most strongly with me were those in which the author adopted an accessible style. [The internet has just failed me: I can’t remember Cicero’s three rhetorical approaches and cannot find them in under 30 seconds. Damn you, interwebs!] I suspect my early failures were linked to my overwhelming joy at being in this wonderful new world of academe. I wanted so badly to express my enthusiasm that I forgot to demonstrate how I could analyze research materials and synthesize my readings into compelling arguments.

Those early examples that I stumbled over yesterday really did make me cringe, and I am beyond grateful to the professors who overlooked my literary naiveté and encouraged me to go forward (I guess I should also be grateful to that one professor who wrote on my final course essay that this was the worst graduate student essay she had ever read; after eight years I still can’t bring myself to read that note in its entirety.) I think I got better as a Ph.D. candidate, in particular because of the ministrations of my dissertation supervisor; Kathy Acheson is the best editor I will probably ever have. I finally had to change the “track changes” color on Word from red to blue because the right-hand column of my chapter drafts virtually dripped blood-red ink. Her constant challenges strengthened my arguments and my style to the point where I became a much more confident scholar and author.

Ultimately, I think, I have been able to express myself in a register that is both professional and personally satisfying. I will never be a jargon-thrower or a theory-wonk, but then I’m not a particular fan of jargon-throwers and theory-wonks. I’m not so confident that I expect my articles and essays to be returned with shining encomia from editors. I expect I’ll always hesitate before I click “send” as I submit a draft. And I have a sneaking suspicion that if I tried my hand at business writing now, I’d have to climb that particular hill all over again.

I’m still trying to find my voice with this blog (which is, I think, my fifth or sixth attempt to maintain one). I want to strike a balance between the professional and the confessional, and I’m still uncertain how this form will make me a better writer. My earlier blogs got absolutely no traction, so my efforts were nothing more than another type of journal-writing with an audience of one. This blog, and this time, are different. I may only have a few more readers than before, but promoting my reflections via Twitter and Facebook challenge me to pay particular attention to register and audience. I spend a lot of time struggling to practice what I teach my students.

In starting this post I didn’t realize it would turn out the way it has. I suppose that is a benefit of blog-writing; some bloggers (and I do not count myself among them) treat their posts as polished essays in their own right. I aim for immediacy and (relatively) unedited contemplation. Knowing that prospective employers now look at these blogs as part of the hiring process, I could not tell you if my approach is a strength or weakness. I’m sure I need to refine this voice more, as I have done with other forms.

And with that, I must now turn my attention to drafting an essay and editing an article.