Every time I reinvent myself, I create a new voice and a new pen name. Voice is the illusion that the text speaks, and readers assign it a personality. So when I become a new person, I need a new personality, a new voice, a new identity.
I can see the end of my 25-year career as a newspaper writing coach. But more than ever, the world still needs solid reporting, judgment, accuracy, and clear and compelling prose. So I see a future for journalism, and for me and the skills I study and teach.
Computers have changed the world in those 25 years, creating not only new media, but also the ability of ordinary people to manipulate pictures and sound. Computers make writing, especially revision, so much easier for people who type badly, like me. Computers allow everyone to publish.
People are changing their reading habits in response to new media opportunities. I like print, and I love hardback books. But digital reading is vastly superior, with searching, adjustable font size, linking, pop-ups, bookmarking, sound, video, and gigantic memory.
I’m working on my third voice now. The first was an academic voice, suitable for a brand-new assistant professor of English, who named himself “Donald K. Fry.” I wanted to write with striking power and clarity, so I turned Strunk and White’s Elements of Style into a voice. I used all their devices of clarity, and avoided anything that sounded conversational, such as the verb “to be.” My academic colleagues criticized that voice as too clear. One sniped, “You don’t sound professorial; people can understand you.”
I created a friendlier, less academic voice when I switched professions to journalism, and renamed myself “Don Fry.” I still valued clarity and power, but I also wanted journalists to engage, to act on what I wrote about. This voice kept the formality of Strunk and White, but admitted some conversational devices, such as an occasional “to be” and contractions. I used the second person singular “you” to draw readers into action.
That second voice worked. One commentator observed, “You could cut yourself on Don Fry’s prose.” I think that was a compliment.
You’re reading my third voice now, drafted by a character named “donfry.” I realized that my first voice sounded like a book because I thought of myself as a book writer. My second voice sounded like someone standing up because that’s what I did, stood up and talked AT people. This third voice leaps into our new world of exchanges, where readers and writers keep switching roles, talking WITH each other, not AT each other. In my old voices, I would have called it “multi-directional.” Now I call it fun.
What makes this new voice sound the way it does? It still uses all the devices of clarity and power, as well as the chatty contractions and sprinkles of the verb “to be.” Strunk commanded, “Omit needless words,” but now I leave some in. I ended that last sentence with a preposition, perfectly good grammar but informal. I’m also writing about myself.
I find myself analyzing the prose of respondents to the new style. Whoa, that sentence is in my previous voice. Let’s try it again.
I’m watching how friends talk back to my blog. Better.
Most of my reader friends seem to have blogging down pat, writing like bar talk. So I’ll experiment with this new voice and virtual self in front of you. And I’ll show you along the way how to create and recreate your own new voice, as I create mine.
[Have you developed your own voice? Let’s hear about how you did it.]