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Finding Your Voice 

As a professor of composition and rhetoric, I’ve read countless college essays. I’ve read students’ thoughts about everything from justice in Plato’s Republic to salsa dancing at the Carnival in Rio de Janeiro. What I’ve discovered in these essays is that while students often struggle with choosing a topic and sticking to it, their biggest difficulty in writing is finding their voice. By “voice” I mean the expression of their thoughts in a mode that fits both the assignment and its intended audience. Conquering this much-dreaded hurdle, however, requires only three simple things: thought, a clear grasp of the assignment, and an awareness of the reader.       

First Requirement: Thought

Whether you’re texting a friend or composing the next great novel, what is made visible in the act of writing is a unique mind, specifically your unique mind. Writing, of whatever sort, is a deeply personal act. And that is no less true when you’re grappling with a European history paper than when it's a chemistry lab report. Even when you’re given a topic you find boring, the more you make an effort to engage thoughtfully with it, the clearer your writing will be.           

Second Requirement: A Clear Grasp of the Assignment

The second requirement for finding your voice is to have a clear grasp of the assignment. This is important! If you’re confused or the assignment is very general, catch your professor or TA after class or shoot them a brief e-mail and ask for clarification. This is not brown-nosing; it’s common sense. You don’t want to waste time or valuable fractions of your GPA by writing an essay that misses the mark.           

Third Requirement: An Awareness of the Reader

Developing an awareness of your reader is the final component of finding your voice. For most college essays, your professor is where the proverbial buck stops, meaning you need to maintain an appropriately formal tone and use proper diction in your writing. Texting shorthand is not permissible, nor is slang. And unless the assignment specifically allows first- and second-person references, refrain from using them. A word of caution about vocabulary: six-syllable words dragged out of a thesaurus should not be mistaken for a formal tone. Formality in writing involves using terminology that most clearly expresses your thoughts. The goal in writing is always clarity of expression, and that isn’t guaranteed by the length of the words used.

The Key is You

In brief, the work of writing a college essay involves thinking carefully about a specific assignment and articulating your thoughts in an appropriate manner. The key to this is you—your thoughts. One of the most disheartening things for me as a teacher, besides reading papers where “u” has been substituted for “you,” is when students are completely disengaged from their writing, when their “voice” is absent. Whether you’re summarizing the findings of an interminably long journal article or writing a narrative essay about your career plans, be present to the (clearly grasped) task. This will give you a firm foundation for the (appropriately expressed) accomplishment of it.  


This article is archived from the original Edits Made Easy website and is re-posted here to our new blog under a new date.