Finding My Voice
For any given piece, journalists and essayists can tell many stories, go off on dozens of tangents, while gradually coming to focus on the meaning of their research, ideas, and interviews.—Lee Gutkind, author of You Can’t Make This Stuff Up
Even though I embraced the epistolary format of writing early on, it took a while for me to find my voice.
Voice can mean a lot of different things in writing, but I’m using it here to mean my way of expressing myself. By the time I started my blog, I had written many published articles and I had also taught writing.
News writing standards
I’ve spent much of my career reporting, so that’s naturally reflected in my blog. I often address timely topics. Sources are quoted and cited, I do my best to assure my information is accurate, and I usually try to keep the presentation neutral—with rare exception, such as when I’m talking about fluff (see below).
In keeping with newspaper style, I try to keep my writing concise and compelling. The amount of space has generally been limited in newspapers, so every word has to count. In addition, various media and stories compete with others. Publishers demand stories that can capture and keep readers’ attention. Similar factors are at play on the Internet.
Many pointers in my favorite guide to writing relate in particular to news writing. The Elements of Style is affectionately known as Strunk and White in honor of its authors William Strunk, Jr., and E.B. White. This classic evolved from a version that debuted in 1918 and remains relevant today. Advice includes the following:
- Use definite, specific, concrete language.
- Omit needless words.
- Avoid the use of qualifiers.
- Do not affect a breezy manner.
- Avoid fancy words.
The traditional format for spot news reporting has been the inverted pyramid (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inverted_pyramid_(journalism), which starts with the most important facts and narrows down to the other details that are worth inclusion.
This approach enables readers to scan the news and decide what stories to read. It also helps editors and layout artists who know they can look for cuts from the bottom.
But blogs are not quite like news reporting. The content usually needs to be evergreen, meaning that it’s relevant when it’s posted and a year later. And, while posts may focus on issues, they’re usually not confined to single events, like city council meetings.
Within newspapers, features and columns come closer to an appropriate model for a blog. And, I find the essay format even more appealing.
For a few semesters I taught a class about essay writing at what is now Metropolitan State University of Denver. While there, I learned some teachers instill in their students the idea that an essay consists of five paragraphs. The first tells what will be told, each of the next three makes a major point in keeping with the first paragraph, and the final paragraph tells what was told.
This is a great teaching device and a good way to introduce students to an approach to writing essays. It’s also correct in indicating the logical and eloquent way that ideas and information are presented. But essays can actually contain as many paragraphs as are needed to cover a topic.
The text used at Metro outlined various kinds of essays, providing examples and guidance for each. These may have included descriptive, persuasive, comparative, narrative, critical, and expository. I find these formats useful, especially since I want my posts to be relevant beyond the current news cycle.
Willa Cather uses words to paint beautiful, flowing pictures in her widely acclaimed 1927 novel Death Comes For The Archbishop. But long, leisurely description like Cather’s is hard to find in contemporary writing.
Similarly, I don’t find intricate stories with numerous characters, many with multiple names, like those in Doctor Zhivago. This 1957 epic novel by Boris Pasternak must have been written in part to keep readers entertained during long Siberian winters and definitely not to catch the attention of millennials and boomers surfing the Internet.
But, sometimes on the Internet, and in blogs in particular, I find lots of extra words whose only purposes seem to be to fill space, increase word count, and annoy readers. This is what is known as fluff. It generally does nothing to increase knowledge or understanding. Nor does it entertain or delight. It’s anathema to writers and to readers.
I once had a perspective client who encouraged me to create content by fluffing. We didn’t last long together.
My dominant form
Strunk and White advise writers to “put yourself in the background” and I’m happy to do that. I don’t like to be the focus of attention in my writing.
On the other hand, I occasionally like to write about something that I’ve been doing, even though it’s fairly personal. For example, I wrote two posts in 2019 related to a trip I made to Ireland. And I always like to be sure that my posts contain at least one element that can’t be found elsewhere on the web.
I often start my posts by establishing my connection to my primary topic and then pivoting more toward the topic itself.
From there, I generally try to follow the standards of news writing within the framework of essays. Storytelling is popular these days and I like for my posts to tell stories or contain them when possible. Keeping in mind the competitive nature of blogging, I try to minimize tedious detail and emphasize interesting elements. When practical, I like to tie the end back to the beginning.
I use a few techniques with the goal of capturing and keeping readers. If you’ve looked at my blog, you can see I open each post with a quote that is somehow related to the message of the post. It’s been a bit of a struggle for me not to write headlines in newspaper style with a subject and verb, but I try to make my label-like heads as compelling as possible and I use photos and subheads.
In Shakespeare’s Hamlet Polonius says, “Brevity is the soul of wit” and I agree. I like to vary the length of posts from about 600 to 1200 words. The lower limit allows me to touch on a single angle of limited subject, while longer posts enable me to go into depth with a more complicated topic.
The third and final post in this series on Joy of Blogging looks at editing and publishing.