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An Examination of Personal Style and Voice at Goucher College

By Lisa Charron & Megan Simon

From the authors, Lisa Charron & Megan Simon:

We began this paper trying to pin down that elusive quality of writing--personal style and voice.  We soon realized there is no clear consensus on how to evaluate good or bad, improve it , or even define it.  We identified six very different theories on how to approach voice, plus one that covers the middle ground.  Then we tackled the big question: What do Goucher professors think?  Turns out, it's all about achieving the right mix of formal clarity and conversational interest.  

We also thought that personal style and voice would be a particularly interesting topic for a co-authored paper.  We divided up the writing but then tried to moderate our styles so that the paper would flow continuously.  Can you tell at what points the author switches?

From the Faculty Nominator, Arnold Sanders:

This paper originated in Lisa Charron's English 221 bibliographic annotation on the Ireland-Pennebaker article on "Language Style Matching," which stimulated a great class discussion and drew Megan Simon's interest from the "voice" side of the debate about writing style.  Both of them collaborated on the project, which balanced research in scholarly secondary sources and original research using Goucher professors as subjects. "Language style matching" appears to be a uncontrollable, but powerful psychological effect, causing speakers to mimic the most minute linguistic behaviors of their audiences within a short period of time.  From afar, it makes a certain amount of "common sense."  How else would we adapt to regional accents when we move, or pick up new style formats when shopping articles to journals whose editors disagree?  In either case, if we stopped to think about all the trivial differences the target audience was using to judge our correctness, we would get nothing done.  Composition researchers have long believed that one way to understand college students' struggles with academic prose was to see them as trying to join a new discourse community before they even fully knew the rules by which it operated, and as moving among many different discourse communities as they walked from department to department, division to division, trying to write as if they were native to each one.  The deck was stacked against them by the sheer number and variety of stylistic quirks demanded by "standard academic prose," whatever that really is, and by the real variations in departmental and divisional expectations of prose style.  Charron and Simon's secondary source research laid out a wonderfully clear view of current theories on writing style's origins and the factors controlling our ability to change it consciously.  Their original research among Goucher faculty helped Writing Center tutors to understand how Goucher teachers talk about style among ourselves, and what expectations we have about the style of student writing.  Clarity, more than an engaging voice, appears to be most instructors' first requirement.  Although that might seem obvious, it flies in the face of many theoreticians' belief that a good style's most important characteristics were those which personally and socially engaged its audiences.  Apparently, clarity is hard enough for now.  


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