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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Searching for Voice: The Colossal Failure of Free Writing Analyzers

"We want to find a person behind the pen." -- Professional Writing Retreat Handbook

Last weekend I attempted to draft an inspirational message for my English education majors. Maybe because I haven't yet mastered a grownup man voice -- I'm 48 -- or because of the paragraph's naked sentimentality, the passage sounded fake and bloated, like words pushed through a megaphone: too much volume, not enough texture, and a void where there should have been confidence. To find out more about what was missing, I turned to science.

Testing Free Writing Analytics

Propping my feet on my desk, I pasted my weak paragraph into several free online writing analysis sites. The first tool I tested, I Write Like, said that my prose matched Isaac Asimov, the author of 500 books, many of them about robots. When I tested another piece of my writing, I Write Like associated my paragraph with H.P. Lovecraft. I've never read either author, but I will now.

TagCrowd produced a pretty image. However, the word frequency visualization failed to help me understand my writing voice, perhaps because my sample text was short. Maybe I needed more sophisticated instruments.

Writing Tester assigns texts a readability score (higher numbers are better). My paragraph scored a 47 out of . . . who knows? The site didn't say. And when I mashed down random keys, "dkdkak ;faldkfj;asf" earned a readability score almost twice as high as my paragraph!

PaperRater labeled my work "100 percent original," not catching that my favorite sentence -- "There is a part of your brain called the hippocampus that holds memories" -- relied on Aaron Sorkin's wonky prose for inspiration. PaperRater graded my avoidance of clichés as "above average" and use of transitions "good job." My vocabulary earned only an "average." Thank heaven that PaperRater offered (twice) to remediate me with its vocabulary builder. Overall grade: "77 based on a college grading scale," my first "C" since the 1980's.

Still bruised from PaperRater's keelhauling, I tested three more online writing analyzers to learn my Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease score. One assigned me 76.4; another gave me 52, and two others gave me 54. I received even more contradictory scores on my Gunning-Fog, Coleman-Liau and SMOG measurements.

I began to doubt that my writing had anything in common with the prose of Isaac Asimov and H.P. Lovecraft. My high school daughter's two-word response was more useful than all the writing analytics put together: "No humor?"

Defining Voice

Maybe human readers are a prerequisite of understanding voice, a position defended by Tom Romano: "[Voice is] the sense we have while reading that someone occupies the middle of our mind, the sense we have while writing that something or someone is whispering in our ear."

Recently, I asked a college student why she wrote all her essays in the style of a Victorian dowager. Maybe she could experiment with different voices?

"That old style is my voice," she protested.
"Is your voice suited to contemporary North Carolina?" I asked.
"It suits me."

The young writer's objection to my classification of her writing struck me as 50 percent stubborn and 50 percent heroic. Maybe voice transcends classification, too. Author Peter Elbow argues, "We already have a number of helpful terms that are less metaphorical, ambiguous, and fraught: style, ethos, implied author, and persona. The last two are particularly helpful when voice is problematic: distinguishing between character in the text and character in the author."

Despite its inherent subjectivity, voice is a powerful metaphor for writers.

Voice Exercises

Author Steven Pressfield says that the trick to finding voice is getting ego out of the way. "Your job is to surrender to the material -- and allow it to tell you what voice it wants in order to tell itself." The writing activities described below might help!

Killer v. Dalai Lama

Describe a lake as if you were a killer and then describe the same lake as if you were the Dalai Lama. In both instances, do not refer to yourself. Your persona's worldview should be represented by vocabulary choices and syntax.

Latinate v. Germanic

Latinate-derived French speaking Norman nobles hijacked Germanic-derived English in 1066, cobbling together a language comprised of 29 percent Latinate and 26 percent Germanic versions of the same words. If you want to sound official, use Latinate words. Use Germanic words to create a visceral impact on the reader. Read George Orwell and Porch Talk for more information about these terms. Exercise instructions: Describe your bedroom using primarily Germanic words and phrases, and then describe the same setting using Latinate words.

Twenty-Seven Secrets

Earnest Hemingway's writing has a distinct set of rules -- 27, to be precise: "1) start with the simplest things; 2) boil it down; and 3) know what to leave out," etc. Exercise instructions: List 27 secrets to writing like you. Alternatively, create a playlist for your writing by identifying 10 songs on iTunes that best suit your voice.

Who's Your Mentor?

Identify mentor authors who inspire you, and study them often. Hunter S. Thompson -- who wrote, "For every moment of triumph, for every instance of beauty, many souls must be trampled" -- typed the entirety of The Great Gatsby and A Farewell to Arms in order to internalize composing techniques. Abraham Lincoln copied Bible passages as a youth to develop, among other rhetorical moves, parallelism, as can be seen in this animated Gettysburg Address. Exercise instructions: After choosing a mentor, use a highlighter on a resonant passage to mark rhetorical signatures and patterns.

Finally, Wendi Kelly believes that writers need to have confidence in their own voice. "We have to have faith that what we need to say just might need to be heard somewhere." And if you don't have faith, write like you do.

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