20/20 #11: Putting yourself in the story — or not: What voice is appropriate and when

What is voice?

  • First person, second person, third person
  • Language, diction, slang
  • Personal, I-was-there storytelling 

Your pieces can have voice, but voice is best when it comes from the reporting–Chip Scanlan

“Voice” doesn’t mean pure impressionism; it’s something that grows out of intense reporting experience and disciplined soul-searching. — Ron Rosenbaum

Journalists talk about voice:

Patty Calhoun, the editor of Westword, found an overwhelming degree of common ground between mainstream journalism and the alternative press, and it had nothing to do with objectivity.

“Our writers have just one rule when they sit down to write a story — they have to find their subject far more fascinating than they find themselves.”

“You can’t have a point of view until you’ve explored all points of view. Writing a screed without a story behind it is not advocacy journalism, and putting yourself in the first paragraph of a story is not voice.”

[From “What is Journalism? Who is a Journalist? Session 5: Point of View, Advocacy and the Personal Voice.” Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Chicago, IL, November 6, 1997 http://www.concernedjournalists.org/what-journalism-who-journalist-session-5-point-view-advocacy-and-personal-voice]

Ron Rosenbaum talks about traditional journalism schools and how their mission sometimes seems to be to “beat the voice out of students”

“I think it has to do with the fact that J-schools profess to teach two kinds of writing: “straight reporting” (you can see the assumption of superiority built into the very phrase), and the kind of longer-form nonfiction still published in places like Harper’s, The Atlantic and The New Yorker, among others. One doesn’t necessarily need an individual “voice” in straight reporting, but “voice” is often what distinguishes work in those other long-form venues. But the atmosphere of J-schools is dominated by those who sneer at anything but voiceless journalism—a sneer that is confusing to students and is, alas, based on philosophic fallacies. Beginning with:

“1) The Fallacy of Third-Person “Objectivity”: There’s a strong current of J-school theology that worships the third person as if it were the Third Person of the Trinity, and that despises the First Person with a puritanical fervor, as if “I” were Satan’s Own Pronoun.

[Excerpted from: Columbia’s J-School Needs to Consider Trollopian Retooling by Ron Rosenbaum http://journalism.nyu.edu/pubzone/debate/forum.1.essay.rosenbaum.html]

Questions for discussion: Different stories, different voices

  • Look at examples of use of various voices, and discuss why each choice might have been made, and how it worked.
  • What is “my voice”? (Do I have a distinctive “voice”? Do I want one?)
  • Should the reader care that it’s me writing the story? Why?
  • Does my voice add something to this story? How?

©2008-2009 Mary Turck