Lesson Plan: Exercises for Voice and Audience (Lauren Holm) Objective: To help students achieve a more natural academic prose style and have a discussion about why academic essays are written in the voice they are.
Time: I’ve done these exercises together (approximately 1 class session), but sometimes doing them back to back is too much. Having students bring in examples of very good or very bad writing, or even looking back at assigned readings you’ve read together over the course of the semester, works well in conjunction with either of these exercises.
Assignment that’s underway: Any. When I’m doing workshops on stance and style, I like to include exercises on voice and audience. Because these exercises are fun, they can be especially good during midterms or near a break.
Ask students to list the characteristics of academic prose. Invariably they find it dry and boring. They haven’t thought about why they’re asked to write in this style or how academic papers might be written in a less artificial voice. So we talk about it.
Ask students to choose a sentence or two from the draft they’re working on now and rewrite it in different voices. Here are some possible voices, though you can feel free to think up your own:
(I borrowed these from a course called “Writing As Technology” at Cornell. I ask the students to come up with their own and occasionally try new ones. Maybe an author you’ve read in class? Paris Hilton makes them hysterical, but is not actually a good exercise!)
Ask students to read their original sentences and their new sentences without telling the class which voice they’ve chosen. Students try to guess what voice the sentence has been rewritten in and talk about what changed. Major things that change are diction, tone and length.
Next, ask them to rewrite sentences in their own speaking voice. Sometimes they need to work with a partner to actually speak through the sentence. Have them read the sentences again and talk about what changed. Inevitably the majority of them discover they have been writing in a voice that is much different from their speaking voice and we talk about how they might incorporate more of their unique personality into their writing.
For me, voice and audience go together. I try to get my students to think about audience with each paper by including a target audience as part of the assignment. Students tend to fall back into writing their papers directly to me, which I want to avoid. One way to get them to think about audience is to have them repeat the exercise described above, this time changing who the sentences are addressed to, rather than who is speaking. For this one I give them slightly different options:
We discuss how changing your audience effects your writing style. The differences in this exercise are more subtle, so it requires students to pay attention to the details of their writing. In addition to changing the tone of your writing, imagining a different audience can help you overcome writer’s block. Addressing an overly-critical audience can be paralyzing for writers. I encourage students to imagine an audience that will allow them to be productive and prolific.
In addition to thinking collectively about why we write academic essays the way we do, this exercise acts as a segue to talking about reader-based prose versus writer-based prose.