Smart Writing Uses Voice

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Liane Davey advises business people to “Stop Trying to Sound Smart When You’re Writing.” She offers solid counsel on purpose and effect in writing as well as valuable tips on diction, bullet lists, and active voice. Davey’s distinction between smart and smart-sounding content will surely resonate with many business writers.

I am not on board, however, with one of Davey’s core principles, the transparency of the writing. She says, “Ideally, I’d like to read communications where I don’t notice the writing at all. The best writing is so transparent that it doesn’t obscure the underlying message.” Later, she concludes by saying, “Great business writing should deliver its content without getting in the way.”

My 15 years in proposal management and business development communications, plus six additional years studying and teaching writing, lead me to a different conclusion. Readers, even in business contexts, appreciate writing that delivers content in a clear, strong voice. Reader’s naturally perceive voice, a constructed sense of the writer’s attitude, demeanor, and personality.

No writing comes across so transparently as to eliminate the reader’s sense of voice. In business writing, voice can help establish and define that which separates one company (and its products and services) from others in the market. If voice is unavoidable and a key tool for differentiating, then writers must include it as part of the planning and thinking about their business writing — and they must aim for writing that is not transparent but is rather voiced clearly, consistently, and distinctly.

All of Davey’s writing advice still holds. A letter or proposal that sounds like someone trying to be smart is ineffective partly because it is voiced ineffectively. As readers and writers, we feel more comfortable with the impression of calm control than guessing effort. That impression, that strong voice that amplifies content without overpowering it, comes from maintaining a “so what” related to the writing’s purpose and from organizing content logically.

Smart writing makes its points easily accessible to readers and presents ideas and data in a sequence that matches readers’ interests. It does not try to sound smart, yet it has a discernible sound. Managing that sound and making it cohere is the provenance of voice. If you apply Davey’s advice, as you should, and invest in effective words and phases, remember also to sequence topics logically and include tie-backs to the core message. Together, these techniques establish a voice that strengthens the message by inspiring the reader’s confidence in the messenger.

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