College Essays and the Misuse of ‘Voice’

Say you’re listening to Jay-Z on a nice day in 1994, minding your own business, and driving 55 MPH in the 54 zone. A cop pulls up behind you. You know what happens next.

What do you say to the nice officer?

1) Do you unleash every curse word you know and peel out in a cloud of dust? Do you smack the aviator sunglasses and wide-brimmed hat off his head? Do you fulminate against the fascist police state? Do you tell him about each of your 99 problems?

2) Do you politely acknowledge your transgression and thank him for protecting the public and upholding the rule of law?

Unless you are a far more forgiving person than most of us, you will probably be thinking one of the first things. You will probably say the second.

Between the two lies your voice. Whatever that means.

Almost every guide to college essays includes impassioned exhortations to “use your voice.” In college information sessions, admission reps insist that they want to “hear your voice.” “Voice” almost always appears on top-10 lists of essay tips.

Ostensibly, the idea of “voice” implies that writing should be natural and distinctive, the way everyone’s actual voice is. Just as every human looks different from every other human, so is the sound of every human’s voice different from the sound of every other human’s voice. Likewise, writing should be distinctive too. That’s all well and good as a concept.

Teachers and editors rightfully celebrate students’ voices. But, to an inexperienced or reluctant writer — which describes many college applicants — advice about “voice” is scarcely more useful than merely saying, “Write well.” Good writing is descriptive and precise. The concept of “voice,” however important it may be, can be vague, ironic, and woefully incomplete.

“Voice” isn’t just lousy advice. It’s also a lousy metaphor. It’s worse than lousy. It’s self-contradictory. Yes, good writing often sounds like natural speech. But voice is voice and writing is writing. Voice constitutes the sounds that come out of your mouth, usually spontaneously. It’s accompanied by body language and modulated by emotion. Writing, by definition, is contemplative, deliberate, and silent. They entail different thought processes and often convey different ideas. It does no good to conflate the two.

While speaking may be nearly effortless, writing is often the opposite. To advise, “Write like you speak” is like advising, “Dance like you run.” Sure, running may come naturally to many people, but the ease of running has no bearing on one’s ability to dance.

Whatever “voice” is — and I’ll keep referring to it as such for the sake of convenience — it’s pretty important for college essays, which help admissions officers distinguish one interesting, appealing student from thousands of other interesting, appealing students.

I don’t want to discuss writing style. It’s achingly ineffable and almost impossible to teach. No one taught Faulkner how to write 80-page sentences, and no one taught Austen how to write like she’s sitting in a Victorian drawing room. Most writers aren’t that stylish, and that’s OK.

Conviction is the foundation of “voice.” For students to even think about conveying “voice,” they first have to have ideas, positions, stories, and emotions in the first place. An essay assignment cannot pull them out of thin air. A student has to know what he wants to say, and then figure out how to say it. The stronger the initial idea is or more vivid the initial story is, and the more enthusiastic he is about sharing it, the stronger the “voice” will be.

Many students do not approach their essays with the sort of ideas and opinions that constitute strong voices. It’s not their fault. Many teachers do not encourage personal expression but favor thoughts that are merely correct or reasonable. Many parents don’t particularly care about their kids’ opinions. The onslaught of hand-held, constantly accessible entertainment makes kids passive audiences but not speakers or creators themselves.

I do want to discus ideas. Ideas often terrify people. Not ideas themselves, but rather the idea of ideas. To have an idea seems almost elitist or repellent for its nerdiness. That’s a shame, since we don’t really have anything else. We feel our emotions and we live our personal stories. But the moment we express anything to anyone else, we translate them into ideas.

In school, plenty of great students write intellectually reasonable but emotionally vacant essays about this or that. Teachers couldn’t care less what students think and feel about The Great Gatsby or Manifest Destiny. “Voice” kicks in when writers are invited to write about something they actually care about or, at least, they discover a meaningful perspective on a contrived topic. Unfortunately, students have so few opportunities that they don’t even know what they care about. They’ve been told to care about grades and about those ponderous history essays — and that’s it.

I can’t undo all of that apathy in the course of a blog. I can, though, point it out and extol its opposite.

“Voice” reveals the difference between what you write because you have to write something and what you really want to say. It entails stories that excite you, ideas that interest you, ideological positions that you believe in, recommendations you want to make, and emotions you want to express.

You can start with baby steps. Start with matters of taste and everyday choices: Adam Levine or Ozzy Osbourne; Lebron or Steph; Chick-Fil-A or Pizza Hut; Kant or Rawls; Woolf or Bronte (or Bronte); M&Ms or Skittles; Hillary Clinton or… never mind. Think about how it feels to behold those choices, celebrate them, and identify with them. For instance, you might proclaim, “Black Sabbath rules!” or “I heart Beyoncé!” Both are reasonable affinities that carry vast implications. An essay by an enthusiastic, thoughtful Sabbath fan or Beyoncé fan will likely have a strong voice, or at least a strong foundation. You can apply this same principle to anything: politics, current events, school life, academics, activities, and all the other wells from which students often draw application essay topics.

As an editor, I can’t tell students what to say, just as I can’t tell them what to believe. That’s the whole point of “voice.” The ideas, feelings, stories, and emotions have to belong to the writer. That doesn’t mean they have to be unique. Plenty of people come up with the same ideas and tell similar stories. But they do have to be sincere. They sometimes come from spontaneous expressions of emotion — like when you hear the siren behind you — or they come from deep contemplation as you consider an experience you’ve had, a lesson you’ve learned, or a person you’ve met and try to figure out how you really feel about them.

One thing is true of “voice”: it abhors clichés. Clichés are phrases and ideas that are repeated so often and so thoughtlessly that they have lost all meaning. If you were happy when you won the soccer game or frustrated when you got a C on an exam for which you studied hard, you’re probably being honest, but you’re not saying anything that helps a stranger get to know you better. If you do debate and tell us that it really helped you understand how to look at both sides of an issue, you’re basically just telling us the definition of debate.

If you go to Disneyland and tell us how “happy” you were, you’re repeating what Disney wants you to say. If you tell us that school stresses you out or that art or music helps you relax, you’re probably not thinking hard enough about school, art, or music. If you support gun control and walked out of school a few weeks ago because you oppose violence, that’s all well and good — but that gesture doesn’t distinguish you from the hundreds of thousands of other kids who did the same. A former colleague of mine, writing coach Carol Barash, refers to extended clichés as “scripts.” They are stories that students write because they sound reasonable, like a B+ English essay, but are pretty much predictable and generic from beginning to end.

Real “voice” often entails some element of rebellion, disagreement, or unexpectedness. The thing about rebellion, disagreement, and unexpectedness is that you first have to know what qualifies as conformity, comity, and predictability. The rebellion, though, doesn’t have to be bloody and loud. Not every essay has to shout with your “voice,” just as not every essay has to drip with passion. “Voice” can arise in brief, subtle moments.

“Voice” emerges when you’re enjoying risotto for dinner and start reminiscing about the girl you met in Tuscany. It’s in the anger you felt when you wrote the paper about old-growth deforestation for environmental science. It’s in the compliment you pay to the star of the winning team, even though he’s supposed to be your mortal enemy. “Voice” tells that cop to take his radar detector and shove it.

Now that I’ve belabored the idea of “voice,” I’d like to conclude with alternative terminology that actually compels writers to think about what they’re writing. I recommend something along the lines of “outlook,” “perspective,” and “vantage point.”

Whether you’re writing or not, every human on this Earth stands on his or her own little mountain peak and perceives the world slightly differently from the way everyone else does. It’s the writer’s job to take in that view and report back to the rest of us what he or she sees. Ideally, the writer selects the most beautiful, interesting, or troubling arcs within her panorama and conveys them with enthusiasm and force. I call this “persuasion.” I don’t want to “hear” a “voice” so much as I want to behold, understand, and empathize with what the writer views from atop her peak.

Sometimes it’s an angry cruiser in the rearview mirror. Sometimes it’s an acceptance letter to a top-choice college.

Josh Stephens is a veteran teacher and college counselor based in Los Angeles. His other writing on college essays and college admissions can be found here. Josh can be reached at josh@joshrstephens.net.