Voice and environment?

Subject: Voice and environment?
From: "Hart, Geoff" <Geoff-H -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Tue, 16 Oct 2001 09:36:52 -0400

Frank Krasovic wondered: <<When reading text (it doesn't matter if the text
is a novel, newspaper article, user's manual, what-have-ya) I "hear" a
narrator reading the words.>>

Frank, Frank... get thee to a shrink. The problem's not necessarily fatal
until you start talking back to those voices, but consider this an early
warning. On the other hand, if those voices are reminding you that we need
to get together for a beer next STC convention, put the shrink on hold and
listen to those voices... <g>

<<When I read a Tom Clancy novel, each of the characters have a different
voice and the third-person arrogation is a more-or-less monotone newscaster
voice.>>

That's actually one reason why the lit-crit people chose the term "voice"
for an author's style of expression: because we learn language orally
(auditorally?) long before we ever learn to read and write, it's perfectly
normal for us to "hear" written words even when we're reading them quietly
to ourselves. It's also probably why many beginning readers still move their
lips when they read to themselves. Last but not least, it's why you'll often
hear serious word geeks talking about the "taste" or "feel" of writing:
because reading is far more of an experience than a clinically dry activity
that affects only the eyes. So if Clancy really does make you hear different
voices for each character, then he's succeeding very well at writing
realistically; unskilled authors tend make their characters all sound the
same. L. Sprague de Camp, an often marvelous literary craftsman, recommended
reading one's own fiction aloud to get a feel for the language and tone;
doing so presumably removes the distance created by the abstraction of
reading text silently in one's head (rather than hearing it directly) and
thus gives a better feel for how real it would sound to our inner ear.

I no longer consciously think of "voice" when I write documentation or other
"technical" writing, but I certainly adopt certain distinct forms of voice
unconsciously (by habit). In my various essays, I adopt the voice of a
techwhirler talking to other techwhirlers, which is distinct from the
"teacher talking without condescension to student" or "expert talking to a
peer" voice I use in documentation. And my posts to techwr-l are very
consciously informal, colloquial, nonacademic but mentoring, and friendly
(mostly <g>), which is yet another choice of voice.

I'd be very interested to hear about research in how these different voices
affect documentation usability. It seems reasonable to assume that
third-person, passive-voiced bureaucratese puts readers to sleep (not a good
result if they're learning to operate heavy machinery), but the corollary to
this assumption is that different forms of active voice should have
different degrees of effectiveness for readers. Anecdotal evidence also
welcome!

--Geoff Hart, FERIC, Pointe-Claire, Quebec
geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca
"User's advocate" online monthly at
www.raycomm.com/techwhirl/usersadvocate.html

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