I have been seeing a lot of papers in the Writing Center recently that are struggling with one of the most important components of writing: voice. Voice lets the reader connect with what the writer is saying, puts passion into a (possibly) bland topic, and demands the attention of the reader.
But what is voice? And how does it work?
Voice is the unique way that everyone thinks and speaks. If you can talk, you can write. However, based on the papers I have been reading lately, everyone else seems to think there is a "perfect voice" out there that every professor expects you to use.
This is not true.
The best thing you can do for your writing is to write the words that you think. Just write exactly the way you would explain the same thing to a friend, an acquaintance, or a professor. Academic writing does need to be formal to an extent, but it doesn't have to strangle your voice out of the words. When you are writing an essay, write it in a way that would be interesting for you. Don't just regurgitate what you think the professor wants you to say. That cheats you from a good writing experience, and it cheats your readers from a pleasant reading experience.
I know what you're thinking. What about a formal tone? What if my voice doesn't sound smart enough?
To which I respond, who cares? Formal tone does not mean "stuffy," "boring," or "smart-sounding." Think of formal tone as the way you would talk to a professor or your boss or the president. When talking to those people, you may be more conscious of conventions and grammar, but you don't completely change the way that you form sentences and ideas.
Also, where does this idea about having to sound smart come from? What does that even mean? If you sound like yourself and you know what you're talking about, you will come across as knowledgeable in the paper. But the point of an essay is not to sound smart. The point of an essay is to propose an idea and back up that idea with evidence. Do you have ideas? Do you have evidence? If the answer is "yes," then you have a good paper.
All that you need now is your voice.
Sit down and write your idea and the evidence you have for it. Just write it in a list. Then, connect the evidence to the idea. How did the evidence help you come up with the idea? How will the evidence help you explain the idea to someone else? Just write all this down exactly as you would if no one were ever going to see it. Slap on an introduction to the context, turn the idea into a thesis, and cap it off with a conclusion that sums up the idea and the evidence, and you have your first draft written in your own voice.
Now go back and edit for formality. Make sure your grammar and punctuation are perfect. Take out all the phrases you wouldn't say to the president, and you are one step away from your final copy. All that's left is to talk about this with a tutor in the Writing Center, and you are ready to turn that bad boy in.
I understand how difficult it is to find your voice in your writing. It is something I struggle with as a writer in my academic work. People think voice is just for creative writing or that they aren't supposed to use their own voice in essays, but neither is true. Putting a bit of yourself into a paper is the best thing you can do for it. More people will be able to relate to what you say, and they will be more likely to forgive grammar mistakes or cliche phrases if they can get some personality out of a piece.
Bottom line: Don't try to be the perfect writer; just try to put yourself on paper.
If you are still having trouble finding your voice, I urge you to read Jeff Goins' blog post "10 Steps to Finding Your Writing Voice." He provides a great exercise that can help you recognize your voice ad put it into your writing.
Best of luck,