By Luke Coulter
As a California native, I never saw the need for a phrase describing the weather phenomenon where it is raining and the sun is shining at the same time. When this happens in the Southern States of the USA, however, people will turn to whoever is near them and loudly proclaim that the devil is beating his wife.
I learned this idiom about satanic domestic abuse from a dialect mapper published by the New York Times. We at the Writing Center highly recommend that you take it. It can be found here: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2013/12/20/sunday-review/dialect-quiz-map.html This tool uses different phrases and pronunciations to determine what part of America has an accent that is most similar to yours. It can reliably figure out where you grew up, where your parents are from, and where in the country the locals would kick you out of a bar for sounding like a “yank” or a “hick,” depending on your accent.
This exercise might seem pointless, but it’s not. Familiarizing yourself with your own personal set of phrases and pronunciations can have an amazing effect on your writing. One of the hardest things to get students to do when they come into the Writing Center is to have faith in their own voices. Typically, we try to address things like content or grammar issues during our sessions, but we always make sure that our advice doesn’t interfere with what you are saying or how you are saying it. After all, as the dialect map shows, your voice is a reflection on your history and your nature.
The amount of information contained within the smallest word and phrase choice is astonishing. During our workshop on voice, we do exercises where we try to get the background of the author (or speaker) from a short piece of their writing. By looking at their voice, we get an idea about their beliefs, preconceptions, personality, and backstory — all without them ever wasting words on direct statements. The sheer density of information that it is possible to pack into the voice of a paper both humanizes writing and makes it more concise.
Now, you might be wondering – how can I use my voice in an essay? After all, there are very few formal assignments where a personal anecdote or an idiom is appropriate. If I am writing a paper about mining pollution in lakes and rivers, it could seem like the “correct” way to write it would be in purely scientific terms. I would be referencing levels of pollutants, adverse effects on local animal populations, and other pieces of pure, unemotional data. This sort of paper might convince a robot, but it would likely bore a human being. Those pieces of evidence are vital to the paper, but just as essential is a sentence or two about my experiences “crawdad fishing.”
A crawdad is a very tiny lobster that tastes incredible when it is steamed. Some places in America call it a “crayfish.” Some places call it a “crowfish.” Some could call it a “doodlepincher snapbutt” for all I know — the point is that the context around the sentence reveals what I’m talking about, while the word itself shows that I have stood in a freezing cold ankle-deep stream in Northern California with a bucket in my hand, flipping over rocks and snatching at the quick little things as they shoot in every direction, holding one up triumphantly and trying to keep it from pinching my fingers as my dad laughs on the bank. Add in a comment that these experiences are starting to become few and far between because some CEO wants to push his bottom line a little bit further and get another million bucks at the expense of the environment while other fathers are staring into the now-filthy water, bemoaning the fact that they’ve lost the chance to share this fishing experiences with their sons.
Now do you see how voice can make a difference? There’s no denying that a good thesis and organization can make a paper effective but a solid voice can explain why a paper succeeds.