Writing in a Voice Other Than Your Own

By Daniel Oswalt

Voice and style tend to be treasured by writers—there is even sometimes a sense of pride in a writer’s distinct voice.  

But how does that work when you are writing for someone else? When it is not your voice that needs to stand out? In professional writing, writers have to be like chameleons, able to adapt to multiple voices in order to reach different audiences.

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Tessa Dane Henry, a Technical Writer in the Documentation Department at JR Automation. JR Automation is, “a leading capital equipment designer, integrator, and manufacture throughout the world” (JR Automation).

Tessa works with engineers who explain to her “[the] concepts, or solutions, to a customer’s problem(s).” Her job is to “determine how to best communicate that [concept or solution] to the customer by keeping their wants and needs in mind.” Basically, as Tessa puts it, “I got hired at JR because the Concept and Cost Development Engineers needed help telling their stories to their audiences.”

Explaining the ins-and-outs of how a crafted piece of machinery works to someone not equipped with an engineering degree can sound like a foreign language. A translator is needed.

But the idea of translating is far-from just writing an idea in layman’s terms. It is really about communicating in a voice that the customer knows. Tessa says, “I had to communicate in a voice other than my own because the rhetor was technically a company, an organization, etc.”

Professional writers are essentially modern rhetoricians: they shape their prose based on context and audience’s needs. When discussing the skills writers should develop, Tessa notes:

Most people who graduate with a college degree know how to write and employers are aware of that, so it is important to develop a skill set that diversifies you as a writer. The writing department at Grand Valley does a great job at teaching writers how to analyze the rhetorical situation, create user-centered designs, and define and use the design principles and elements. These are the skills that can separate you from other potential candidates. Writing is more than just writing words on a page.”

Knowing how to tailor one’s style and voice to meet a specific audience’s needs across multiple platforms is a main-vain in professional writing.

As Tessa puts it, “As writers, we are storytellers, thinkers. We know how to analyze situations, which helps us to communicate an effective story. Everyone needs their story told, so market yourself as the writer that can do that due to your skill-set.”

Special thanks to Tessa Dane Henry at JR Automation (herself being a former OPW member) for taking the time to answer some questions and shed light on what writing in the professional world is like. Feel free to leave your comments, experiences or questions below about communicating in voices different than your own.

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