The Defensive Voice

In a must-read post for Oxford University Press, Peter Elbow explores the difference between writing and speech. Money quote:

When we academics were in graduate school, we were trained to write badly (no one put it this way of course) because every time we wrote X, our teacher always commented, “But have you considered Y? Don’t you see that Y completely contradicts what you write here.” “Have you considered” is the favorite knee-jerk response of academics to any idea. As a result, we learn as students to clog up our writing with added clauses and phrases to keep them from being attacked.

It’s not only academics who write in this defensive crouch. Politicians, businessmen, and most other public figures will tend to anticipate arguments and cover their sentences in heavy armor.

However, to write in your own authentic voice means losing the armor and being vulnerable, taking the risk that someone might contradict you. Real, authentic writing can be scary. But that’s what it takes to be eloquent — and influential.



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