Finding your voice(s) — all of them

Posted on November 12, 2010 by Janet Coats

When I was 24 years old, I was the assistant city editor of the Stuart News, a then 30,000-circulation newspaper on the East Coast of Florida. I was too young for the job, and I am sometimes amazed when I look back that anyone would have trusted a newspaper in my hands each night.

The News was a great place to learn how to be an editor. We had lots of breaking news, so I learned to juggle stories and the too-few reporters we had to cover them. I learned to make decisions quickly and to set priorities. I learned how to politely talk to the old folks who called the city desk every night, ostensibly to find out the lottery numbers or get help on the crossword puzzle but really because they were lonely and facing a long night.

But the skill I mastered most was learning how to write in 12 different voices.

The reporters at the News fell into two categories: either green as grass or burned out and jaded. The consistent trait among most of them was that their writing just wasn’t very good.

As the editor charged with processing most of the local copy every night, it was my job to smooth out the rough edges and bring clarity to the day’s report. After a few months, I had mastered that, and set about the job of inventing personas for each reporter.  One might have a voice that was Hemingwayesque – lots of short, direct sentences. Some might be a bit more flowery. I know that inserted my Southern habit of repetition into a lot of copy.

This practice , born as a way to keep myself interested in a job where I had to move a lot of copy fast, played into my own writing when I went back to reporting two years later at the Virginian-Pilot. Having applied different voices to different reporters, I now found myself adopting different voices, different storytelling styles, to the articles I wrote. I was encouraged by an editor who, when I debriefed with her about a story, would often ask: How do you think people want to hear this story? I’d never had an editor talk about writing that way, and it led me to think more about what voice would best match the subject matter. I sometimes found myself changing my ideas about the voice I would use depending on what I discovered in the reporting process.

I found myself thinking more about using my writing voices to serve the needs of the story and the community that needed it.

I hadn’t thought much about the fact that I did that until this week, as I have followed a thoughtful and rich discussion about blogging at The discussion was launched by a post by Marc Ambinder, who has blogged about politics for The Atlantic for the last five years.  Ambinder is leaving his blog and will focus on writing pieces for the print magazine.

His post is a nuanced analysis of the strengths and limitations of the form from someone who has been a very successful blogger.

We live in an age in which we talk of the need for journalists to have “personal brands.’’ I think that is something reporters need to consider very carefully in a social media age, as brand identification moves from institutions to trusted individuals.

But I hadn’t thought about how you can become a slave to your brand.  Once you develop a strong enough writing voice or point of view to truly become a brand, you face the issue of sustaining that. What happens if you grow tired of your own voice?

Ambinder said he was looking forward to moving away from constantly tending his own voice back into long-form print reporting – which he described, at its best, as being ego-free.

“What I hope I will find refreshing about the change of formats is that I will no longer be compelled to turn every piece of prose into a personal, conclusive argument, to try and fit it into a coherent framework that belongs to a web-based personality called "Marc Ambinder" that people read because it's "Marc Ambinder," rather than because it's good or interesting,’’ he wrote.

As someone who is new to blogging, I’ve had a hard time with the issue of developing a “Janet voice’’ that carries through my work as something identifiable and even marketable. It cuts against my old habits of developing different voices for different purposes.

Over my next couple of posts, I want to spend more time thinking about the issue of voice in journalism, as raised by Ambinder’s post and the reaction of other writers to it. I also want to think about another issue he raised: covering stories that need to be covered, instead of covering stories that appeal to your own interests and existing expertise.

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