Writing with voice — or, observation vs. opinion
Sometimes we call it “voice.” Sometimes we call it “writing with authority.” It’s hard to define, but the basic idea is that sometimes a storyteller puts aside attribution and standard journalese and just speaks directly to the audience. If you want great storytelling in your student media operation, you’re going to wind up wrestling with it. So let’s go to the mat, shall we?
“Biden pauses and takes a breath. You think he’s finished. Foolish you.”
With that line in a New York magazine profile of Vice President Joe Biden, writer John Heilemann signals that he’s telling you a story, not an executive summary. Would you allow this at your college newspaper? I suspect most of you would.
Let’s keep reading. In just a few paragraphs Heilemann will test the line separating voice and observation from outright personal opinion. Here’s the complete paragraph we started above:
“Biden pauses and takes a breath. You think he’s finished. Foolish you. Air Force Two will be safely at cruising altitude before he brings his retort in for a landing with a one-fell-swoop dismissal of the Twitterverse, the blogosphere, the hot-eyed Foxified yakkety-yak-yakkers, Romney, Ryan, and, in a way, himself: ‘I don’t think this has a single little effect on voters.’”
“Hot-eyed Foxified yakkety-yak-yakkers?” Is that a slam at Fox News (and conservatives), or just a colorful way of phrasing Biden’s view? Editors (and readers) may disagree. Once you decide, take a look at Heilemann’s summation of the expectation for Biden before Rep. Paul Ryan became his opponent:
“He would find himself debating (surely) Rob Portman or Tim Pawlenty—and no one would give a shit.”
OK, that’s not going into most “family newspapers,” but that’s not what you edit. Profanity aside, a case can be made that this is simply the writer’s informed observation. The parenthetical word signals us that Heilemann is quoting conventional wisdom. The question here is whether YOUR readers find your voice believable — whether they trust that you know what you’re talking about.
And now we come to:
“In filling his V.P. slot with the 42-year-old cheesehead chair of the House Budget Committee and author of the seminal governing document of the congressional wing of the Republican Party, Romney injected a bracing dose of youth, substantive audacity, political risk, and partisan glamour (or what passes for glamour on the right) into a race that had been teetering on the edge of terminal torpor.”
The parenthetical sneer shows us the writer’s disdain for “the right,” and most readers won’t consider “cheesehead” a neutral observation. We’re now clearly reading an opinion piece. I doubt readers of his magazine were surprised, but your readers probably would be startled to find that on a page not marked as opinion.
Encourage your writers to take risks with style and write with voice. But talk to them about your comfort level on the continuum from storytelling to informed observation to outright personal opinion.