Co-Constructing an Empowering Writer’s Voice

II Andrea Stark Bishop II


In a 2012 commencement speech, Newberry Award winning author Neil Gaiman extolled the importance of valuing an individual, artistic voice. He said, “Most of us only find our own voices after we’ve sounded like a lot of other people. But the one thing that you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision.” His address encouraged graduates to find and know and speak and write in their unique voices. This anecdote is not remarkable; in fact, it is useful simply because it is so indicative of what we, as tutors and educators,  hear and read about voice in both popular and academic discourse. Our concept of voice balances on the belief that a writer is singular—that the voice belongs to one person. Andrea Lunsford labels this ideal the “lonely scribbler,” one who is “singular, originary, autonomous, and uniquely creative” (529). But this idea of voice is complicated when we begin to talk about collaboration in general, and especially when we consider collaboration between tutors and writers.

When we think of co-authorship, the idea of the single writerly voice becomes tricky. And when we consider the experience of a writing center consultation, that voice metaphor with its singular, autonomous identity becomes something else entirely—a voice that is more, infused, and carefully constructed. A writing center tutor can, and often does, improve the writer’s voice through a collaborative effort by focusing on the stylistic elements of writing.

Last year, I worked with a student who tearfully explained she needed help with her voice. Her instructor had written the following reprimand on her essay, “I can’t hear your voice. Where is the REAL you in this paper?” The session that followed helped me realize how completely intrinsic (yet annoyingly ephemeral) the metaphor for voice is, but it also made me realize that most students have no clue how to develop a voice in their writing.  My client was frustrated because she didn’t know how to “fix” her voice so that it “sounded like the real her.” Of course, this multifaceted idea of voice—the authentic voice, the truthful voice, the inner voice, the social voice, the marginalized voice—has been written about in depth by scholars much smarter than I (see Bakhtin, Berlin, Blake, Ede and Lunsford, Elbow, Enos, Faigley, Hashimoto, Macrorie), but for our purposes in the writing center, we need to be pragmatic. How exactly do we help a writer write with voice? What can we practically achieve in an hour? After two sessions with my client who struggled with her voice, I realized I could help her construct that “real voice” by engaging with the diction, details, imagery, syntax, and tone of her writing.

The voice that emerged in her revised essay, and the voice she was able to construct in later essays, was essentially an emerging confidence. That voice borrowed some of my authority and knowledge and infused them with her own ideas. It was a voice that relied on understanding how word choice works; it was a voice that manipulated punctuation and syntax—using the emdash, semicolon, or properly placed pithy statement. As a result, our collaborative effort essentially became her voice. It was constructed via careful editing. That voice was the product of removing the wordy phrases. It was the product of asking ourselves, “Isn’t there a better word? Wouldn’t some sensory detail be more effective here?” This new voice was confident yet inquisitive, careful yet brave.

My client returned with new feedback from that same professor. The professor had written: “Yes! This is the voice I wanted to hear.” Admittedly, we could argue the veracity of that statement, the meaning behind it, the subjectivities of teacher preference or the vagaries of the “real voice.” This is what I learned: Voice—the kind of voice we prefer—is a product of paying attention to style. I would not say voice IS style because that is just too simplistic, but I would argue there is no voice without style. And here’s the good news: we are in the position to collaborate with students as they improve the stylistic elements of diction, details, imagery, syntax, and tone in their writing.

Voice is important. It is powerful. Yes, it’s also ephemeral, slippery, and difficult for students to grasp. But, I think Jane Danielewicz is correct when she says, “The power of a text, its ability to be persuasive or credible, lies in the writer’s voice” (420). I think Peter Elbow is correct when he calls voice the “magic potion” (286). Additionally, I think we writing center magicians are in a unique position to serve as co-creators of this magical voice. Ben Rafoth has called us “change agents” (21), a term I really like for the work that we do. Piggybacking on that idea, I think we could also be agents of empowerment. By helping students understand and improve the stylistic elements of writing, we are empowering them to write themselves into voices that demand to be heard.

Works Cited

Danielewicz, Jane. “Personal Genres, Public Voices.” College Composition and Communication,

59.3 (2008): 420–450.

Elbow, Peter. Writing with Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process. New York:

Oxford UP, 1981. Print.

Gaiman, Neil. “134th Commencement: Keynote Address, 2012.” Commencement Speech at The

University of the Arts. Philadelphia, PA. May 2012. The University of the Arts. Web.

Lunsford, Andrea Abernethy. “Rhetoric, Feminism, and the Politics of Textual Ownership.”

College English, 61.5 (1999): 529–544.

Rafoth, Ben. “Faces, Factories, and Warhols: A r(Evolutionary) Future for Writing Centers.” The

Writing Center Journal 35.2 (2016): 17-30.



Author Bio

As a PhD student in composition studies at the University of Memphis, I’ve recently completed my coursework and entered that sacred land of studying for my comprehensive exams (I’m not really enjoying the sacred land). I’m the Graduate Assistant Director of the Center for Writing and Communication at UM where I get to help people write, train writing tutors, and talk about writing pretty much all day every day. I’m a wife, a mother of two boys, and the chief wrangler of three cats, and two dogs.

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