What we talk about when we talk about voice, part three

What we talk about when we talk about voice” will be a running series of blogposts on the 
topic of good writing in general and good writing for educational institutions in particular.

by Patrick Kelly
CRANE editorial director

Style ought to prove that one believes in an idea;
not only that one thinks it but also feels it.
–Friedrich Nietzsche

Style, personality, and prose that makes readers into believers

Independent schools don’t want to attract customers. They want to create believers.

And, before the initial campus visit, before the shadow day, before the parent coffee and the new family orientation and the first day of class, what does a school have at its disposal?


Let’s go back to East Bay School for Boys. Here’s how the school starts the “Our Story” section of the school website:

East Bay School for Boys started with girls.

Who’s not going to keep reading that? Who doesn’t get a sense of personality, of intelligence, of wit and style and confidence from those eight words?


We remember great opening lines for a reason—they generally subvert our expectations, and establish a style that does not solely rely on facts.
I am an invisible man. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. It was a pleasure to burn. East Bay School for Boys started with girls. It fits right in!


Clintondale High School, a “school of choice” in metro Detroit, gets to the heart of the matter this way:

Something had to change.

That simple, declarative, and powerful statement grabs attention and is the perfect frame for Clintondale to tell its story about how the entire school adopted the “flipped classroom” model. There’s no slow windup, no throat-clearing, no jargon-laden strings of prepositions flimsily held together by weak verbs.

Instead, there’s voice. There’s personality. There is style and substance and verve and the feeling that you are not going to be bored by reading this. There’s a compelling reason to keep going—and, perhaps, to become a believer.

Here’s a “Welcome” from a head of school that doesn’t simply say “Thank you for visiting our website! We hope you enjoy learning about our school through this virtual portal!” but paints vivid pictures of what she sees each day:

When I walk through our light-filled hallways and see our 4th graders discussing the nuances of evolution and revolution then and now, Kindergarteners installing Goldsworthy-inspired art in our hallways, 2nd graders preparing to present their history of the Seaport to a community board hearing, 4-year-olds performing plays based on original beanstalk stories that grew out of their study of edible plants… I know we have unearthed a secret that many have spoken about but not enough experience: powerful, deep learning is joyful. (http://www.blueschool.org/welcome/
Full disclosure: Blue School is a CRANE client).


As humans, we’re naturally drawn to stories. To voices that sound interesting and like a real person might actually be talking to us through this otherwise cold screen, or from this glossy piece of paper. To styles that, as Nietzsche said, convey not just information, but feeling.

Stories—whether a novel or a viewbook, a poem or a direct mail series—and voice necessarily live in concrete details. They dwell in the land of the specific. And they activate imaginations in ways that The Official Style never will. Whenever we can describe in detail what fourth-graders are actually doing, instead of how “we challenge them through a rigorous and age-appropriate curriculum,” everybody wins. The school, yes.

And more importantly, all those readers out there, for whom we’re writing in the first place.

What we talk about when we talk about voice, part two

What we talk about when we talk about voice” will be a running series of blog posts on the 
topic of good writing in general and good writing for educational institutions in particular.

by Patrick Kelly
CRANE editorial director

One reason that people find it so difficult to write stories
is that they forget how much time and patience is required to convince through the senses.
No reader who doesn’t actually experience, who isn’t made to feel, the story
is going to believe anything the writer merely tells him.

–Flannery O’Connor,
“Writing Short Stories”

Moving from abstraction to story

Let’s pick up from where we left off with a simple conditional that we probably can all agree upon:
If The Official Style and abstract language obscure meaning, then story reveals meaning. And yet, quite counterintuitively, story—that most familiar and natural form of human communication—somehow gets lost, forgotten, overlooked in the everyday descriptions of what schools do and how schools do it.


Now, Flannery O’Connor may have been talking about fiction, but her precept about the vital nature of sensory description holds true for all writing. And no, writing about education, about pedagogy, about teaching and learning merits no exception.

Think of it this way: Just as it takes a lot more effort, time, and expertise to teach in an inquiry-based classroom than submit to rote lecturing, it takes similar measures of nuance and craft to describe what’s going on in an inquiry-based classroom than it does to state: Our students learn through an inquiry-based process.

It’s a lot harder evoking and bringing to life an interdisciplinary English-U.S. history project where a small class deconstructs
Huck Finn against the backdrop of the Compromise of 1850 than simply stating:

We apply an interdisciplinary approach while utilizing a classic curriculum, blending the best of both worlds.


But as you probably already know, the harder thing is almost always the right thing.

Just look at this partial list of outcomes—see the full list here: http://www.ebsfb.org/node/26 —from the East Bay School for Boys, one of the most concrete, sensory, picture-able—and because of all that, inspiring—lists of outcomes we’ve ever come across:

By the time he graduates, each EBSB student will have:

  • Conducted a conversation in a foreign language about something that he has
    read in that language;
  • Analyzed a meaningful passage of another’s writing and declaimed it with passion
    and from memory;
  • Disassembled, diagrammed, rebuilt, and written instructions for something
    electrical or mechanical;
  • Sowed, grown, harvested, and eaten his own vegetable;
  • Held and cared for a newborn baby;
  • Mentored another boy in something in which he feels confident; and
  • Produced or performed a work of art.

This list tells a story about this school. It tells a story by painting vivid images of what these eighth-grade boys do. Can’t you picture a 13-year-old boy in one frame tending a garden, in another wiring a circuit, and perhaps most strikingly, cradling a newborn? Isn’t that the exact kind of 13-year-old boy you’d want as your neighbor, your friend, your son?

The voice of this school lies, as is so often the case, in taking the time to paint specific descriptions instead of falling back on the easy footing of generalization and abstraction. Of telling a story through sensory description instead of defaulting to status quo edu-speak. Of splashing a bit of unexpected art on the blank page instead of submitting to sameness.

And putting forth that extra effort yields such memorable results, such powerful imagery.
It truly makes all the difference.

Tune in next time for Part three: Can/should your writing have personality? And is that or isn’t that a rhetorical question?

What we talk about when we talk about voice

“What we talk about when we talk about voice” will be a running series
of blog posts on the topic of good writing in general and good writing
for educational institutions in particular.

by Patrick Kelly
CRANE editorial director

Modern English, especially written English,
is full of bad habits which spread by imitation
and which can be avoided if one is willing
to take the necessary trouble.
—George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”

A single writer’s ineptitude is paid for by many readers.
—Richard A. Lanham, Revising Prose

The Reign of  “The Official Style”

Every educational institution, from grammar school to graduate school, already possesses a unique voice.

Just like the homemade taste of Prego!, it’s in there. Finding that voice, however, and naming it and pulling it forward and evoking it is another matter. Sometimes—often times, really—it’s buried deep under layers of bureaucratic abstraction and mindless edu-speak.

We promote academic excellence across all subject areas while developing the whole child in a community that is both nurturing and challenging.

We commit to maintaining a diverse community of learners from a wide range of cultural and socio-economic backgrounds.

We develop 21st-century skills in each student by engaging them through the latest research and cutting-edge technologies that balance innovation with tradition.


Sentences like these don’t have any voice at all, let alone the dynamic, living voice of a learning institution to whom a parent might entrust the formative years of her child. Yet this is precisely the type of published voice put out by thousands of otherwise highly intelligent, high-functioning, well-run, programmatically stunning, and generally impressive institutions.

And we get it. It’s all too easy—expected, even—for an institution to fall into the familiar territory of edu-babble, of jargon and buzz words and clichés. Why?

Because the landscape of institutional prose lies littered with tired phraseology, and if you live among this land for long enough, you begin picking up those phrases, using them as your own, unmindful of the fact that their meaning has all but dissolved, that the ideas you think you’re conveying are really just frizzled abstractions that provide no real message or insight to the reader.

But there is a solution. There is a way to reclaim that elusive and original voice that lies somewhere in the murky depths of your institution, clouded and obscured by what Richard Lanham acidly calls The Official Style: “The Official Style cannot speak; it can only float down from above in hierarchical layers.
It is the ‘voice’ of remote hierarchy.”

And yes, the solution starts with if not following, then at least admiring Orwell’s five (or six) rules.


And the quest for voice continues from syntax and diction into that most human of forms: story.


Tune in next time for part two: moving from soul-killing abstraction to the heart of the story.

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