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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