Sunday, February 04, 2007

Voicey voicey voice

I've been a peer writing tutor at two major US universities, so I consider myself pretty versed in the basics of writing, and some of those not-so-basics. One of the most important yet hard to capture aspects of writing is Voice. That elusive tone individual to a writer that means so much to the reader and can be so hard to control.

We were discussing voice in my Thesis Seminar Support Group last week. And I thought it would be a hoot to write portions of my thesis in my blogging voice. Because my blogging voice is SO SO SO far away from my academic writing voice and even strays pretty far from my speaking voice. That is, I am WAY more outgoing sounding and enthusiastic in my online incarnations. Which is fine.

Can you imagine reading an academic paper written in my blogging voice? That'd be a good time. But no credibility.

There's the rub. My blogging voice is genuine. It's (I think) pretty passionate and sincere. But it is completely and totally not credible. Sure, I can try and establish my street cred by reading off my accomplishments, but, dude, I say things like dude.

So museum blogs are in a sticky place with voice. Museums depend on their credibility - visitors attend for a learning experience. If a museum isn't a good learning experience, it is going to lose attendees. So when it comes to blogging, a museum can't blog like a 13 year old girl or, really, like a 24 year old master's student. A museum needs to blog like a museum.

But a museum blog is usually written by more than one person. This tosses an additional wrench into the works. Individual voices speaking for an institution. How is this balanced? Is it balanced? Is there a higher blogging power at the museum that goes over all posts before they are published and evens out the voice, avoiding the more dramatic and least credible blogspeak? How does this work?

And a blog voice can't be totally academic (ie the most credible voice), because no one can talk back to an academic paper (okay, that's hyperbole, but you get the idea). Sure, it might invite some academic response, but it's alienating to most folks. To engage in conversation, you need to be conversational, you can't be pedantic or academic. It's a hard line to walk because there's no easy solution to the problem. And you can't be taught voice. You can be shown how voice relates to reader's perceptions, but even the experienced can be hardpressed to point out specific changes to make to adjust one's writing voice.

How do you museum bloggers do it? What do you keep in mind to maintain a professional, yet inviting voice? Is it even an issue that's ever come up? Am I asking too many questions?


seb chan said...

Most museums have worked out ways of managing writing and consistency of voice. Our survey results of over 50 museum blogs will be published soon . . . stay tuned.

There are some interesting results and trends emerging.

Lynn Bethke said...

That's good to know - Voice is always among the hardest concepts for students, in my experience.

I am anxiously awaiting your results and look forward to seeing your presentation.

seb chan said...

i guess the key thing for organisations is to allow themselves to become poly-vocal. certainly in lookin gat say the range of our blogs or those of the walker art center, there is a lot of space for a multiplicity of organisational voices - our sydney observatory astronomy blog is a good case in point. although this is written by two bloggers, both change their style slightly depending upon their topic of choice.

see you in SF

Liza said...

Here at Science Buzz, we have some style conventions and guidelines, but we purposely stay away from "museum voice." I write FOR Science Buzz as Liza; I am not Science Buzz.

My primary goal is to engage museum and web visitors. They're out to have an interesting and educational but also fun and social experience, and I can't separate those things. And if I want you to learn, I have to suck you in first. So I have to be engaging. And sometimes it means saying things like "dude." :)

I have some automatic credibility because I work for the Science Museum, no matter what my writing reads like. But I have to earn a lot of credibility, too. I have to cite my sources, and I can't be wildly over the top without telling you that that's what I'm doing. And I probably can't write stuff like "c u l8r," unless it's firmly tongue in cheek. Think about regular columnists or a movie reviewers for your local newspaper: if you read them often enough, you learn their biases and whether those jive with yours, you consider their information, and you decide how much you trust them. It's a relationship.

As for balance...well, it isn't. I feel that the more voices you have, the more balanced you'll be. But participation inequality is a perpetual problem. So, as in journalism, you have to figure out ways to build in what balance you can: start from the facts, offer multiple interpretations of those facts if there are reasonable other interpretations, disclose your conflicts, show your get the idea.

I used to work on the exhibit floors, and when I write, I try to think about how I'd explain a topic or issue to someone if I was actually TALKING to them in the museum. And the advantage of blogging is that it lets me clean up my thoughts a bit before they go out in the world, or offer digressions as links. The goal, though, is to keep the tone friendly and engaging, and then to respond to visitor comments as if it were a real-time conversation.

I love that you're reading museum blogs! Can't wait to hear what you have to say about them.