Great writing transcends mere scribbles on paper when your words speak to the reader, relate to the audience, and take on a life of their own. But even “good” writing by mechanical or syntactical standards can fall short of such a transformation. What can change your writing from dry and monotonous to lively and exciting is a sense of personality – an injection of “you” (the writer) that breathes life into the pages. So, while grammar may be important, or organization may be helpful, truly great writing must talk to the reader as if a real person was sitting next to him.
Some might argue that there is no room for a sense of “you” in academic writing, that personality serves no purpose when straightforward facts can get the job done. Or some might say that professional writing, like a cover letter for a job opening, has no place to include your own voice. But in all honesty, that’s preposterous. Even effective academic writing reads more like a verbal explanation from a real human being than an encyclopedia entry. And the firm you’re applying to isn’t going to hire a piece of paper; it’s (hopefully) going to hire you.
Incorporating more “you” into your writing, however, is no easy task. There is no one trick or formula that breathes life into a dull piece. It’s a host of factors that, when combined, convey a sense of your personality and leave a reader feeling like they have learned not only more about the topic but about you as a person.
If we think about expressing our personality in a more familiar context—say telling a story—the complexities become clearer. No one tells a story in a monotone voice, as if read from a teleprompter. They tell it with emotion, with hand gestures, intonations, sounds and facial features. Clearly things like this don’t translate easily to writing. However, there are tools at your disposal to make your writing more human. You can tailor your word choice, organization, and point of view to your personality. There is room for emotion, ways to make the style of your writing speak to your persona, and opportunities to put stress on certain ideas or phrases and not others. Even deliberate punctuation can help to create a more approachable piece of writing.
My best advice, however, is to find passion in the subject you are writing about. You don’t have to be passionate about the writing process, and that’s the beauty of it. But if you are truly interested and absorbed in the topic of your writing, a sense of “you” will follow with no effort required. Of course, if you’re forced to write about something that couldn’t be farther away from your interests (let’s say frog anatomy), then this will prove more difficult. Yet, if you can find a way to create an alternate identity, for example, Dr. Ribbit, and write from that perspective, your passion for frog guts as Dr. Ribbit will manage to shine through.