Teachers at Work
A column about teaching
Voice: The Least of Your Worries
Michele Dunaway teaches English and journalism at Francis Howell High School in St. Charles, Missouri, but she has a double life: she's also a best-selling romance novelist. Michele has some compelling advice to teachers of writing: "teach the basics first and worry about voice later."
I'm going to tell you a secret about teaching writing. Voice is the last thing you're supposed to be worrying about.
Okay, I can hear the wheels turning in your head and the protests already starting to form. So let me explain. Indeed, voice is what sets a student's essay apart from all the others you have to grade. It's the magical quality that makes college admission reps sit up, take notice and say, "Wow, we want this person." Is voice necessary? Yes. Absolutely. Is it teachable? No. Not directly anyway.
Now, I'm certain there are plenty of you out there who have lessons on voice that show writers how to revise sentence structure — HALT! Those are actually sentence structure lessons. While good sentence structure is important to an author's voice, that's not how you get voice. Yes, voice is a conglomerate of the choice of words the author uses, the grammar, the vocabulary, the punctuation, etc., etc., but what many don't realize is that voice comes from within the writer himself.
Voice is an intangible thing that radiates outward from inside the author. Voice comes from the sum of all the author's experiences and education. This, combined with the author's vision for the work, creates what the reader "hears" in his head. Voice is what sets one online column apart from another saying pretty much the exact same thing.
Voice is how an author speaks to the reader. It's how the author chooses to use language, based on personal experience. Can you hear my voice already? I'm using it as I write this, coming to you as an authority who is confident that what I'm saying is correct. I'm comfortable enough with my voice to blend first person with the occasional second.
My twenty-two years of teaching experience have taught me most public school ninth grade students (even those who are in honors English) aren't good essay writers. Teaching them voice before organization, grammar or vocabulary is like putting the cart before the horse. Teaching narrative when they don't know who they are yet is like asking them to play pro baseball without teaching them first how to catch. To find voice you have to figure out who you are. High school and college years are about this exploratory practice, and kids are just beginning to discover themselves and their voice.
So what do you do then? First, start with the writing basics. Teach the fundamentals of sentence structure, grammar, vocabulary, and punctuation. Teach paragraphing and transitions.
Second, have students read great essays that contain voice, but be sure these pieces also have fantastic organization, good use of vocabulary and flawless grammar. It's also okay if the narratives allow rule-breaking grammar if it's used to create voice. Breaking rules is often done to emphasize the subject matter. The pieces you choose are important; make sure these essays actually mean something. Lots of textbook samples are stuff some teacher wrote and hence are extremely boring to kids used to high-end video games and instant gratification.
It is through reading interesting pieces that students will "hear" voice. Have them analyze what makes a piece of writing work, or not work. Why did the author choose the words he did? What mood did it set? Why did he tell the story this way? Were the choices the author made effective? What is the tone and was it appropriate?
Alongside reading created works is writing your own creations. To develop voice a student must practice good writing. Too many students write their papers the night before they are due and they never learn that their first drafts really weren't good enough. You must teach students to start early, put the paper aside for a day, and then reread it. You'll be amazed at what they find on the subsequent read. Don't settle for mediocrity. Make them rewrite. If it takes 15 times to make a habit, kids need at least four essay-length writing projects a semester. Many teachers avoid doing that many papers, as it's far too much to grade. But you have to do it.
One last warning: beware using the technique teachers like to call peer review or peer editing. While it's great that kids read each other's work, often this leads to self-doubt. I've seen promising writers be told wrong information by a peer editor, and then the writer changes the paper for the worse. I've seen poor writers read someone else's work and get so depressed they give up. Writing is personal. You must guide students in what to look for, and the more concrete the thing they are to find, the better. Having them look for run-on sentences, incorrect comma usage or a specific set of vocabulary words is much better for beginners. I see too many papers with "good job" and "I liked how you said this" be shredded by the teacher for fundamental errors.
So teach the basics first and worry about voice later. By reading and practicing, students will find their voice all by themselves. If you are helping them with the fundamentals, they will have a foundation upon which to build. They will begin to take risks as they become more confident in their writing abilities. Voice is like paint on the walls. If you don't have walls to paint, then it's pointless to worry about what color paint you need. How students craft their writing and utilize the writing process are skills that takes time, feedback and repetition. Once students have those down, then you can start coaching for voice. So start at the beginning. In the days of texting and speaking in 140 characters or less, teaching voice is the least of your worries. Believe me, they will find it.