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.

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Michele Dunaway is an award-winning English and journalism teacher who, in addition to teaching English III, advises the student newspaper, yearbook and news website at Francis Howell High School in St. Charles, MO. In 2009, the Journalism Education Association awarded Michele with its Medal of Merit. She has received recognition as a Distinguished Yearbook Adviser in the H.L. Hall Yearbook Adviser of the Year competition and was named a Special Recognition Newspaper Adviser by the Dow Jones News Fund. She also practices what she teaches by authoring professional journal articles and writing novels. Click here to read more articles by Michele Dunaway.

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Comments from our users:

Monday October 26th 2009, 5:01 AM
Comment by: Randy Alexander (Jilin City China)
Wonderful article. I thoroughly agree with you. Writing class should be all about mastering the basics until those basics are mastered. As you said: "Teach the fundamentals of sentence structure, grammar, vocabulary, and punctuation."

I teach in China, and on the college level we have teachers who themselves haven't mastered the basics teaching classes like "Survey of English Literature" and "Technical Writing" to students who are in no way ready for that kind of stuff.

I have to point out that your article is also a beautiful example of "Muphry's Law" ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muphry%27s_law)! This is because of the second sentence in paragraph ten: "Too many students write their papers the night before they are due and they never learn that their first drafts really wasn't good enough."

wasn't --> weren't


Fixed! —Ed.
Monday October 26th 2009, 8:54 AM
Comment by: Heather (Calgary Canada)
In elementary school, I disagree somewhat. Of course the basics are important, and I wholeheartedly agree that they should be taught regularly and in a deliberate way.

Sometimes, though, I see students so inundated with media. TV, internet, You Tube, and even video games seem to cover up their voice. They see what writing is 'supposed' to look like and they push their own unique voices aside to conform to that. Perhaps these aren't writing lessons so much as they are health/identity and media literacy lessons, but I do think they are extremely important to teach as well. The idea that voice will come on it's own may work for those who are born with a natural ability to resist conformity, but not for all our students.
Monday October 26th 2009, 9:14 AM
Comment by: Rita C. (Mason, OH)
I think it is all about giving kids the time and feedback to work a piece of writing. If they can get some ideas down on paper, then they can work on crafting those sentences re: grammar, organization, transitions. I think using kid's writing to rework a piece is far more likely to help them to develop ownership than grammar lessons. I once had a teacher who encouraged us to rewrite the same papers over and over again, working on our own specific area of weakness. I think too often high school kids go from paper to paper and never gain a level of skill before the next assignment. In addition, once I work with a child crafting a single paper, each time taking the same writing to the next level, the final draft begins to reflect the child's personality. They are likely to verbally comment in a way that is clever, and encouraging them to add that idea gives them the sense that they actually have something to say. But this all takes time with adult feedback and interaction. A tall order, indead.
Monday October 26th 2009, 9:18 AM
Comment by: Rita C. (Mason, OH)
I knew I would mistype something. That is supposed to read: A tall order, indeed. :) (I saw it as soon as I hit enter. I think we need some ability to edit our own comments.) Proving another point: I think kids need to see their drafts each time on clean copy. It is easier to see mistakes that way.
Monday October 26th 2009, 11:12 AM
Comment by: paul D. (n myrtle beach, SC)
Reading this article, or any well written work, is like if I would be listening to one of Beethoven's symphonies.
I believe that one must master grammar's basics before he or she can immerse themselves into whiting a perfect essay. For some time I have been studying English grammar, knowing that the day will come when I will be ready to
do just that.I am confident that the moment will present itself, when I will be proud of writing the near perfect
essay; the moment will come when I will be able to put all of the pieces together and write my own "symphony,"
meaning, writing as flawlessly, meanwhile, I have to pursue my dream, I have to to work hard to one day, proclaim victory.
As someone once said: " The harder we work the more glory we have in overcoming it."

Paul Depontes
Monday October 26th 2009, 11:39 AM
Comment by: Lois K. (Colorado Springs, CO)
After publishing over 30 books, I still struggle at times with my voice. Too dramatic? Too literary? Too much like someone else's work?

Congratulations on being so confident in your own!

Change it for the worst > change it for the worse?

[Also fixed. Any errors are, of course, inserted as a test for the readers! —Ed.]
Monday October 26th 2009, 2:36 PM
Comment by: ROGER H.
Great article! I endorsed the concept that the fundamentals of sentence construction, grammer, vocabulary, etc. are critical to becoming a great writer. Undoubtedly, voice is invaluable to good writing but it comes when the fundamentals are established and mastered. I agree with your point of view!
Monday November 2nd 2009, 4:16 PM
Comment by: Ellen M.
I think the biggest barrier to kids discovering their own voices (note PC plus plural agreement!) is not reading enough. In a rich multimedia landscape, reading (which is how you get the audience's perspective on voice) gets bumped to bathroom and bus fare. It's like expecting music students to compose without listening to Beethoven (and Bach, Bruckner or for that matter, even the Blue Oyster Cult). For kids, I think breadth is important, including historical examples and translations, which present distinct challenges to finding and preserving the unique voice. When I think of writers with strong voices, I think Thucydides, Cicero, Gibbon, Bram Stoker, Conan Doyle, Washington, Lincoln, Nabokov, Kostava (the Historian), and of course, Dickens, Fitzgerald and Hemingway. Who do you and other commenters think are good voice examples?

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