Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Voice meets Content

I had an interesting moment today reading an expository piece by one of my students.  The prompt asked the student to tell about where they would go on vacation if they could go anywhere in the world.  Well, this particular student began with Yippee! Where would I go if I could go anywhere in the world? I'd go to... 

This really got me thinking about how to teach voice in writing and how connections between voice and content play such a vital role in producing quality pieces.  This particular student had been taught that by adding in an interjection it added voice.  True - sometimes.  They've also been taught to use a question paraphrasing the prompt to create a topic sentence.  Good - but not great. And together it made me question if voice can really be taught.

Until I joined The Next Big Writer my reading was really limited to romance and classics I was forced to read in high school and university.  Now I've had the opportunity to read so many different writers and styles that voice has taken on a new meaning to me.  I look at some of the stories I've read (sexy vampires, love starved virgins, serial killers, warrior princesses from other worlds)  and I realize that those characters and stories aren't just a collection of words on paper, they're the voice of the writer.  So many of these novels I've read, I could never even imagine creating.  Yet to the author, they're completely natural.

All of this leads me to wonder how far can you take the process of teaching writing. Not everyone who writes can write well, and I truly think that voice is what separates the good from the bad.  A story can be well organized, descriptive, and grammatically correct yet do nothing for the reader.  Another piece could be riddled with inconsistencies, and spelling mistakes yet the voice of the author draws the reader in so that nothing but the characters and tale matter.

What does this have to do with the student's writing?  Well, I just wonder how this child got to the point where they thought it was okay to have a complete disconnect between their voice and their content.  Obviously they've been taught, somewhere along the way, these 'rules' of voice and organization, and along that same road through school they've lost their own voice.  It's possible they never had one, but this kind of teaching doesn't help develope one either.  Is it good to use interjections to create voice?  Sure - if they fit the content. Is it okay to use a question paraphrasing the prompt as a topic sentence - sure, if you can't think of anything better and you're out of time.

As a teacher, I wonder how to grade a paper like this. Content? Good. Organization? Good. Conventions? Good. Voice? Zilch. A student who studies and applies these learned 'rules' does his or her best.  They've done what they've been told is 'good' writing. Yet, I can't imagine how much more formulaic it can get.  It's like the five sentence, five paragraph structure I learned in high school.  I didn't have to think about making connections, just filling in the blank lines.  Does this really work? For some people undoubtedly.

Just as in art a child needs to learn how to draw a straight line, children need to learn the structure of writing. But like art, writing is subjective. Math has an answer.  It's right or wrong, but with art and writing there are rules that are meant to be broken.  Imagine if Picasso only painted realism, or if Shakespeare used the same number of sentences per paragraph in his plays.  We can't teach a child to be the next Picasso or Shakespeare, but we can teach them to emulate the greats to find a style, a voice that suits them, that inspires them to find their own.

The rules are there, yes. Teach them, show them and then show them better. Or we may end up with a bookstore full of:  Whee! One day my dog died. I felt sad and blue.


  1. Hi Ang, I personally think that the voice an author uses to create their character is as important as the story. I never really understood what a 'voice' in a book meant until i too began reading the vast and varied books on the NBW. There is a writer on there called Maxwell, who i have become good friends with, and his work is probably something i wouldn't ordinarily read. But once i started reading, the voice of Cole Sage totally mezmorized me and i was hooked on him more than the story. (but the story was also excellent) His voice felt so real and compelling that it was easy for me to visualise this person and his life and adventures. If the voice would have been flat and lifeless i wouldn't have got passed the first page.
    V x x x

  2. As to whether or not voice can be taught, I have no idea. As a writer, I'm still trying to perfect my voice. I think voice will come. Voice is what it is. I think everyone's born with it but to write properly using that voice, that needs to be taught.

    Only my opinion.


  3. I thought the writer was being sarcastic...as in "Yippee! (this old thing again, must I? does anyone care where and if I go on vacation because I know the farthest I'll get is bus stop two streets over)...etc.

    I didn't take it as a gleeful interjection. Do they really teach people to do that? Weird. I did learn the that a basic one page academic paper has at least five paragraphs and each paragraph must have a topic sentence and supporting setences. Each fact must be supported by proof or reference.

    However when I got to fiction, I threw all the rules out. It never occured to me that I should the same rules on my stories. Why? To me there was school writing and there was writing, two differnt things.

    But the box format of writing rarely brings out anything good. The challenge is to do something creative within the box you are given and to throw the box away when writing for yourself.


  4. Hey Tirz! I wish I could say that this child was using sarcasm, but sadly this child wouldn't have a clue how! He's in 3rd grade, and while there are a lot of kids at that age that can use sarcasm he's just not one of them :/ I do think that there should be some rules taught, especially at younger grades and with organization and supporting details but this child has just had the idea that interjection shows voice drilled into him to the point that he doesn't understand that it still has to make sense.

    :) Ang

  5. I think that's really my struggle. How do you teach it? I think there are plenty of people capable of finding their voice without help or moderate assistance, but then there are some who will just never be able to. We can't all be Picasso, but we all need to know how to draw a straight line, or in the case of writing, create an interesting sentence.

  6. I definitely agree - Voice is sometimes more important than anything else. Although there are times a strong voice gets lost in the clutter of poor concept, organization or grammar.

  7. Wow, Ang, you hit the nail on the head! Voice in writing is like talent in painting. It can be developed, but I don't think it can be created if it's not there. My students are a few years older than yours, and I am completely familiar with the boring structure we teach them. Most of them need the structure, but I find many teachers can't take them past the structure to really good writing that includes passionate voice. I have given my students roles and tried to have them write from the point of view of a witch in a scary house, or a spoiled little girl, or a bully. These get close to the idea of voice in that it stretches their vocabulary, but the only way I can really show voice is to read them books with great voice and say, "See? That's voice."

  8. Ang, this is such a well written post- I don't think anyone can doubt you have mastered your own personal voice! As far as teaching voice is concerned, I don't think it can be TAUGHT, but I think it can be LEARNED. I don't think anyone can teach another person how to find their own voice, because any teacher is going to bring their own voice to the lesson. But anyone who continually writes and reads will be able to LEARN how to develop their own voice through practice. It's really something you can only develop through practice.