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.