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We begin with Voice, because more than any other trait, it seems to intimidate or confuse teachers and parents. Voice: What is it? Can it be taught? How do we explain Voice to the parent who says, "I never had it when I was in school!"?
All compelling writing has some form of Voice. The skilled author has crafted that Voice to fit his/her purposes and the needs of his/her audience. Do we hear the writer's personality clearly behind the words? Is there life and enthusiasm in the text? Do we hear a commitment and passion for the subject? Do we want to stop a friend and read them the piece aloud? If so, we have voice filled writing. The more personality, charm, wit, or insight the writer conveys, the more the writer's voice becomes indelibly distinct.
That's fine for the creative stuff, but what about academic styles we have to teach in high school? Agreed, the humorous and personable voice of the op-ed or narrative piece isn't always appropriate. In exposition and research work, the voice may be far more formal and objective. The important point is that Voice is linked to a writer's purpose and audience. Voice helps writing connect with the intended audience. Considering this, should formal writing be 'Voiceless'?
Read the exposition of John McPhee in Coming into the Country and compare it to the lifeless prose of a dictionary or pedestrian textbook. Which is effective? Which engages the reader? Which will be read and remembered? What sort of writers do we want to be?
It has been said that Voice separates writing that is read from writing that is unread. Children quickly grasp this concept, especially when they hear a variety of Voice rich examples and are asked to discuss what makes each writer different. Read aloud and then ask them: Where does the writer's personality shine through? Which sentences? Which words? Where in the story does passion and commitment evoke something unique and interesting?
We can listen to a parent, sibling, or friend speak and immediately identify the individual. Voice in writing conveys that same personality imprint. It is Voice that compels the reader into the mind of the writer.
Finding Your Voice
Finding your writer's Voice can be difficult. This is particularly true for students, who must summon the courage to speak from the heart, risking ridicule and rejection. As teachers we must work to sensitize students to their audience. The piece written for the teacher or parent will likely have a less authentic Voice than that written for peers. For this reason I suggest teaching voice by encouraging creative writing on personal topics.
Help your students find a topic they are passionate about; then, help them share their passion with their audience. What better way to get in touch with their feelings and find their Voices? Once a writer finds their voice writing about personal topics, they are better prepared for more academic, research driven writing.
To encourage Voice in students make them aware of their audience. Ask them: Do you want to be boring? Or do you want your friends to hear what you have to say? Can your words make the class laugh, cry, or cringe? By emphasizing the peer audience, you motivate students to use the power of Voice. Also, web-publishing student work opens up a new sense of audience, one that extends beyond the classroom to the real world. Reaching this wider audience becomes an authentic task that will energize students.
A Tactic that Works
One of the most effective methods for teaching Voice is to practice adding Voice to lifeless prose, and removing Voice from powerful writing. Try rewriting the dull office memo, or stripping the adjectives and metaphors from a Pat Conroy passage. . . you will soon have a better sense of this mysterious trait. For this very reason, this week's activities include several of the best practices for understanding Voice:
One Final Hint
Voice is something we hear as well as see. Whenever possible practice reading aloud for Voice. Read aloud to your students, read aloud to yourself!
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CC Dennis O'Connor
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