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How to Develop Voice in Student Writing

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Some teachers would argue that a writer’s voice is so individualized that it must be discovered.

For the uninitiated, the immunity idol is a small, hidden object that fits with the theme of the Survivor location. It is hidden near the tribal camps, or in more recent seasons it has been hidden on Exile Island. If secured by a player, the immunity idol will prevent that contestant from hearing the host’s immortal words, “The tribe has spoken,” which removes the player from further competition.

Survivor players are banished to Exile Island by the other survivors. In fact, some contestants have been sent to the island multiple times. These Robinson Crusoes have no assistance from Fridays, but, with much effort and/or luck, are able to discover clues that will lead them to find the immunity idol.

Constructivists would argue that the only clues provided to developing writers should be widespread reading and unencumbered writing practice. After a journey of self-discovery, the squishy concept of voice may emerge some day for some writing survivors.

The debate hinges somewhat on our definitions of voice. Constructivists tend to adopt a narrow definition that voice is what makes one’s writing unique and personal; the intangibles that demonstrate an honest commitment to its writing.

I take a different view. I define voice a bit more globally, encompassing what old-time Strunkers called style, as well as point of view, tone, and diction (word choice). I think that discovering voice should be the result of a guided journey. By the way, the clues on Survivor are quite direct and relevant to the quest; they are not needles in haystacks.

As a reading specialist, I would agree that widespread reading does help students recognize voice; however, I would argue that for students to develop voice, they need to practice voice in specific teacher-directed writing assignments. Additionally, teachers need to help students practice different voices for different purposes. The voice that a student uses to convince a peer to do a favor, should not be the same voice that a student uses to convince a police officer to issue a warning, rather than a speeding ticket.

Here are a few suggestions to teach voice:

  1. Read short passages from writers with diverse voices out loud. Have students identify characteristic diction and intonation (the sound of the writing). Hemingway, King, Jr., Rowling, Shakespeare, and passages from Isaiah are useful. Then, have students mimic the voices of these writers on a topic of teacher or student choice.
  2. Have students practice manipulating the other elements of rhetorical stance (audience, purpose, and form) regularly. Rhetorical Stance Quick Writes, used as bell-ringers, are particularly useful.
  3. Provide word lists, such as strong verbs and feeling words, for students to incorporate into their writing.
  4. Teach students to use poetic elements, such as metaphor, in their narrative and personal writing.
  5. Have students re-write endings of stories or news articles.
  6. Have students re-write third person stories into first person stories.
  7. Have students re-write fairy tales from another point of view, for example, from the wolf’s perspective, rather than that of the pig’s in Three Little Pigs.
  8. Have students identify and re-write the tone of readings. Poetry is a great source for clearly-identifiable tone.
  9. Teach different grammatical sentence openers. Encourage students to avoid “to-be” verbs.
  10. Teach inappropriate writing style and post examples for future student reference. For example, post generic words such as stuff and things and help students brainstorm specific alternatives. Perhaps create a “dead-word or phrase cemetery on a bulletin board.
  11. Have students write essays on controversial and relevant topics to identify divergent points of view, writer commitment to the topic, and sense of audience.
  12. Post a “graffiti board” to encourage students to share their voices.
  13. Have students read their own writing out loud and have their peers identify the elements I define as voice.

Find essay strategy worksheets, rhetorical stance quick writes, writing fluencies, sentence revision activities, remedial writing lessons, posters, and editing resources to differentiate essay writing instruction in Teaching Essay Strategies.

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  1. Skhye
    January 1st, 2010 at 18:30 | #1

    Hi, Mark! Thanks for leaving the link to this excellent exercise at my blog post. Fear not. We are going to have a lot of fun working through these exercises. ~Skhye

  2. January 1st, 2010 at 23:35 | #2

    Mark, I think you are right to make a case for teacher-directed training in style. I’d never thought of myself as a “Strunker” before. I guess I just took it for granted that everyone read “The Elements of Style” in school. I wonder if you would be interested in creating some writing prompts in a series of guest blogs for Women’s Memoirs that would encourage writers to work on their style? I think this would be a terrific set of exercises for aspiring memoirists. You can see some of our writing prompts here: http://womensmemoirs.com/category/memoir-writing-prompts/

  3. January 2nd, 2010 at 07:01 | #3

    Good blog, Mark. I believe that voices can be designed and constructed as well as intuited. I find that many of the devices writing teachers advise against (to-be, things, stuff) make voice sound conversational. It’s all a balancing act.

  4. October 8th, 2010 at 23:53 | #4

    Thanks for this post. I teach essay writing to ESL students in Korea and it’s difficult for many to even imagine the concept of voice. Many of the steps you list are really useful in the ESL/EFL classroom, like building vocabulary lists of emotion-packed words and rewriting a story ending.

    Cheers

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