December 14th, 2010
In How Bullets Saved My Life: Fun Ways to Teach Some Serious Writing Skills, author Judy Green explores the elements and mechanics of good writing and shows teachers how to use mentor books to demonstratge specific skills. In this week’s Quick Tip Judy talks about the importance of a strong writing voice and how to demonstrate this elusive characteristic and skill to young writers.
Once I led a writing workshop for intermediate teachers and school principals. We began by discussing excellent children’s authors—writers of picture books, nonfiction, fiction—and establishing what makes good writing. As I listed the characteristics of good writing, I said, “We look for interesting ideas, clear organization, appealing word choice, sentence fluency, conventions, and of course, ‘strong voice’.”
One of the attending principals asked, “What do you mean by a you-ish voice?” “Sound like yourself, rather than an encyclopedia,” I answered. Voice is how you “talk” in writing. Writing Traits expert Ruth Culham explains it as “the way a writer brings the topic to life, depending on the intended audience.”
Strong voice is engaging to read. Energy and emotions charge the writing so that it is compelling and full of conviction. The writer’s tone is interesting and presence is powerful. Readers can “hear” personality in the writing. A weak voice, on the other hand, creates a watered-down effect, where the writer seems indifferent to the subject or distanced from the audience. The writing is plain, and the author sounds monotonous, flat, or even bored. With a weak voice, a writer loses the reader’s emotional investment.
Mem Fox and Lyn Wilkinson wrote a book called English Essentials: the wouldn’t-be-without-it guide to writing well. They offer this insight about the elements of good writing: “The presence of voice ill indicate to readers that above and beyond the sweat and the bother, the writer has actually enjoyed writing the piece. Voice reveals a lively commitment to the writing task, a desire to be read, a high level of care. Let your voice be heard. It will make your writing come alive.”
Voice is difficult to pin down in writing. Just understanding it can be a challenge. Before we get into how to teach it to students, let’s compare strong voice to weak voice in chart form.
Strong Voice vs Weak Voice
Writing is compelling, authentic, and engaging; tone is interesting; you hear the writer’s conviction
Writer connects with audience. Writer’s devotion comes through in the text
Expository writing is committed, persuasive
Narrative writing is honest, engaging, personal
Writing is plain; writer is indifferent, distanced from topic and/or audience
Writer sounds flat, bored, unaware of audience; reader loses interest
Expository writing lacks commitment
Narrative writing shows no attempt at voice
Understandably, the concept of voice intimidates young writers. Some students require help adding voice to their writing. Like the principal in my workshop, they need a clear understanding of what strong voice sounds like. Once they know what voice means, it becomes easier to grasp.
Recently I read aloud Chester’s Masterpiece to the uproarious laughter of primary children. When Mélanie Watt’s cat Chester attempts to write his own masterpiece, a duel ensues. This is a good book for teaching voice. Words like “artistic expression” and “mime” challenge primary kids, but they can easily distinguish between exasperated Mélanie —“Chester, what are you up too???” “Chester, this is unacceptable!” “Chester!!! That’s not funny!”—and bossy Chester—“This is MY BOOK! I can write whatever I want! AND I can draw all over the pages and make up MY own stories!” Obviously, these two characters sound different. They use different kinds of language: different words, tone, sentences, and forms of address.
Voice is the individual style you use that gives your writing personality. Your voice establishes the tone and sets it apart from other writing. This applies as much in writing nonfiction as it does in fiction.
I’m writing this book in a friendly, conversational voice. I want to sound the way I would speak if we were chatting face-to-face. Encourage students to think of writing as chatting with someone. Use your talking voice but, instead of speaking aloud, write words. Sounding like yourself has a conversational effect. As you write, let your author’s voice shine. How do your words sound? Look at:
• tone: Is it friendly, formal, chatty, or distant?
• word choice: Do you use everyday words or high-brow language?
• sentence patterns: Are they varied, or do they repeat?
• personality: What do you show about yourself?
Teachers can demonstrate voice by reading aloud. Some picture books, like The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka, appeal to all grade levels and make good teaching tools for voice. In this hilarious twist on the original story, kids can identify the wolf ’s sarcastic and impassioned voice. After hearing several examples of strong voice, kids can practice it in their own writing.
Doctor De Soto is another excellent read-aloud to teach voice. As is usual for William Steig—who also wrote Shrek, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble and Abel’s Island—his tone is matter-of-fact. Sounding like himself was important to William Steig.
The following piece describes Martha Parravano’s experience reading Doctor De Soto to her daughters: “I found myself experimenting with different inflections and different voices each time I read the book (once even reading Doctor De Soto’s invitation to the fox to try his “remarkable preparation” in the sing-songy come-on voice of a carnival huckster). The all-too-human fox, with his wimpy aversion to pain (“‘Please!” the fox wailed. “Have mercy, I’m suffering!’”) and ridiculously short gratefulness span (“On his way home, he wondered if it would be shabby of him to eat the De Sotos when the job was done”) provided much comic relief and opportunity for exaggerated villainous voices.”(Parravano, 2010)