Saturday, April 04, 2009

Finding Their Voices

So a thread on a discussion over at the English Companion Ning got me thinking that I still didn't have any idea what I think 'voice' should mean as it refers to writing. This is another one of those terms that everyone seems to define somewhat differently. I've never really bothered with it.

I'm a little ashamed to admit it, but I think that's because my students struggle with making their writing comprehensible AT ALL. And I really do believe that voice is something that's developed simply through practice more so than by following example - in fact, I would argue that following examples is a way to HINDER voice. But at the same time, it makes me squirm to say that I don't try to explain it to my students because (1) I don't think I can do a good job of explaining it and (2) they aren't ready to tackle something so nebulous if they haven't mastered fairly straightforward ideas like, oh, I dunno, CAPITALIZATION AND END PUNCTUATION.

I just want to hide now. But instead, I'm going to open myself up to potential ridicule by attempting to explain something I don't fully understand.

I'm going to try to define by metaphor. Sort of. (At least this is online, so if you laugh at me, I'll never know.) So here we go:

Voice - mannerisms, habits, expressions that typify your writing, just as there is a certain accent and timbre that defines your physical voice.

Point of view - perspective; who's speaking; role? As a teacher, I tend to phrase things a certain way, whether I'm talking to students, co-workers, or parents. Certain topics get beaten like a dead horse (sometimes in Real Life you'll have to do things you don't want to do; consider this good practice) and others (sex/drugs/religion/politics) get sidestepped (beyond "make good choices!").

Format - informal (intimate) vs. formal (distant); situational. Saying 'yes, sir' to the principal and 'yeah, sure' to the students. (This idea probably has another term that goes with it, maybe? but I'm not sure what it is or how else to express it.)

Tone - 'attitude' conveyed, in the sense of 'don't you TAKE that kind of attitude with me, young man!' as one example. When my students make glaring grammatical errors as they speak I will interrupt them and feign surprised confusion until they rephrase correctly. My principal? Not so much.

Style - choosing to use writing techniques to achieve a particular desired effect; like choosing your clothes. As a teacher, this means phrases that can't be warped, like "no airborne objects" and nice catch-alls like "appropriate behavior at ALL TIMES, please." I would wear jeans every day if I could, because I think they say "Plan to work really stinking hard and be ready for anything!"

When we first get up in the morning, our voice sounds unfamiliar and awkward, because it hasn't been used in awhile. The more we hear someone talk, the easier it is to recognize that person's voice. I can't tell you how I know whose voice it is, though. I just... I know! (You know? *g*)

It's the same in writing. The more you read from an author who has developed his or her voice, the easier it is to recognize it. And the more you write to say what you need to, in whatever situation you find yourself, the more you'll develop your own voice.

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Mrs. Chili said...

"Voice" is one of those things that I don't think ANYONE can really explain well; either someone has it, or they don't (and even folks who have it sometimes lose it - it's a very slippery thing).

I say focus on the mechanics of making the piece comprehensible first. If you can't understand it, does it matter if it has "voice"? I think not; my contention is that "voice" is an integral part of the whole, and can't be separated out even if we knew exactly what it is...

CaliforniaTeacherGuy said...

I think you've done a darn good job trying to explain the unexplainable! (Pardon me, now, while I go develop my voice!)

CaliforniaTeacherGuy said...

The word verification for the comment I just left was "hatedish." Hmm. Wonder if it's sweet or bitter or best left untasted?

Melissa B. said...

Voice=writer's attitudinous approach to life and the written word. Or at least that's MY humble opinion...BTW, don't forget today's Sx3. Celebrating All Things Cherry Blossoms!

Eric Turner said...

Crawl, walk, run. I would rank "voice" as a "run" part. Which means if the student can't crawl or walk (i.e., fundamentals such as capitalization and punctuation as you write), then they certainly can't "run" with voice. I would not feel bad about it at all.

I see college and even graduate students who can't write to save their life and still have problems with writing a good paper. Now, THAT'S sad!

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