Walk Before You Run

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I’m so glad I’m not an English teacher. There is a host of reasons why this is true, but primarily, I would be terrified and lost if I was required to teach ‘Voice’ in writing classes.

I was comfortable with writing in school. I was even one of those crazy students who sort of enjoyed the process, especially if I was allowed to choose the topic. I liked arguing a point in a paper (mostly because I just liked arguing), and those papers gave me the one chance to essentially have at it with my teacher. It put me on equal footing with them. I was no longer a student, or a child, but a writer, and I loved the power that it gave me.

But Voice always stumped me. Teachers spent hours trying to lecture on this subject, but I was never quite sure what they were getting at. Sometimes they would even write things like, ‘Great voice!’ on my paper. I then proceeded to stare at my paper, wondering what exactly gave it a good voice. I didn’t understand what my teacher was seeing, although somehow I knew how to produce it on paper.

The problem was, I had no idea what they were getting at. I always found Voice to be an archaic, vague subject, even though I was so comfortable with writing. I viewed it with about the same certainty and grasp that I do nuclear physics.

Now that I’m older, and I’ve been writing for so long, I feel like I have a decent grasp of what Voice is, but I’m astounded that they force teachers to spend years attempting to explain it. Voice is putting yourself on the page. It is the style, the length of sentences, the colloquialisms, and the rhythm of your writing all mixed together. It is the part of writing that makes it uniquely yours.

Unfortunately, teaching Voice conflicts directly with how we learn. When a child learns to speak, they learn it by imitating others. When we learn to play an instrument, we watch better players and peers in order to make the same sounds. In writing, we start by imitating others, whether that is by writing Fanfiction, or by simply copying the style of another writer. So when we ask children to write with Voice, they tend to write with the same styles and inflections as their favorite authors, or as the textbook. We can’t teach them Voice because they are still learning to write.

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Why do they force English teachers to cover something that is inherently impossible to teach? To me, you can’t teach a child to write with Voice. Some kids have it naturally, and others don’t. That being said, I do believe that Voice can be developed over time, but it can’t be forced into a young mind with lecture and exercises. It takes time, and it develops naturally with the practice of the skill of writing.

Take a 6th grade band. While adorkable, likely none of these students will be playing with ‘voice’, or as we generally refer to it in music, with ‘style’. They’re worried about hitting the right notes. They’re worried about playing in tune. Their fingers are too clumsy to fly through the notes just yet. I know, because I was there, and in spite of doing fairly well in band, I am still developing my style, musically. This mark of individualism doesn’t happen until years of playing have solidified the basics in the player’s mind and body. You can’t teach a saxophone player to play like Charlie Parker, or even as themselves, until they can actually play.

When people learn a new language, they only know how to speak the way they’ve been taught. They have a set pattern of speech that they use as an anchor to learn the rest of the language. Individualized turns of phrases and speech patterns don’t appear until the person has become comfortable with the language itself. It is a mark of fluency.

Writing is no different. You’ve got to walk before you can run. You need to work on the foundations of writing before you can develop a voice.

If this is true, then, I wonder why my teachers placed so much emphasis on Voice in school. Often they emphasized this vague subject at the cost of learning how to write a decent essay. Instead, they taught us the (woefully) inadequate template of Introduction, 3 Body Paragraphs, and a Conclusion. And yes, we were still covering this in a 12th grade English class at my high school.

Even more scary? A friend’s College professor requiring his class to write an essay with exactly five paragraphs, with no more than five sentences in each paragraph.

…Come again? What does that do for our writing? How does that help students write a stronger essay? And maybe he’s just reacting to a series of bad papers in his class, and trying to do something about it. But that’s equally scary.

Frankly, I feel that this time spent teaching Voice would be better spent teaching students to write a decent essay without adhering to the tired 3 paragraph essay template. But that’s not my job (thank goodness).

So, to the third graders of the world (none of which read my blog), don’t sweat Voice. It will come with time, and with hundreds of thousands of words.

In any case, I’m glad I’m not an English teacher. It’s a tough road to walk.

 What gives a writer Voice? Do you think this can be taught, or is it more of a natural thing? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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8 thoughts on “Walk Before You Run

  1. It also seems really pointless to try and teach Voice to students who don’t care about writing. I knew I would never be a writer. It wasn’t something that interested me. At least to me, having a Voice in writing seems like something that will be developed as someone writes because they want to write.
    To follow the band metaphor, you can try to teach a student to play with style all you want, but unless they care enough to work at it on their own and try to develop their own style, nothing is going to change.

  2. I really enjoyed reading your point of view on this subject. As a future English teacher, I am always observing classrooms and trying to come up with my own philosophies and strategies based on what I see.
    Voice is a difficult concept to teach, but the best way I have heard it described was this: “Write how you would speak. Try to write in such a way that I would know it is your paper without looking at the name.” After the assignment, she went over a few of the papers that showcased voice well. She covered the name, then after reading it, asked the students to guess whose paper it was. Then she discussed the qualities that gave it a good voice.
    From what I have seen so far, it seems some students really grasp the idea of voice even in seventh grade. Others struggle to pull a concise thought together.
    I agree with what Robert said. It seems to be the students that excel in writing with Voice are the students that really enjoy writing.

    1. Thanks! I’m so glad you enjoyed it. That activity sounds like a really good idea. I vaguely remember maybe one of my teachers in the 4th grade or so doing this, but I think I would have gotten even more from an activity like this when I was older and understood basic writing skills better. Thanks for commenting! =)

  3. I think voice can be taught, but mechanical writing skills HAVE to be taught. It’s a distinction that some school districts don’t seem to understand.

    Some writers have a lot of natural talent, but they misuse commas and leave participles dangling all over the place. Still, through the grammatical and spelling errors, you can see that their writing jumps off the page — their stories have riveting characters and strong narratives. Others have mistake-free writing, but it’s a chore to slog through it because it has no life.

    I think teaching voice is important, but not at the expense of other skills. Then again, I see quite a few writers who struggle with both (and they’re trying to make a career out of it).

    1. It was definitely a distinction that some of my teachers didn’t understand. But then again, they’re fighting a losing battle. I definitely agree with your two different writer scenarios. Thanks for commenting! =)

  4. Funny, I’ve never heard the term “voice” before, but that’s probably because in all my years of schooling, no one has actually TAUGHT me how to write. Nowadays, I feel, teachers are focusing on format and grammar: Does it have an introduction, body, conclusion? Is it written in MLA? APA? Did you use the semi-colon correctly? Creative writing has become secondary (at least in my experience), and sometimes I feel kids/adults in school are afraid to put their “voices” into their writing because they’re afraid of being too “informal” or revealing too much of themselves. At least, that’s what it’s like for me. 🙂 I think it’s a talent, though. You either have it, or you don’t, and even if you spend years exploring/developing, it still wouldn’t come “naturally,” if you know what I mean. It’s kind of like music: you’re either musically gifted, or not, but everyone can be trained. Even with training, someone who is not “naturally gifted” will take wayyy longer and struggle to find musicality. Luckily for you, your writing comes naturally, and is a pleasure to read. That’s not the case for everyone!! 😀

    1. It was big at my school. I think they even had a creative writing class, though I never took it. I think you’re definitely right about people being afraid of voice in recent times. I find myself slipping into my ‘what’s-appropriate-for-an-academic-paper-or-job’ voice quite a bit, and I have to watch myself. And thank you so much for that! I tend to be pretty self-critical, so I only see the flaws in my writing. I’m glad it’s fun to read. Thanks for commenting. =) (P.S.! I’m totally working with my mic more– it’s a blast! So hopefully I’ll get to post some kind of recording eventually. I feel like I should, since I enjoyed yours so much. =) )

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