Where does a writing voice come from?

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Can voice be taught? That is the question!

For weeks, I’ve been attempting to help my twelve-year-old son with his assigned middle-school writings. This has not been an easy endeavor. “He lacks voice.” So I’m told. Evidently, there’s a new writing buzzword in our local schools: voice. Students need to have their own unique, vibrant, and creative voice to engage their reader/teacher. This sounds great in concept, but in reality, is this an easy skill to teach? Let alone assess and grade based on a rubric checklist full of conforming standards?

In the past years, my son did an okay job writing, getting by with putting together complete sentences that were error-free. If he had a writing style before, it was (still is) sparse, reticent, and painfully to the point. He’s a quiet person. That’s his voice, too. Maybe to the teacher, the material seems obtuse and nowhere near engaging, but, alas, that is his own, unique writing voice.

In comparison, his slightly younger sister brought home papers exalted in praise of her “excellent voice.” She wrote a short homework assignment on pork last week effortlessly, while my son and I banged our heads together for over an hour trying to add “voice” to his assignment. In just a couple of paragraphs, my daughter had an energized commentary that was both funny and persuasively moving (enough so that I felt a pang of guilt for sneaking bacon into her soup the previous night). But that’s her personality too. It wasn’t taught, but rather, organically filtered into her writing.

So, I’ve been thinking about writing voice lately. Can I even articulate its meaning to my kids? What are the differences that might influence, or enhance voice? Regarding my children, I’ve observed the following:

  1. My daughter loves reading; my son does not.
  2. She does not fear (or care much) what others think of her, whereas my son does.
  3. They have totally different personalities!
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“I’d rather be hated for who I am, than loved for who I am not.”
― Kurt Cobain

Hmmm, number two intrigues me. Perhaps voice becomes most potent when we let go of the fear of saying something wrong. Speak with an authentic essence of self. But, again, how can that be taught? How can you teach someone to let go and be expressive without fear, especially young writers, and most especially, young writers that don’t really want to write?

I believe writing voice to be a fragile and subjective thing, that can’t quite be described, explained, or forced. My fear in schools objectively grading subjective material, like a student’s writing voice, is that eventually a paradox is created. One where being genuine to self and expressing a unique voice is graded against conforming, standardized criteria. Thoughts!?!

 

Side Notes:

  • My son rewrote his English paper three times, while I baited, hooked, and pulled personable responses out of him. The paper was finally accepted and highly scored—hopefully containing enough voice.
  • Not long after drafting this post, my first-grader brought home her first writing assignment of the year. The graded rubric scored her a 2/4 for writing voice. (Yes, you need voice in kindergarten and first grade nowadays). And that is perfectly okay, because I read it and graded the story with hugs and kisses to the moon and back.
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