How much does voice matter?

It’s no secret that voice is my favorite among the six traits. It is, after all, the primary reason for writing, and one of two main reasons for reading—the other being to get information.

Donald Graves called voice the “driving force” of writing and the “imprint of ourselves” on the page. To value voice is to value individuality—and the reverse is equally true. The less we value it, the more we encourage young writers to sound like clones of one another. Do we want this? “To ignore voice,” Graves said, “is to present the [writing] process as a lifeless, mechanical act. Divorcing voice from process is like omitting salt from stew, love from sex, or sun from gardening” (Writing: Teachers and Children at Work, 1986, 227).

A world without seasoning, love, or sunshine sounds bleak indeed, but that is precisely the writing world we will inherit if we bleach voice from students’ writing—including informational writing and argument.

Wait, though. Are we doing that? In some cases, I believe we are, yes. And it could be, in part, because a superficial interpretation of the Common Core could lead us to conclude that voice doesn’t really matter, doesn’t even belong in some writing, that it’s excess frosting on an already well decorated cake. Let’s reconsider.

What voice looks like in the Common Core

First of all, let’s be honest. You won’t find the word “voice” anywhere in the Common Core standards for writing or language. But that doesn’t mean the concept isn’t there. There are many words to describe voice: style, tone, technique, and connection to the audience, among others. And each of these things is emphasized in the Common Core.

But why beat around the bush? Why don’t the Common Core standards simply call, directly and clearly, for students to “write with more voice”? Frankly, I wish they did. But I understand why this did not happen. I am sure the writers of the standards were very concerned about misinterpretation—and with good reason.

Everywhere I go, I ask teachers what they think of first when they hear the word voice. The number one answer, hands down, is personality. Now, make no mistake. I think personality is part of voice. This is why we can distinguish between Edgar Allan Poe and Jerry Seinfeld. But we can’t very well have a writing standard—something we require students to meet—that states in effect,

  • Students will write with vivid and captivating personality.

We can wish for that—but we can’t demand it (except when we go to the bookstore, of course). Standards aren’t, after all, lists of wishes. They’re lists of requirements. It’s one thing to require clear expression, and quite another to demand that students mesmerize us. A standard calling for voice might seem to do precisely that, even if that were not the intent.

On the other hand, voice is more—much more—than personality. Once we define it more thoroughly and expansively, we recognize that much of what is required in the Common Core contributes to voice in a very big way.

More than personality

Every single one of the following things contributes directly to voice (in all genres, not just narrative or memoir)—and every one, I would argue, is worth teaching or encouraging if we want students to write prose worth reading (or one day, publishing):

  • Honesty (CC requirement for appropriate tone)
  • Curiosity about the topic (CC requirement for good research)
  • Confidence about one’s knowledge of the topic (Ditto)
  • An eye for detail (CC requirement for effective use of detail)
  • Capability to select the most intriguing details available (Ditto)
  • Conciseness (CC requirement for clear, effective word choice)
  • Avoidance of repetition (Ditto)
  • Avoidance of qualifying language—e.g.,In some cases, certain observers noted, it seemed almost likely that the plan might one day come close to working (Ditto)
  • Willingness to conduct conscientious and probing research (CC requirement for good research)
  • Continual effort to reach readers (CC requirement for effective technique)
  • An outstanding lead that brings readers in (CC requirement for strong leads)
  • A thoughtful conclusion that wraps up a story or discussion (CC requirement for a good conclusion)

When I read Bill Bryson’s book In a Sunburned Country, I don’t find myself saying, “Wow—some personality!” No. Instead, I say to myself, “Here’s a guy who really knows a lot about Australia—and talk about research. He took time to dig up details that matter—and he held my attention from page one right through to the end.” Just imagine reading informational reports or arguments from your students and feeling blown away by each writer’s knowledge and enthusiasm for the topic. Imagine reading a report you could not put down. We can feel like that all the time if we expand our definition of voice, and teach the things that contribute to voice: e.g., the things on the bulleted list (all of which are linked to the Common Core).

So—when it’s said that voice is nowhere to be found in the Common Core, I respectfully disagree. Elements that contribute to voice (such as detail, knowledge, clarity, strong leads or conclusions) abound in the Common Core. And then, there’s that stuff about tone and style . . .

DIRECT Common Core Connections to Voice:

Style, Tone, Technique, and Ability to Reach the Audience

Have a quick look at the Common Core standards for writing (www.commoncore.org). Standard 1 calls for argument that establishes and maintains a “formal style.” Standard 2 calls for the same with respect to informational writing. Standard 3 asks that narrative be written with an “effective technique.”

By grades 11 and 12, these standards have expanded ever so slightly to require both argument and informational reports that “establish and maintain an objective style and formal tone.” Standard 4, which addresses narrative, calls for “clear and coherent writing in which development, organization, and style are appropriate to the task, purpose and audience.”

Style and tone are not precisely the same as voice, though they are related. Still, we need to be careful how we interpret words like “tone.” The word tone, according to the dictionary, means tenor, manner, or attitude. A formal tone conveys a certain respect for both topic and purpose—which, in the case of informational writing or argument, is to convey information clearly and without bias. Formal can mean proper, appropriate, or even reserved; note, however, that it does not have to imply dull, lifeless, tedious, or sleep-inducing.

Style, by dictionary definition, is much more expansive. It means approach or technique. So while tone refers to the sound of the writing, style encompasses all the ways a writer crafts words to ensure that the message he or she intends to get across is both understandable and engaging enough to keep the reader reading.

Technique essentially means method (or skill), so a writer’s technique for making narrative compelling could most certainly involve voice—together with a captivating plot, unforgettable characters, and settings that draw us into the time and place of the story.

How about the word objective? Here’s where things get tricky—and where, I think, we must be very careful not to misguide our students. The word objective, according to the dictionary, can mean—among other things—impartial, unbiased, or detached. The words impartial and unbiased have a very positive connotation that suggests we can trust the writer not to unfairly impose his or her personal biases on any information, thereby distorting truth or reality. So far so good. The word detached suggests something else altogether.

Detached means aloof, indifferent, unemotional, uninvolved, or distant. This kind of writing is, in fact, fully appropriate in some contexts: e.g., for legal contracts or briefs; purely informational documents such as dictionaries or encyclopedias; medical journals; scientific summaries or reports; how-to brochures on filing taxes or preparing wills and trusts; police reports; certain technical documents, and so on. People read such documents because, like a medical student cramming for an exam or a meteorologist predicting a storm, they have a pressing need for raw information in its most unadorned form.

Other documents, however, are designed to make information accessible to a general audience that is not driven by such a need—and will not keep reading without a compelling reason. Writing of this sort would include histories, memoirs, journalistic reports, editorials, reviews, nonfiction books of all sorts, signage for museums or other similar venues, documentary scripts, travel literature, and many similar writings you can think of from your own life experience.

To suggest that all informational writing or all persuasive writing is alike is absurd. And so, we need to teach our students to identify not just the broad umbrella genre—e.g., informational writing—but the smaller, purpose-and-audience-specific genre, e.g., textbook, informational flyer, film review, jury summons. That way, it will be far easier to achieve the right voice—or if you prefer, tone, style, and technique.

Using Literature to Teach Informational Voice

There is NO better way to teach voice in informational or persuasive writing than through literature. To teach writing in which voice is deliberately suppressed (so that the message is dominant and free of distractions), we need to share judicial, medical, scientific, statistical or technical documents.

When teaching informational writing directed at a general audience (as opposed to specialists), our choices have to hit the right note of formality—respectful and reserved—without being dry, dull, or dispassionate.  In their own writing, we want students to—

  • Care about their topics
  • Write in a way that convinces readers to care, too

Otherwise, what on earth is the point? Here are some suggested titles we think you’ll find useful in helping students hit the right informational note.

 

Hitting the Right Note (3 of Vicki’s Favorites)

1. In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson. 2000. New York: Broadway Books. Nonfiction history, travel, and memoir—with significant infusion of science and geography. Written for adults, but selected passages are appropriate for sharing with all ages.

 Summary

I chose Bryson’s book for several reasons—it’s a book I loved enough to read more than once (and then I purchased the CD so I could hear Bill read it, too); I’ve carried it with me to workshops for 12 years and my passionate reviews have, I’m confident, sold hundreds of copies to teachers at all levels; this is a book that defies narrow labeling, brilliantly combining numerous sub-genres; and finally, the book is thoroughly researched, impeccably meeting and surpassing every research-related standard of the Common Core.

Read the whole book on your own first, but keep a pencil (or yellow highlighter) in hand because you’ll find many passages to mark for rereading—or to share with students. You won’t want to share everything (this is a book for adults), but look for carefully chosen details about topics we might not explore on our own. The language is lively (precise, sometimes sharply comic) but never simplistic. Bryson can go from witty or descriptive to technical in the blink of an eye. What’s especially remarkable about this book is that we learn something new on virtually every page—and isn’t that the ultimate purpose of good informational writing? Here’s a passage that brims with energy, while definitely treating us to more than just a list of facts. Notice how the details combine to make a point:

Eighty percent of all that lives in Australia, plant and animal, exists nowhere else. More than this, it exists in an abundance that seems incompatible with the harshness of the environment. Australia is the driest, flattest, hottest, most desiccated, infertile, and climatically aggressive of all the inhabited continents. (Only Antarctica is more hostile to life.) This is a place so inert that even the soil is, technically speaking, a fossil. And yet it teems with life in numbers uncounted. For insects alone, scientists haven’t the faintest idea whether the total number of species is 100,000 or twice that. As many as a third of those species remain entirely unknown to science (page 7).

 

2. Oh, Rats! The Story of Rats and People by Albert Marrin. 2006. New York: Dutton Children’s Books. Nonfiction history and zoology. Written for upper elementary through middle school, but selected passages may be shared with students of all ages.

 Summary

Often, I’ll introduce this book to teachers by calling it “a research paper so good it got published.” I say this not only because it’s true (Marrin’s research is incredible in all of his books), but also because I hope to erase the line between student writing and literature. How different might our instruction (or indeed our standards) be if that line did not exist?

His introduction, called “The Rat and I,” tells the story of Marrin’s first encounter with a rat (at age 7)—and the terror that sent him racing over wet cement and into his father’s waiting arms. His calm father advised learning about rats to dispel his fear—and so began years of research that led to a book. Your students may enjoy writing similar introductions that show why they chose their particular topics.

Marrin’s presentation is straightforward and factual, but it’s continually enlivened by his knack for tracking down details we love hearing about. One of my tests for the efficacy of any informational piece is how much I can recall days—or even weeks—after reading. Here is one passage I’ll think of for some time to come:

A rat can collapse its skeleton, allowing it to wriggle through a hole as narrow as three-quarters of an inch. An adult rat’s jaws are hundreds of times more powerful than a person’s. Large muscles allow it to bite down with a force of 7,000 pounds per square inch, about the same force as a crocodile’s jaws (page 10).

You can bet money that I wouldn’t have researched rats on my own. Upon discovering Marrin’s book, I learned how much I’d been missing.

 

3. What’s Eating You? Parasites—The Inside Story by Nicola Davies. 2007. Somerville: Candlewick Press. Nonfiction zoology. All ages—simple enough for upper elementary, but appealing even to adults, thanks in part to Neal Layton’s zany illustrations.

 Summary

Nicola Davies’ books are irresistible because (1) she tells us things we didn’t know before, and (2) she explains things so clearly that readers feel like experts. And if you were looking for a recipe for informational voice, those two points would give it to you—almost. Add a dash of unabridged enthusiasm because Davies has an “Imagine that!” tone that is highly infectious. You can probably think of informational texts you would not dream of reading aloud; with this one, you won’t be able to wait.

Davies’ language is so stunningly clear and straightforward that it’s easy to underestimate just how much information she is sharing. Her talent for making the complex simple gives all readers—even the less skilled—immediate access to information, as in this passage about tapeworms:

Tapeworms can live in your intestine and grow to 60 feet long! Their bodies are shaped like a tape measure and are made of hundreds of little flattened segments. Instead of a head, they have a thing called a scolex, a knob with a series of hooks and suckers on it that holds on to the inside of the intestine. They don’t have eyes because there’s no light to see with inside an intestine, and they don’t have legs because they don’t go anywhere (page 27).

Creates quite a picture, doesn’t it? Think you’ll remember it tomorrow? Well, there you go.

Lessons Learned

From Davies, Marrin, and Bryson we learn these lessons about achieving informational voice:

  • Choose a topic you love
  • Do your research
  • Don’t be afraid to get excited over a special detail
  • Teach the reader something new
  • Don’t tell everything—tell what’s unforgettable
  • Don’t just list facts—make a point
  • Write clearly enough to reach even beginning readers
  • Create pictures in readers’ minds

 

Hitting the Right Note (3 of Jeff’s Favorites) 

1.  The Freedom Business: Including A Narrative of the Life & Adventures of Venture, a Native of Africa Poems by Marilyn Nelson. Art by Deborah Dancy. 2008. Honesdale, PA: Wordsong. Nonfiction, true autobiographical narrative, with accompanying poems. Appropriate for grade 6 to adult audiences.

Summary

Many of you may be familiar with Marilyn Nelson’s writing, in particular her award winning book, Carver: A life in Poems, a collection of poetry and photographs focused on the life of George Washington Carver. In The Freedom Business, Marilyn again uses original poetry, to add an extra layer of texture, richness, and insight to the life and voice of her subject, Venture Smith. A portion of his 1798, self-written life narrative, is included in this volume. It provides both the original voice and inspiration to Marilyn Nelson’s poetry, which appears side-by-side with the excerpts from Mr. Smith’s narrative. The watercolor and ink washes/collages of Deborah Dancy are not merely adornments to each page. The art provides a sepia-toned landscape to Venture’s story and are evocative of the symbols and themes of his life—slavery, chains, relentless work, disappointment, patience, and even joy.

Mr. Smith, born Prince Broteer Furro in Guinea around 1729, was taken from his home country by slave traders when he was only six years old. His narrative begins in Africa, highlighting early moments of his life with family, continues on his voyage across the Atlantic to Rhode Island where he is bought and sold several times, and ends with him a free man, with land and property. The voice of Venture’s narrative, written in 18th century language, seems almost passive and stoic as he describes the realities of his life as a slave, yet every moment rings with authenticity. In this passage, Venture has a run-in with his master’s son.

For my master having set me off my business to perform that day and then left me to perform it, his son came up to me in the course of the day, big with authority, and  commanded me very arrogantly to quit my present business and go directly about what he should order me…He then broke out into a great rage, snatched a pitchfork and went to lay me over the head therewith; but I as soon got another and defended myself with it, or otherwise be might have murdered me in his outrage. (page 34)

Marilyn Nelson’s poem, Two Masters (ca 1750), written as Venture in the first person, invites readers into this same moment and provides further insight into Venture the slave and 18th century man, and his conflict with his master’s son.

…One morning, Master had given me a task and gone

     away for the day. Swaggering with confidence,

     his peach-cheeked son gave me a contrary order.

     I told him I’d promised to complete a job for my master.

     I had no right to refuse his enterprise

     he yelled, in his eyes no spark of charity.

 

     He snatched a pitchfork. I weighed fight against faith

     for one moment, then snatched the other one.

     We faced off like devils going about their business,

     he big with arrogance, claiming authority… (page 37)

 

Venture’s own narrative voice and the voice of Venture that comes alive through Nelson’s poetry, blend together beautifully, bringing to readers a greater understanding and important historical perspective. Primary source material coupled with poetry—very exciting! Teachers may see this as a model for an alternative to the traditional history report. And this may be just the ticket (as Vicki outlined above) to help students:

  • Care about their topics
  • Write in a way that convinces readers to care, too

Interested, engaged, passionate writers and readers—imagine that!

 

2. Through Time: London—From Roman Capital to Olympic City by Richard Platt. 2009. Illustrated by Manuela Cappon. New York: Kingfisher. Nonfiction history, reference. Grades 4-adult.

Summary

I’m a big fan of Richard Platt’s work, especially Castle Diary: The Journal of Tobias Burgess, Roman Diary: The Journal of Iliona of Mytilini: Captured and Sold as a Slave in Rome—AD 107, and Pirate Diary: The Journal of Jake Carpenter. These three are excellent examples of a writer using “the power of extensive research coupled with the capability to select the most intriguing details availableto create voices that inspire readers to keep reading.” Simply? Platt’s voice invites you in and keeps you reading.

In Through Time: London—From Roman Capital to Olympic City, Richard Platt gives readers an informational and visual trip across time, tracing London’s history from Neolithic times to the present as the city gears itself for the 2012 Summer Olympics. The book is really an ultra-detailed timeline, following the development of one geographic location, one city—London, England—its people, culture, architecture, and government—as it grew and changed over thousands of years. Richard Platt and illustrator Manuela Cappon have filled this book with fascinating text, rich detailed artwork with captions/labels, a valuable glossary, and helpful index. At first glance this book may appear to be the kind that readers will experience by browsing—it’s so full of information—but all you have to do is stop and read the text on one page, and you will be convinced to carefully read all that each page has to offer. Remember Vicki’s list of all the elements of writing that contribute to voice? Here are four that directly apply to this book:

  • Willingness to conduct conscientious and probing research (CC requirement for good research)
  • Continual effort to reach readers (CC requirement for effective technique)
  • An outstanding lead that brings readers in (CC requirement for strong leads)
  • A thoughtful conclusion that wraps up a story or discussion (CC requirement for a good conclusion)

Each page begins with an inviting lead sentence, and closes out with the kind of wrap-up that brings readers right back to the writer’s focus. Here are a couple examples of leads and wrap-ups:

The Great Fire, A.D. 1666 (page 27)

First sentence:

Hot and crackling, yellow tongues of flame lick from the windows of a bakery on Pudding Lane.

Last sentence:

But even before the ashes are cold, London’s leaders are planning a new city.

Neolithic Camp, 3500 B.C. (page 6)

First sentence:

On a low, muddy bank in the middle of the shallow, winding River Thames, stealthy hunters hurl stone-tipped spears at a group of plump geese.

Last sentence:

Some will settle here for good, marking the beginning of the place we now call “London.”

In between these openings and closings are, of course, sentences and paragraphs that expand on the important information relative to the specific time period. (This book is not only a great resource for leads and wrap-ups, it abounds with terrific examples of transition sentences that bridge each paragraph.) Completing each page are the detailed illustrations of the location from a bird’s-eye view, allowing readers to follow the development of London from camp to bustling modern city. These captioned illustrations/diagrams/insets/cross-sections are as important as the text in creating and maintaining the writer’s voice. Each works in concert with the other to both intrigue and inform readers.

One other aspect of this book should not be overlooked—it is a great example of the presentation part of the trait of Conventions and Presentation. The inclusion of timelines, a glossary, and the blend of art and text, will offer students a model of what can be done beyond the encyclopedic text that students are often encouraged to produce in wooden, fill-in-the-blank science and social science “research reports.”

 

 3.  Spirit Seeker: John Coltrane’s Musical Journey by Gary Golio. Paintings by Rudy Gutierrez. 2012. Boston: Clarion Books. Non-fiction/biography, picture book. Grades 4—adult.

 Summary

If you are a Sixtraitgurus regular, you may recall (Check the archives—April 2012) that I wrote about Gary Golio’s amazing book, Jimi: Sounds Like a Rainbow; A Story of the young Jimi Hendrix.  Like Jimi Hendrix was to rock music and the electric guitar, John Coltrane was to jazz and the tenor saxophone. Each pushed their instruments and genres to the extreme, before shattering musical boundaries and inspiring musicians with their vision and particular genius. And also like Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane’s life ended prematurely, and most likely from his drug and alcohol abuse as a younger man.

Author Golio never shies away from this aspect of Coltrane’s life but places it in the proper context of the special lure of drugs to musicians looking to ease the pressures of performing, touring, and searching for their creative muse in an ever changing, cut-throat business. Gary Golio is not only an author of acclaimed books, he is a social worker and licensed therapist who counsels young people on drug/alcohol addiction issues. As a reader, his sensitivity to the world of addiction is apparent in the respectful voice he finds for telling the stories of his subjects.

As Vicki framed it earlier, Gary hits the right note of formality with his book about John Coltrane. The book is a biography, homage, and cautionary tale wrapped up in one. He honors his subject by telling the truth, while clearly caring about John Coltrane and his music.

Moving back to Mama’s house in Philadelphia, John saw his world come to a sudden stop. His body was sick, and his pockets were empty.

     Now he had to choose, between the dead end of drugs or a life rich with music.

     Waking one morning, John remember his grandfather’s words—the promise of Spirit, and of healing. He asked Mama and Naima for help.

     With nothing to eat and only water to drink, he stayed alone in his room, resting and praying, as the drugs slowly left his body. It was painful, but John felt that he was being cleansed—made new again.

     When he came out, a few days later, he was free. (Page 25)

 

As I suggested in my review of Jimi: Sounds Like a Rainbow, without an accompanying CD of John Coltrane’s music, how will the uninitiated reader capture a sense of John Coltrane’s pioneering jazz sound? And again, my answer brings readers back to the art that flows across each page. Rudy Gutierrez’s inspired, spirit-filled art—acrylic, ink, pencil, mixed media—provides the right note of lightness or darkness appropriate to each moment in Coltrane’s life. The images are bold, subdued, geometric then organic, reflecting the improvisational spirit of bebop and the blend of sounds and styles that filled Coltrane’s head and heart. They are as essential to the reader’s experience as the author’s voice, created through well-researched, careful selection of details and his passion for his topic.

(Gary does highlight a couple of John Coltrane’s important recordings—Giant Steps and A Love Supreme. Even if you say you are not a jazz lover, finding and listening to even a portion of both will be the last bricks in building your understanding and appreciation for John Coltrane. The voice of John Coltrane as created by Gary Golio in Spirit Seeker: John Coltrane’s Musical Journey and the voice of Coltrane’s saxophone—the perfect combo!)

Lessons Learned

The lessons learned from authors Smith/Nelson, Platt, and Golio about achieving informational voice are similar to the lessons Vicki highlighted from the authors she selected, but I will add just a couple more (with an important tip of the cap to Mary Pipher, who described voice in Writing to Change the World as “This offering of the library of self”):

  • Do your research and open wide the “library of self”
  • Don’t be afraid to go beyond the limits of the traditional “report”
  • Teach yourself something new, then teach it to your reader
  • Voice can be enhanced by exciting, appropriate Presentation

 

A Closing Thought: What motivates students to write?

In Writers: Teachers and Children at Work (1986, 244), Donald Graves offers this reflective comment:

Schools forget the source of power in children’s writing. The school experience can cut down egos or remove voice from the writing, and the person from the print, until there is no driving force left in the selection. We then hear the familiar questions, “How can we motivate them into writing? How can we get them to write?”

Coming up on Gurus . . .

We’ll explore the connections between the Common Core and the trait of Word Choice, taking a close look at literature you can use to teach use of strong verbs, clear language, descriptive detail, and sensory language—all elements of both the Common Core and six-trait writing. Thanks for stopping by, and please visit us again. Remember, for the BEST in workshops that combine standards, traits, process, and workshop, phone 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.

 

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