Donald Graves called voice “the reason for the writing.” And Donald Murray once said, “Voice separates writing that is read from writing that is not read.” That is perhaps the best definition of voice ever. But–have you noticed? Voice is not receiving the attention it once had. We should pay attention to this–it’s important. Voice, after all, is the expression of self on the page. When we say–or even imply by our actions and by what we value–that voice doesn’t matter, we say in effect that the writer doesn’t matter. Only the writing itself, its substance and form, counts. Is that true? Think carefully before you respond because when voice is devalued, we take from our students the very thing most likely to ensure their success: motivation. We don’t write, primarily, to expand the wealth of data already threatening to engulf us. We don’t write to show how orderly our thoughts are. We write to make our voices heard–to stir readers’ souls, to inspire change. Of course, some people will argue that with the renewed emphasis on informational writing, voice is less critical. Such writing, they say, should be objective–whatever that means. This argument always makes me think of the wonderful and eloquent Tom Romano, who has never written a voiceless sentence in his informational writing life, and who said, “I reject the notion of the objective essay. In fact, I welcome informed, reasoned, and voiceful subjectivity. I love seeing one mind at work in the business of writing, one mind probing, reflecting, recounting, explaining, thinking” (Crafting Authentic Voice, 2004, 65). Voice breathes life into writing. Voice is what carries us along, makes us want to read more, makes us trust and identify with the writer . The best informational writing of our time is not cold, stark, and lifeless. It’s vibrant, electric, enticing. Check out the writing of David James Gordon, Bill Bryson, Diane Ackerman, Nicola Davies, Sy Montgomery, Sneed Collard, or Albert Marrin–just to name a small handful of well-known informational writers. They are continually thinking of their readers–of us. What will interest and enlighten and surprise us? It’s voice that makes us buy their books. What greater compliment can there be? It’s also said, of course, that voice is difficult to assess–it’s so objective, it isn’t fair to assess it, people tell me. Really? First of all, everything about writing is subjective. One person’s easy-to-follow is another’s organizational nightmare. One person’s savory detail is another’s cliche. Next time you take a look at the novel Cold Mountain, try to imagine it written by Ernest Hemingway. And if you think conventions aren’t subjective, you haven’t read anything by Lynne Truss lately. Moreover, we can’t give up on assessing something just because it’s complex. Most worthwhile endeavors, from cooking to acting to gymnastics to football are complex, but we assess performance in these areas all the time. We cannot give up on voice because it’s challenging to assess. So what if we cannot agree on which pieces are strongest in voice? We cannot even agree on whether to begin sentences with “And.” Maybe we’ve painted ourselves into an assessment corner by our insistence on agreement, especially with something as multi-layered as writing. Remember the words of Peter Elbow, who said that “One of the most trustworthy evaluations we can produce is a ‘mixed bag'” an evaluation made up of the verdicts or perceptions of two or more observers who may not agree” (Embracing Contraries, 1986, 223). Think how much we gain by keeping voice alive. There is little reason to write for someone who has no more interest in what you have to say than one might have in an encyclopedia article or a newspaper ad or a bus schedule. If we’re writing merely to exchange data, there are faster, easier methods than crafting paragraphs. On the other hand, though, there is every reason to write for someone who cannot wait to see what you have to say. Writers with a rapt audience try harder. They mull over phrases and get choosey about details. They spring surprises on the reader, and dare to share what they really feel or think. They create pieces worth reading, saving, remembering. Don’t we want that for our students? (Don’t we want it for ourselves, as readers?) Accurate, clear information, logical organization, and correct conventions are all important and worth attending to. They’re just not enough. In his essay “Reasons to Read,” Tom Romano says, “I want the writing of my students to be direct, accessible, and clear, capable of connecting emotionally and intellectually with readers. I want that for anyone who writes” (2004, 7). I want that, too. Think of the books you love, the speeches that have moved you, the poems you return to again and again, the writers you quote, the movie lines that live in your memory. Writers put those words in your head. Your students can do that. “We write,” James Baldwin said, “in order to change the world.” Precisely. That’s the goal we should aim for. To get there, we must treasure voice for the gift it is.
What happened to voice?