This is a good question, don’t you think? It’s the topic of an expansive discussion in my newest book–the 6th edition (yes, 6th) of Creating Writers, currently undergoing revision and scheduled for release soon.
Before answering the question directly, list all the things you can think of connected to voice. In other words, what creates voice? Your list will be more expansive than mine here–but just to give you an idea, I would include such things as honesty, individuality, humor, passion, engagement with the topic, audience awareness, and so on. You may think of many, many more. Voice is a BIG trait. It’s complex–more so than we often think.
Next step: Do what I suggest in the book. Make yourself a T-chart. On the left side, list those components of voice that perhaps cannot be taught directly, but can be encouraged. Encouraged how? Through comments–written or oral. Through coaching, especially in one-on-one conferences. And through creation of a nurturing environment that feels safe, one where students are confident sharing their writing aloud, knowing it will be well received. The kinds of things we encourage–even if we don’t teach them directly–include such things as honesty or individuality. We don’t have lessons on these things, but if we value them, look for them, comment on them, we’re more likely to be rewarded with these qualities in students’ work. And of course, we can model them in our own writing, and share literature that has these qualities, too.
On the righthand side, list those things that you feel can be taught directly. I can see you there, pencil poised, saying, “Hm. Nothing’s coming to me.” That’s because you’re forgetting something critical. A very wise person told me years ago, “Voice is the umbrella trait. Every other trait influences it.” Somehow, that simple realization opens the doors and lets all the light in. Of course! So . . . detail doesn’t just make ideas stronger–it influences voice, too. And that’s something we can teach directly. A strong lead (or conclusion) doesn’t just contribute to organization. It also strengthens voice. And we can teach that directly. Strong verbs? Good for word choice–also voice. Varied sentences? You’ve got the idea–fluency and voice both. What about conventions and presentation? Well, why stop now. Look at any text where inflection is clarified by good punctuation–dashes, ellipses, exclamation marks, even commas well placed. This influences how we read, and that’s voice. Little features of presentation like italics or FULL CAPS also affect voice, to say nothing of more noticeable features such as font selection, illustrations, or even placement of text on the page. Now that you’ve made that connection, that righthand column is filling up fast, I suspect. Also, voice seems less mysterious–and more important than we realized.
Some things–such as audience awareness–fall somewhat in the middle. We can surely teach students to be aware of readers. We can also provide opportunities for them to write to various audiences and to a broader audience, especially now in the 21st century when blogs, wikis, nings, and other social media are a way of life. But audience awareness is one of those things that grows over time and cannot be readily summed up even in a series of mini lessons. It is a vital part of voice, however.
So, can voice be taught? Yes, in many respects–yes, it can. Most definitely. But the things we teach directly are not enough. For voice is also the presence of the writer on the page. That presence cannot be taught, as we usually think of teaching, but it can be summoned, encouraged, fostered, modeled, valued, and honored. At its core, voice is who our students are. It is their very identity, nothing less. By noticing and encouraging voice, we applaud and respect their individuality and diversity. It is our way of saying, “I hear you. And thanks for sharing a little bit of yourself through your words.” Voice is a gift.