What is it?

Voice is passion, energy, zest, commitment, confidence, individuality–and more. Peter Elbow (in Writing with Power, p. 299) says that “writing with voice is writing into which someone has breathed.” He adds that such writing “has the power to make you understand and pay attention.” Voice, in other words, is the something that keeps you reading, the quality that makes you care about the message. Writing with voice stands out from other writing. It speaks to you, sometimes remaining in your heart and mind forever.

To the extent that voice is an extension of personality–and this is certainly part of it–we might say that it can’t be helped. It just spills out. Some people are humorous or outspoken by nature, and those qualities emerge in their writing. But voice is also audience awareness. Think about it. Don’t you know people who converse, really, as if no one were listening? They don’t read body language or facial expressions, they don’t let anyone else in. On and on they go. Some people write that same way. But people who write–or converse–with voice behave entirely differently. They tune in, look deep into your eyes, “read” you continually, and make constant adjustments based on whether you’re getting it, loving it. So as much as anything, voice is sensitivity, concern, thoughtfulness. No wonder voice is such a gift to readers. And as writers, we can–all of us, not just the comics in the crowd–develop acute awareness of our readers, their likes and dislikes, their fears or concerns, their wishes, their interests. Once we develop this awareness, we write right to readers, almost as if they were there in the room with us, and the result? Voice.

Does voice matter?

Incredibly. Writing that lacks any voice at all is dull, spiritless, nearly impossible to force yourself through. It’s psyllium fiber with nary a drop of water. Voiceless writing is rarely appreciated, published, remembered, recommended, or loved. So then, why isn’t the word VOICE on posters everywhere? Why isn’t a call for more voice in our students’ writing screaming at us from the Common Core Standards? This is a very important question. Because these days, if something isn’t emphasized in the Standards, people don’t want to spend time on it. But not everything that’s important can be captured in standards. That isn’t the job of the standards. It’s the job of the standards to define the essentials of writing success, the things we cannot do without, the things we have a right to expect of ourselves and our students.

Remember your old logic class? If A, then B. If it’s in the Standards (A), it’s important (B). That’s probably true. That doesn’t mean you can turn it around: if B, then A. No–not necessarily. In other words, just because it’s important (B), that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be found in the Standards.

Some things that are special cannot be required or demanded–especially not of everyone. Think about the books that have been your own favorites. Why did you love them? When you told someone about them, what did you say? Chances are, you did not say that the main idea was clear and well developed. You probably did not say that the organization was easy to follow or that the writer used transitional words in a way that helped you link ideas. That doesn’t mean these things weren’t true–or that they weren’t important. Of course they were. But such things define the basic underpinnings of good writing. They are foundational. Writers with clear, developed ideas write in a functional way. Functional is good as a starting point, but it’s not what dreams are made of. We don’t want to get ourselves confused and think we’re aiming for the stars when we’re shooting for functional.

What you probably did say about those books you loved likely had something to do with voice. Maybe you said a particular book touched you, took you back to an experience of your own, made you laugh or cry, lived in your head for days. Maybe you said you couldn’t put it down, you couldn’t turn the pages fast enough. Or you bought a copy for a friend. If you’ve ever said any of those things about a book or any piece of writing, you’re a fan of voice.

And by the way, one aspect of voice is noted in the Common Core Standards, loud and clear–and that aspect is audience awareness. We cannot very well demand of students that they write (routinely) things that touch us, papers we cannot bear to put down or want to copy for friends. (Doesn’t mean we don’t wish for such writing.) But we can ask them to define their audience, to think about their age, experience, knowledge of the topic at hand, interests, informational needs, and so on.

How do we teach it?

Some things about voice cannot be taught directly–only encouraged. Some people, for instance, are naturally funny or disarmingly honest or insightful. Such qualities tend to translate into strong voice. We can’t have lessons in honesty and humor, or courage and insight, of course, but we encourage such qualities if we talk about them in a positive way, comment on them when we see them in students’ work, and read aloud from literature that reflects those qualities.

Reading aloud is perhaps the BEST way to teach students what voice is, to show that we appreciate it, and to provide models of how other writers have achieved voice. Those books you thought of a moment ago–the ones that touched you most? Read from those. I have countless favorites–here are just a handful:

  • Matilda and Boy by Roald Dahl
  • The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
  • Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand
  • Extreme Animals and What’s Eating You? by Nicola Davies
  • China Boy by Gus Lee 
  • The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt
  • Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
  • Wild Thoughts from Wild Places by David Quammen
  • Sing a Song of Tuna Fish by Esme Raji Codell
  • The Animal Dialogues by Craig Childs
  • Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

I could easily list 50 more–but this list provides some sense of the variety among books with voice. They come from no one particular genre and are directed at no particular age group. They’re fiction and nonfiction, comical and wholly serious, written for pre-schoolers and for mature adults. But they all have one thing in common: they are enormously fun to read aloud, and engaging to listen to.

Here’s another tip: Write letters. The audience is immediate and built in. Nothing builds audience awareness faster than letter writing–especially when the letters are written to various audiences for various purposes.

Model. Show your writers how you put voice into your own writing. Start with a flat piece like this: I had a fun time at the beach. Show how to add voice by weaving in one specific detail: I couldn’t stop wondering whether that man with the sunburned back made it home in one piece.

Remember that voice isn’t just one thing–it’s many things. It comprises precise word choice, detail, well-crafted sentences. All these things contribute to voice. So when you teach students to write with detail, or use strong verbs, or craft sentences in unusual interesting ways, you are teaching voice. Voice is an umbrella quality that spans many nuances of writing.

Voice is also about saying what’s on your mind. A teacher friend of mine tells her students, “Say it like you mean it.” Do that. Don’t write, You might consider becoming a vegetarian. Instead, write something like, If you cannot bear to kill your own pigs and chickens, you should stick to mustard greens and Brussels sprouts. (If you’re NOT a vegetarian, you can come up with your own version–from a different perspective. Just mean what you say.)

And never forget the importance of having students find their own personally important topics. It’s very hard to get excited about someone else’s topic. Sometimes, you need to do that–that’s life. But it’s almost never easy. And there’s nothing like finding your own question to answer, digging up details no one else ever heard of–and sharing them in a voice that says, “Listen to this!”

Final thought . . .

Teaching (or coaching or encouraging) voice is important for another reason–and this is almost sacred. It shows respect for the individual, for his or her spirit, culture, ethnicity, and values. Almost everything else we teach in writing homogenizes students. Conventions are standardized, after all. And we are obsessed with main ideas, supporting details, transitional words (which we can list, and often do), paragraphs that have three points and do not wander from the topic, and so much more. When everyone writes with these criteria in mind, their writing begins to sound more or less alike. We decry formula, but the truth is, if we really were serious about eluding formula, we’d encourage every drop of voice our students would award us. Voice is the quality, more than any other, that makes their writing distinctive–even unique. To shut down voice is to shut down the writer. In Writing to Change the World (p. 42) Mary Pipher says, “Voice is everything that we are, all that we have observed, the emotional chords that are uniquely ours . . . ” Precisely. Voice is the most important reason we read–and so, the most important reason we write.


If you’d like to read more about voice, let me recommend two resources (only one of which is mine): The 9 rights of Every Writer by Vicki Spandel (the final chapter is devoted to voice, but I discuss voice throughout); and Crafting Authentic Voice by Tom Romano. Tom writes in a straightforward, highly engaging manner about a topic that is clearly dear to his heart. His is one of my favorite resource books of all time, and my copy bears the highlights and sticky notes to prove it.  

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Watch for the second part of Jeff’s essay on the “Rabbit Hole”–coming up with writing ideas. And coming up soon, we’ll review George Hillocks’ new book Teaching Argument Writing. Please visit us often . . . Give every child a voice. For the BEST in trait-based PD, with plenty of emphasis on voice, contact us at 503-579-3034.