What High School Students Can Teach Us about Voice

creative non fiction writing, character voice, learning from teens, writing dialogue, narrator voice

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“Um. So I finished a draft, but I don’t think it’s very good.”

“Mmmm,” I nodded and continued to read.

“No, really, I just—“

“Oh, that is so great: I am a 5’8 scrawny, giggly, friendly girl; I don’t think I’m the ‘tough’ type. Great line!”

Amanda glowed.

Like many of the high school seniors that I am tutoring, Amanda might not be entirely sure where she wants to go college, or what’s the best format for her college essay, but she does have something that she is not even aware of: her own voice.

Somewhere in the middle of her rambling sentences, Amanda struck gold. When she needed words to describe herself, she came up with “scrawny:” a word choice that conveys a passionate edge and a scrappy underdog.

When she wrote I don’t think I’m the “tough” type, she chose one-syllable words that make a dramatic impact and used quotation marks to create a quiet sarcasm.

When I sit down with a high school student, I have two goals. The first is straightforward: I teach them a format and some tricks to create narrative non-fiction.

The second is more difficult but more rewarding. I read through the lines of their essay, shifting between what the student imagines a college might want to see and what I imagine they wrote to please me, and find what they wrote at an unguarded moment.

I read their essays and show them the parts that are little bits of genius, unique moments and sentences like the ones I quoted above that only one person in the world could have written: the author herself.

When it comes to developing a voice, I know I am not alone when I say the topic makes me wary. It all sounds so pretentious. Published authors have a developed voice, sure, but does that mean I should work on developing my own voice? Shouldn’t voice just be there? How could I possibly develop something that should be natural?

So, I turn to my favorite gurus, Strunk and White (The Elements of Style) and make a happy discovery: “The beginner should approach style warily.” My word exactly!

Strunk and White then go on to list 21 “suggestions and cautionary hints,” but I close the book. The truth is, I think voice is simpler than that.

I think of my high school students, even those who come to me with a self-professed loathing of writing, and how I always find those great moments in their prose.

I think the trick to creating voice isn’t following 21 suggestions and hints, but following our own hearts, becoming better editors and readers of our own work, always keeping our eye open for our own moments of greatness.

And, I think if we can offer our writing to communities like Write on Edge – so much better! Our peers often quote passages from our posts when they comment upon what worked for them and what didn’t, and the discovery of what our readers are drawn to in our prose is invaluable.

We’ve had our voices since we first put pen to paper. What we need are better ears and eyes to catch, highlight and pursue our own moments of genius.

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10 Responses to What High School Students Can Teach Us about Voice
  1. voice at write on edge |
    October 31, 2012 | 6:32 am

    [...] Guest-posting today over at Write on Edge! [...]

  2. Barbara @ de rebus
    October 31, 2012 | 6:56 am

    Great article!

    • barbara @ de rebus
      October 31, 2012 | 7:16 am

      This is so odd – I didn’t post that comment! It would be very strange for me to comment on my own piece like that!! Could an editor please delete? This happened last time too… it must be a confused relative of mine…

  3. Lea Helmerich
    October 31, 2012 | 9:19 am

    this is excellent advice! i’m afraid we are taught
    in school to ignore or edit out our voice. it takes
    some time to find it again.

    • Barbara
      October 31, 2012 | 1:30 pm

      Sad, but true isn’t it?! My tutorees can write great five paragraph essays, but when it comes to expressing their own thoughts and feelings, they lack the vocabulary!

  4. Diane Turner
    October 31, 2012 | 1:19 pm

    Wonderful piece. Thanks for sharing.

    • Barbara
      October 31, 2012 | 1:30 pm

      Thanks for reading, Diane!

  5. cait
    November 1, 2012 | 3:52 am

    That’s so encouraging. I really struggle with highlighting my *voice*. I know it’s there, but, like you said, sometimes I needed better ears and eyes to pick it up.

    • barbara @ de rebus
      November 1, 2012 | 4:22 am

      I hear you, cait – I think that’s why I love Write on Edge… it provides a whole community to chime in on what parts of my prose they like best. Instant feedback on what makes my writing / voice appealing!

  6. angela
    November 1, 2012 | 6:19 am

    This is an interesting post, because I really felt for a long time that my English B.A. stole my voice away. I could write a compelling academic paper and even have it sound interesting, but my fiction voice retreated a lot during those years. Recapturing it has meant losing some of what I was “trained” to do after high school.