I taught fourth grade for seven years before moving up to the emotional instabilities (and prepubescent smells) of middle schoolers. My first fourth grade class was dynamite. It was filled with smarty pants and brimming with intuitive readers. They challenged me daily. But hey, I was new to this thing called teaching, so what did I know?
Whenever they put me
on the spot, which was almost daily, the only thought I had was how many days
until Winter Break?
One day, I taught a
lesson on voice. I defined it (in fourth grade terms) as “the way or style you
write” and modeled examples of different voices in children’s literature. I
started with E.B. White. No brainer, right? I threw the most famous passage
from Charlotte’s Web (you can find that passage here) on the overhead and read
it aloud. Then I said to the class, “What do you notice about his voice?”
overhead is on; lights are off)
Another sneeze. (same
Sneezer as before)
Me: Squinting through
the dust particles floating above the overhead, trying to find a raised hand.
How many days until
I said it again, this
time a little louder. “What do you notice about his voice?”
A boy’s arm began to
rise, delicately, like he was a marionette being controlled from above. This
boy was unsure, I was sure of that. But maybe he had something valuable to
contribute to our phantom discussion. After all, he was one of the smarty
I called on him.
He said, “I thought
E.B. White was a girl?”
I swallowed. Here was
my big chance. It was my turn to shine. My turn to put the smarty pants on the
spot. My turn to be the brain, the IT, the Central Central Intelligence of my
own classroom. For once, I was going to tell these kiddos something they didn’t
But another thought, a
more teacherly thought, came to me. I said, “How many of you think this passage
sounds like a girl?” Over half the class. “How many of you think it sounds like
a boy?” A few hands.
I told them about E.B.
White. I even held up a copy of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style. I
had a tight grip on these kids, had them by their brains. I was teaching and
proud of it.
Then, the same boy,
the one who raised his arm like a marionette, came to me after class. He asked
if he could talk to me privately. The class went to recess, and we stood
outside the trailer (yes, trailer!) on the ramp. This, I was hoping, would
satisfy his need for privacy.
He crossed his arms,
looked me dead in the eye, and said, “My writing voice sounds like a woman.”
Voice. It is paramount
when writing for kids. If your main character or narrator sounds like an
adult--to put it to you honestly--you’re screwed. Your reader will put down
your book after chapter one, if he/she makes it that far, and never pick up
your pages again. Your book will be left on the shelf forever. Spineless.
To clear up any
confusion, there is a difference in sounding like an “adult” and sounding like
“you.” The words that originate in your brain--the ones that travel down your
arms into your fingertips and fall out on the page--those words are YOURS, and
they make-up your VOICE. But if you’re writing a story that is told by a 12
year-old girl, that voice had better resemble a 12 year-old girl’s.
I’ve been to countless
writing workshops and conferences. I’ve taken writing classes, taught writing
classes, and even taught other people how to teach writing classes (if such a
feat is possible).
A couple of years ago,
at SCBWI in New York, I sat in on a workshop devoted to voice. An editor hosted
the workshop. She had a stack of books next to her. She picked up one book at a
time and read from the first page. She was giving stellar examples of various
voices, and she was doing a fine job of it. But the crowd wasn’t satisfied. The
workshop attendees wanted a clearer picture painted for them.
One gentleman stood up
and said to the editor, “I’m confused. You’ve read all these examples, but you
haven’t really said what voice is? So what is it?”
The editor tried to
define it, but she never fully satisfied the room. I was hoping she’d turn the
lights down, wheel out an overhead, throw an E.B. White passage down, and say,
“How many of you think a girl wrote this?”
I now teach seventh
and eighth graders. If you think that room full of adults was tough, try
explaining writing voice to pre-teens. Talk about stink eyes. Over the years,
I’ve come up with my own definition of voice. One can only endure so much stink
eye. Here is my take:
Voice is the style,
personality, and method by which a writer tells a story. It's the way a writer
communicates with the reader.
There. That’s it. The
best I can do.
E.B. White was a
master storyteller. His voice was identifiable, but undefinable. His writing
makes you feel like you’re sitting around a campfire listening to someone who
knows the answers to everything. And yes, he was a man.
No one knows how
effective writers do it. There is not one answer or definition that can make your
voice standout in a crowd of thousands. There aren’t many writers who sound the
same, but there are plenty who, like E.B. White, grab readers and never let go.
One thing is certain. It takes time to develop your writing voice. But your
voice might vary from project to project, character to character, so achieving
a consistent voice has never been a goal of mine. My goal is to become a better
writer with each project and to capture whatever voices need capturing.
So how did I respond
to that ten year-old boy who said he wrote like a woman?
“Your voice can sound
like whoever you want it to be.”