Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Voice: Defined, by Tracy Wymer

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?”


Darkness. (the overhead is on; lights are off)

A sneeze.

A cough.

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 Winter Break?

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 pants.

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 already know.

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.

Remember: Spineless.

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.”


  1. Replies
    1. I agree, Matt. Tracy did a great job of defining the ever-elusive "voice"

  2. I was at a conference this weekend, and one topic discussed was voice. I've never heard it defined the same way twice. I can see why this would be difficult for kids to grasp; I'm not fully there myself.

    1. It's funny, Caroline. It's so hard for ADULTS to grasp, so we sometimes forget what that means for kids. It's that much harder for them to figure out. Good point.

  3. Great story, great post. Thanks so much for this! One of my personal favorites for voice is Ida B. :)

    Now to take another look at the voice in my WIP...

    1. Voice is so "know it when I see it" that it means there are such a wide variety of examples. I think of FREAK THE MIGHTY, THE OUTSIDERS, SAVVY (which I personally didn't care for, but it does have a distinct voice) and what they all have in common is their told from first person. It seems stories told from first person allow for more voice.

  4. Thanks for this great perspective on voice! Suddenly I'm much less anxious about it now.

    1. I know from reading Tracy's work that he has his own voice, which I compare to early Jerry Spinelli. Not the SAME, but in that mold.

    2. Thanks, Mike. That is really nice of you to say. I admire Spinelli so much.

  5. The main answer I hear from editors is something like, "It's hard to say what voice is, but you know it's there or not when you read a book or manuscript." I also think voice has a lot to do with connecting to the majority of readers in some way. Voice involves numerous aspects of language. I think that's why it's so difficult to define. Nevertheless, we writers try to define it.


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!