1. Put a Character in Trouble
“When I was a beginning writer, voice was a tough concept for me,” says Jennifer A. Nielsen, author of Elliot
and the Goblin War, Elliot and the Pixie Plot, and The False Prince. “It was this indefinable ‘you’ll know it when you find it’ skill. Something that helped me was learning how to let the character speak through my words.”
Nielsen’s Tip: Have students write for five minutes about a character who is “in trouble”—students can define that however they’d like. Now tell them to pretend they are that character, and that the trouble they wrote about is happening to them. Give them another five minutes to write a new paragraph, reminding them that it’s okay to change to first-person point of view if they prefer. Then have students analyze the difference between the two paragraphs. If they were able to get a real feel for the character, chances are their second writing experience will have a stronger and more authentic voice.
2. Experiment With Point of View
“Voice can be a challenging trait to teach students because so much of the test writing they’re asked to do leaves them sounding like robots,” says Kate Messner, an author and former middle-school English teacher.
Messner’s Tip: Give kids the opportunity to try writing in multiple voices to open their eyes to the power of other perspectives. Try it with different characters in a student-written story or, for a reading-writing connection, challenge them to rewrite a short scene from a favorite book in two or three characters’ voices and points of view. After students have written their various versions, have them share their work aloud in small groups. Invite groups to discuss the similarities and differences among the versions told from multiple points of view.
3. Write Letters
“Letter writing builds good writerly muscles,” says Wendy Wan-Long Shang, “including audience, tone, and word choice.”
Shang’s Tip: Start by sharing examples of strong letters—Lettersofnote.com publishes famous examples from history, and Dear Teen Me contains letters that authors wrote to their younger selves. Then ask students to write their own letter to a friend, celebrity, or relative, offering advice to the recipient. The advice may be based on the recipient’s situation, or it may be the letter writer’s hard-won insight. Later, ask students to read their letters out loud, either alone or to a friend, and ask how closely their writing matches their speaking style. Did the writing feel natural? Does this advice sound like something only they could give? If not, how could they change it?
4. Reinvent Dialogue
Novelist Michelle Ray, who is also a sixth-grade teacher in Maryland, recommends experimenting with dialogue. “I tell my students that dialogue is more than words. It’s imagining the relationship between two people.”
Ray’s Tip: Give students a ho-hum piece of dialogue. Then ask volunteers to read the dialogue and act it out with different scenarios: Two friends. Two enemies. One doesn’t realize the other is mad. One is interested in becoming friends with the other but doesn’t know how to start. Have students analyze how body language and tone of voice come into play as the scenarios change. As a class, brainstorm ways students might convey the tone of the conversation in writing by adding the unspoken dynamics of dialogue.
5. Play With Word Choice
“Voice can be tricky in nonfiction writing, because authors can’t make anything up,” says Cynthia Y. Levinson. “That said, there are several ways young writers can spice up their writing and still keep it true.”
Levinson’s Tip: Verbs convey voice. When Levinson describes the moment the children of Birmingham defeated the segregationists, she could have written, “The children cheered.” Instead, after interviewing her subjects and hearing their jubilance 45 years later, she wrote, “Kids pumped their arms, shimmied their legs, wagged their bottoms.” Whether your students are writing about civil rights, spiders, or King Henry VIII, have them try this: Circle the verbs in their first draft, then substitute verbs that convey emotion or mood and see how that affects the overall tone of their piece. Start a word wall of strong verbs.
6. Try Free Writing
“Voice is the foundation of everything I write,” says Newbery Medal winner Christopher Paul Curtis. “I start by sitting down, imagining my characters sitting next to me, and listening to what they say.” Curtis carves out time each morning to sit down and freewrite. “I don’t try to structure it, I just go where I want it to go, and leave the editing for another time.”
Curtis’s Tip: Allow students to write in a stream-of-consciousness style until they can hear their characters talking to them. Give them 10–15 minutes each day to write in a journal format or in the voice of the characters they’ve created. Forget about plot, mechanics, and grammar, at least for this exercise, and invite students to write solely to explore and uncover voice.
7. Interview Characters
“Interview your characters!” says Kathryn Erskine, a National Book Award winner. “Sit down with paper or a laptop and talk to the people in your story. ‘Interviewing’ is a way of tapping into your subconscious and releasing the story that you need to share.”
Erskine’s Tip: Have students ask their characters: Why are you acting this way? What is making you angry or afraid? What do you really want? “That last question is the key,” says Erskine, “not only to your character but to your entire story.” Don’t forget those “evil” characters, too—challenge your students to find out what motivates these characters to behave the way they do. You might create an interview recording sheet where students can write the answers to their questions. Keep completed interview sheets in a binder for students to peruse for inspiration.