The concept of voice is difficult to grasp, but it is essential for understanding and appreciating literary works. It is the most elusive feature of writing, but also the most important, because it helps writers form an emotional connection to their readers. Voice is an author’s distinct style. In the audio interviews that follow, Susan and Dana will discuss different aspects of how student voice can be encouraged in the classroom setting.
Susan Wong’s Audio Interview on Voice and Writing
Dana Behr’s Audio Interview on Voice and Writing: Gold Nuggets from Peter Elbow
Written Script of Susan Wong’s Audio Interview
Hello, my name is Dana Behr. My friend and classmate Susan Wong
and I will be interviewing each other for our Writing Theory and
Practice final class project.
Q- Susan, what is the topic of your interview today?
A-I will be focusing on voice in writing.
Q – What is voice?
A- Your writing voice is unique and gives your readers a glimpse of
who you are. The feelings you want to elicit from your audience are
influenced by your voice.
Q- That’s very interesting. What aspect of voice would you like to
discuss and why did you choose it?
A- I would like to discuss classroom practices that help emerging
writers find their voice. Throughout this semester, we examined the
theories behind many practices used in teaching writing, and for
most of the topics we covered I was able to make a strong
connection between theory and practice. But how do you teach
something as elusive as voice? It’s hard to define and even writing
theory scholars like Peter Elbow say there isn’t much recent
scholarly discourse on the subject. One thing is certain though, that
it is very much alive in our classrooms.
When I was a young student, teachers discouraged the use of
language that revealed anything about the writer. Voice had no place
in academic writing. But in more recent times, teachers are
encouraging students to be more introspective, especially when
responding to literature. I used to think that voice was a God-given gift, something you were blessed with at birth, you either had it or you didn’t. This mentality prevented me from putting my full effort into becoming a better writer because I truly believed that I was not one of the gifted ones. But over the years, and most certainly in our
Writing Theory class, I have learned that finding your voice is teachable, learnable, and can flourish with practice. Overall, voice may be elusive, but there are some concrete elements that teachers should point out to students.
Q- What are some of these elements?
A- Some elements of voice are:
Personality – This refers to the qualities that are distinct to each of
us. It’s what makes you you. What do you feel? What do you believe?
What moves you?
Tone– Tone is about attitude. It’s not so much what you say, but
how you say it. It’s how you express yourself to influence the way
your message comes across to others.
Word choice – Words are the writer’s basic tools. They create color
and texture of the written work and help shape the reader’s
perceptions. They bring about the writer’s vision.
Imagery – is using descriptive language to help readers visualize the
author’s writing by involving any or all of the 5 senses. It’s painting a
picture with words.
Syntax – refers to the way words are arranged within a sentence. It
includes word order, sentence length, sentence focus, and
Q – What is the process of developing voice in writing?
A-The process of developing voice in writing happens in stages. In
elementary school, students learn foundational skills such as spelling, grammar, sentence fluency, and vocabulary. In middle school, students write to express, record, discover, reflect on ideas, and to address problems. They are expected to produce coherent, multi-paragraph essays. Teachers begin to build the framework to master structure. In high school, teachers support and encourage students to go beyond the
framework to explore and present their personality on the page. Students begin to capitalize on what they have learned in order to create compositions that are uniquely theirs. Each of these stages is instrumental in the emerging writer’s journey to finding voice.
Q-Do learning structures help or hinder voice?
A-Learning structures lay the groundwork for comprehensive writing,
but some educators are very critical of structure such as formulaic
writing, particularly the 5-paragraph essay. They claim that it stifles
creativity and ongoing self-exploration, elements necessary in shaping
voice. However, as Picasso said, “you’ve got to learn the rules like a pro,
before you can break them like an artist.” The fundamental goal of
writing formulas is to teach students about the components of a basic
essay. By first mastering the introduction, body paragraphs, and
conclusion, students gain a clear understanding of what readers expect in
different parts of their work. And this initial awareness of audience is
important later on in developing voice.
Q-Is it acceptable to write in the first person?
A- When I first started writing essays, I was taught to detach
myself from my writing. My teachers told me in order to be
objective I had to be absent and not use the pronoun “I.” But why shouldn’t writers be present in their own writing? Writing in the first person lends credibility to your work and helps to build a connection with your readers. When you say “I,” you
commit yourself to your writing and having a personal stake in what you produce makes you more careful and thoughtful about the words you choose. It makes your compositions more interesting to you and your audience. This is what voice is all about—breathing life into your work.
Q-How should teachers respond to student writing in order to encourage
A-Writing teachers often comment on student papers by using a red pen
to point out errors and make suggestions for improvement. Even though
these remarks are usually well intended, students may still perceive them
as harsh and unhelpful. Comments such as “too wordy, be more specific,
try harder, you didn’t get the point,” are vague and unproductive. When
I was in elementary school, my teacher wrote in big red letters on my
paper “Reading and Writing below grade level!” This warning scarred
me for life and for years I was terrified of writing. Teachers should
distance themselves from these traditional methods and recognize that
the best kinds of comments are those that enhance the writer’s feelings
of dignity. Don’t ever underestimate the power of positive
John Bean gives great advice. He says that teachers should play the role
of a coach providing guidance for revision, for it is in the act of revising
that students learn most deeply what they want to say and what their
readers need for ease of comprehension. Comments that make students
want to revisit and deeply delve into their work are very constructive
because it will engender awareness of voice.
Q-What are some recommendations for thoughtful and constructive
A-Teachers walk a fine line when responding to writing. They really do
want to help their students improve their writing skills, but they have to
realize that young people are sometimes overly sensitive when they see
their papers marked up with hurtful comments, so they have to be
cautious about what and how they say things.
Here are some suggestions.
-Don’t use a red pen to comment on papers. It looks like blood, which
denotes death. Use something less threatening like a pencil or blue or
green pen instead.
-Always start with a positive comment even if good things are hard to
find. Some examples are: “interesting argument, great title, nice
-Intermix positive and negative comments. Start with something positive
then a criticism, then another positive and another criticism, and so on.
This will provide a balanced response.
-Criticize the paper and not the student. For example, you could say
“this paper lacks direction,” instead of “you don’t seem to know where
you are going.”
-Don’t use exclamation points or excessive underlining when pointing
out something negative or confusing. A question mark would suffice.
-Be specific with suggestions in order to avoid frustrating the student and don’t nitpick over spelling or grammatical errors in early drafts.
With this careful consideration, emerging writers will be encouraged and empowered to find their true voice and reach their full writing potential.
Q- Thank you for your insight and suggestions, any final words?
A-In closing, I would like to say that there is so much more to voice
than what I have covered. It’s not the easiest thing to explain, let
alone teach, but as elusive as it is, I find it the most fascinating
feature of writing. I hope that my thoughts and suggestions help
educators and emerging writers understand the impact of voice in
writing and that the classroom is the most important place to
introduce and cultivate it.
Written Script of Dana Behr’s Audio Interview on Voice and Writing: Gold Nuggets from Peter Elbow
Topic: Peter Elbow’s Concrete Suggestions for Teaching
Q: I understand you are going to share some of Peter Elbows pedagogical techniques with us. What draws you to his teaching style?
A: In his article Reconsideration: Voice in Writing Again: Embracing Contraries, he reflects upon the surge of enthusiasm in the 1960s for getting voice into writing. He, and other academics who were promoting voice in one sense or another, believed that voice in writing was an extension of the true self and had rhetorical power. Another belief that was held by these advocates of voice in writing was that the goal of teaching writing is to develop the self. These tenets resonate with me because I see them
as a strong catalyst and motivation for getting students engaged in the learning process. Additionally, Peter Elbow expounds upon his ideological position by making concrete suggestions: He recommends numerous practices that encourage the development of student voice in writing. That will be the focus of what I would like to share.
Q: Which one of his practices would you like to discuss first?
A: I admire that he makes a distinction between high and low stakes writing. First, I would like to discuss this practice and how he implements it into his classroom structure and evaluation process. High stakes writings yield an evaluation of soundness of content and clarity of presentation that then becomes a grade; however, low stakes writing is written predominantly for the benefit of the student’s development of critical thinking and writing skills. These exercises receive varying degrees of feedback or none at all.
Q: Could you give me an example of when low stakes writing should be used?
A: Yes. Low stakes writing should be used frequently. Students should be given time in class and mandated to create written reflections for homework on discussions, readings, lectures, and their own thinking. Also, if a student submits a high-stakes essay, a week or more before the final version is due, the student can then receive low stakes feedback. This practice enables them to be able to make informed revisions for the high- stakes evaluation. (Pause) Peter Elbow also believes there is great value in having “evaluation-free zones.”
Q: Can you give me a paradigm for an “evaluation-free zone”?
A: The ten-minute, nonstop free-write is an example; however, an arena for deep learning can occur if enough time is granted to students, where they are free from the pressures of being evaluated. Peter Elbow dedicates the first three weeks of the semester entirely to freewriting that is non-stop and private, leisurely journal writing, and quick-writes or sketches. Sketches are unevaluated: however, they are read aloud by the students each day and collected by the teacher. Only affirmations such as “thank
you” or appreciating a passage serves as feedback from, either other students or the professor, during this period. This practice builds community as well as improves student writing. The improvement in writing skills may be because a greater volume of writing homework per week, during these first three weeks, is required.
Q: Based on what your saying, I understand the Peter Elbow believes that critical thinking and student confidence evolves in an “evaluation-free zone” or under low stakes conditions; however, an evaluation process is necessary in most academic environments in order to yield a grade. Does his system encompass this reality?
A: Absolutely, he has made some concrete suggestions on how to diminish the student’s tendency to say what they think the teacher wants to hear about the content they express, while still implementing systems that have evaluative components. First, he establishes standards that pertain to student conduct and a work ethic at the outset of the class. He promises the students that if they fulfill all these requirements, they will receive a minimum grade of B. I will elaborate upon the standards that lead to
enriching the student’s academic development in a moment. The evaluation methods he uses for low stakes writing differ from assignments that are high stakes. Also, he uses a variety of simplified rubrics that enable students to understand where their strengths and weaknesses exist in terms of academic performance and writing. Finally, he recommends that a portfolio serve as the basis for high stakes evaluation, because the student can choose their best pieces and the teacher has a body of work on which to base an important grade, rather than an isolated piece of writing.
Q: You mentioned that Peter Elbow establishes standards that pertain to student conduct and work ethic at the outset of a semester. Would you like to elaborate upon that?
A: Yes, thank you. His list includes these items: “Not missing more than one weeks worth of classes; not having more than one late major assignment; substantive revising on all major revisions; good copy editing on all final revisions; good effort on peer feedback work; keeping up on the journal; and substantial effort and investment on each draft.”
Q: You also noted that his criteria for low stakes and high stakes assignments differ.
A: Yes, he has an evaluation scale: He offers a greater amount of feedback for the assignments for which he has higher expectations in terms of the product itself. All assignments have a value: The value in low stakes assignments, as I mentioned, is to afford practice without anxiety and develop student confidence within the context of community; however, assignments that have higher stakes need to meet expectations that are evaluated. I am going to describe a continuum he uses between low and high stakes responding:
Zero Response is for the lowest stakes: Private journal writing would fall into this category
The next level is described as Minimal, Nonverbal, Noncritical Response: In this stage of evaluation, strengths in a piece of student writing are indicated by the teacher placing a strait line under or beside strong points or strong writing samples.
The next level in this progression is Supportive Response- No Criticism: This evaluation method is used to articulate to a student, things that they are doing well that are unclear when only indicated by a straight line. For example: “You chose a good approach to your topic” or “You write with a clear and lively voice.”
Descriptive or Observational Responses demand that the teacher skillfully reflect back to the student, what they are observing in the structure of the students writing, without being critical. For example: “You begin with an anecdote of your own experience; then show us how it throws light on your academic topic: Then you make your case- which really rests on a process of definition – showing what fits and what is excluded.” This offers the student a mirror to their own work.
Minimal, Nonverbal Critical Response is when the teacher places wavy or wiggly lines underneath or alongside problematic areas.
The highest stakes assignments demand that the teacher provides a Critical Response, Diagnosis, and Advice. Combining feedback in the form of a rubric, constructive critiques, and praise of strong points is a useful formula for providing clear feedback for a high-stakes assignment. If appropriate, a teacher can be flexible and combine the various evaluation methods.
Q: You mentioned that Peter Elbow utilizes a variety of simplified rubrics for different objectives. I know it’s difficult to describe a graphic in an audio format, but could you direct the listener to where they could find that information.
A: I would be glad to. On page 194 and 195 of his article, “Ranking, Evaluating, and Liking: Sorting Out Three Forms of Judgement,” a sample rubric is depicted. In the text that follows, he makes suggestions about how this format can be altered to meet the needs of different assignments.
Q: Is there anything else you would like to say before this interview comes to closure?
A: As a final note, I would like to reflect upon a belief that Peter Elbow and many others share regarding the use of portfolios for high stakes evaluations. I would like to directly quote him first and then conclude with a final perspective. Peter Elbow states, “Course grades are more trustworthy and less damaging because they are based on so many performances over so many weeks.” Personally, I think that process-oriented work, that takes place in an environment that minimalizes an authoritarian structure, yet, clearly establishes expectations regarding the students work ethic, is ideal for nurturing
the development of student voice and critical thinking skills. Using a portfolio, in conjunction with the other pedagogical methods mentioned in this interview, motivates the students to adhere to the delineated work ethic, and by affording them the opportunity to represent themselves through the final selection of their best pieces, empowers them.
Bean, John. “Writing Comments on Students’ Papers.” Engaging
Ideas: The Professor’s Guide To Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking,
and Active Learning In the Classroom, 2 nd ed, Jossey-Bass, 2011.
Elbow, Peter. “Ranking, Evaluating, and Liking: Sorting out Three
Forms of Judgment.” College English, vol. 55, no. 2, 1993, p. 187.,
Elbow, Peter. “High Stakes and Low Stakes in Assigning and
Responding to Writing.” New Directions for Teaching and
Learning, vol. 1997, no. 69, 1997, pp. 5–13., doi:10.1002/tl.6901
Elbow, Peter. “Reconsiderations: Voice in Writing Again: Embracing
Contraries.” College English, vol. 70, no. 2, Nov. 2007, pp. 168-188.
Harris, Robert. “Recommendations For Writing Comments On
Student Papers.” Virtual Salt. April 29, 1997.
Lambert, Keith. “Helping Students Find ‘Voice’ In Their Writing.” education world.
Parker, Kimberly. “Response: Never Use “I.”” Bad Ideas About
Writing, edited by Cheryl E. Ball and Drew M. Loewe. WVU Libraries.
Rodriguez, Rodrigo. “Leave Yourself Out Of Your Writing.” Bad Ideas
About Writing, edited by Cheryl E. Ball and Drew M. Loewe. WVU
Thomas, Patrick. “Writers Must Develop A Strong, Original Voice.”
Bad Ideas About Writing, edited by Cheryl E. Ball and Drew M.
Loewe. WVU Libraries. 2017
Wiley, Mark. “The Popularity of Formulaic Writing (and Why We
need to Resist).” The English Journal. 90.1 (2000), 61-67.