Voice: If You’ve Got It, Flaunt It (Because You Can’t Teach It)

One of my favorite writing instruction books, but it can't teach voice.

One of my favorite writing instruction books, but it can’t teach voice.

Years ago, my editor-in-chief at Sweet 16 magazine (a moment of silence for that awesome publication!), told me she liked my voice. It was a compliment that meant a lot to me, but what she said after that made a real impression, too. I’ve never forgotten it. “You know,” Mary Lou said offhandedly. “Voice is the one aspect of writing that can’t be taught.”

I thought about that long and hard. I’d taught English for years and had taken pride in helping writers grow, but had I ever TAUGHT voice? I realized I hadn’t. Mary Lou was absolutely right. I could teach sentence variety, I could build vocabulary, and I could help students learn to organize their thoughts, but I couldn’t teach voice.

Sometimes it’s hard for teachers to even convey to students what voice is. It’s just that special something that some writers have. It’s akin to style, but it’s beyond that. I think it’s simply a gift. Gifts can be developed, but teachers can’t teach students to have a voice.

Think of someone you know who can make any story special just in the way he/she tells it. Off the top of my head, I can think of three friends with special voices. My friend Cita, for instance,  English teacher extraordinaire, could tell me about a simple trip to Walmart and have me in stitches. Every story she tells is perfectly paced and includes just the right amount of detail and delivers her witty take on life. Another friend, Shawnelle Eliasen, has this beautiful, serene feel to her writing that comes from her unique voice. She makes the everyday sublime. I love her voice because it’s so different from mine. Reading her work makes me feel like I’ve snuggled up in a blanket. One of my editors at Guideposts, Rick Hamlin, once described Shawnelle’s writing as “elegiac”–and that brings me to Rick’s voice: always the perfect word…not the almost-perfect word, but THE perfect one. Although his work is always accessible, Rick frequently uses words I haven’t seen since my college classes in Renaissance poetry or literary criticism. He once cautioned us to make sure our writing wasn’t “mawkish”–and I think he’s the only person I’ve ever heard actually SAY that word out loud; it’s just one of those perfect words that rarely gets its day in the sun. That’s what I love about Rick’s voice–the way he makes big, perfect words seem so off-the-cuff, like he’s not even trying. (To be fair, he’s not. He just does it because his voice, his gift, works that way.)

A great example for teachers who want to convey to students how important voice is? Have them read the passage in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in which Mark Twain describes a fly in church. It’s a fly, for crying out loud, but even this, in the hands of Mark Twain, is a total hoot. It’s not the subject matter; it’s the writer’s voice.




3 Responses to “Voice: If You’ve Got It, Flaunt It (Because You Can’t Teach It)”

  • Wow. Thanks for the compliment!

  • Sooooo true. I know writers who have less experience and fewer publishing creds than others, but I feel they will be far more successful because of their wonderful, pleasing, unique voice. And I know some writers who work hard at the skills, but don’t have a compelling voice. I agree wholeheartedly about both Shawnelle and Rick. And I love your voice, as well!

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