Voice in Writing

“It helps to be trustworthy; but, if you’re skilled, you can fake it.” – Aristotle

“Voice in Writing Again: Embracing Contraries” by Peter Elbow addresses and engages the reader on the contrary standpoints of using “voice” in writing. Around the 1960s, the topic of voice was hot, but nowadays it’s rather quiet, he says. To some, a voice in writing is a critical aspect of developing one’s true self. To others, paying attention to the voice in writing isn’t necessary per se because we don’t write with a voice that is ours. Ironically, as I write this, I am reading every word and then re-reading every sentence out loud to make sure it makes sense.

We don’t see much scholarly writing on the topic of voice anymore, as Elbow mentioned earlier. However, it is still very much alive through student voices in classrooms, politics, and now through social media. Elbow addresses the conflicting views of voice, saying that the either/or mental framework doesn’t work for this topic, you can’t just discredit one and accept the other. There has to be a compromise; it’s either you use both, or you use one or the other based on the writing task.

So then why is voice important? Because one, the illusion of hearing, makes the writing more attractive to a reader. Two, it helps rhetorical effectiveness; the wrong tone can easily backfire. Aristotle observed that ethos triumphs logos and pathos in engaging readers. Three, using your voice in writing makes it more enjoyable and makes it easier to write. And fourth, attention to voice can help with reading, without voice, students have to understand words and phrases fully.

But then, why can voice be ignored? Because one, it is crucial for good reading. If students want to learn how to read critically, they need to understand that voice will often confuse them. Two, it is essential for teaching writing; those who cannot distinguish between voice and pure logic are literally “nonliterate.” Three, avoiding voice is a powerful tool for a writer; it helps them separate language and thinking from the author’s standpoint. Four, voice is to vague a metaphor to be useful. This is undeniably true. For my students, it’s hard to distinguish voice in a text. Too many students perceive voice conversely, which confuses them.

Elbow pleasingly presents for and against teaching voice in writing. And it’s hard to not agree with every word he says. He allows us to hear each piece, to open our minds, and be wiser in our scholarly thinking and writing. His main goal of this essay is to help us not discredit the things we are unaware of but to look through two lenses in succession. Man, I love Elbow. Often we as educators are very close-minded to practices others say don’t work. We get rid of them, not giving it a second chance. I admired round-robin reading as a student, and for many reasons, I still think once in a while, it’s a great strategy. However, my supervisor walked in on a day I was using this technique, and she was furious. She went on for about an hour over the technicalities of why this strategy should be banned.

“On Students’ Rights to Thier Own Texts: A Model of Teacher Response ” by Lil Brannon and C.H. Knoblauch examine the notion of an “ideal text.” As we read a particular author, book, or newspaper, we believe what it had to say because we accept that these people are skilled and whatever they say is right. This dynamic changes when it’s a teacher-student relationship. Because we believe, students don’t have the authority yet to reach that level of being right.

Teachers correct student writing based on the “ideal text.” This correcting leads the students to think the teacher’s agenda is more critical than their own. Denying student control, reduces incentive but also, the likelihood of improvement. It’s unfortunate but true. The idea of an ideal text distracts teachers from the primary goal, which is helping writes achieve their purpose of writing. The focus has to shift from the teacher’s personal notion of the ideal version of a text to what the writer wants to communicate based on text evidence. However, not change is easy; we have to demand some changed in pedagogy for this to occur.

As a start, it would help if teachers and students can share their different perceptions as makers and readers of discourse. An excellent way to do so is by answering some general questions separately and then comparing them, generating revision. This leaves the students making individual choices, thinking about what was said and if they can back it up, without telling them exactly what to do. I would love to try this; my students heavily rely on me to tell them what a text means. They depend on me to help them find the text evidence to prove the point I suggested. It leaves no means for personal growth, and they are bound to fail during standardized testing.

Civic Writing is a robust article to sum up this week’s reading. As Elbow mentioned in his article, writing is very much alive through social media. Civic writing provides a platform for youth to research, use evidence, and produce logical arguments about issues that matter to them. If I ask my students to write an essay about uniforms, legal job age, or the use of cellphones in school, they provide extraordinary reasons and produce credible papers. I think this is an empowering tool, yet we use so little of it. The other week I decided to let my students do a creative writing piece, and they flourished. I want to engage my students in more writing they care about, writing where they can undeniably use their voice.

Voice In Writing and Students’ Rights To Their Own Texts

Voice In Writing and Students’ Rights To Their Own Text

As someone who used to work for a business magazine, where most stories were information based, I welcome and appreciate voice in writing. I agree that “voice is an important dimension of texts and we should pay lots of attention to it.” Elbow says that the topic of self in writing goes as far back as the ancient Greeks, and with the exception of a surge of renewed interest in the 1960’s, there isn’t much scholarly research or discussion about it in more recent times. We read about these surges before in “The Erasure of the Sentence,” where theorists became passionately involved in some aspect of writing and then suddenly, the surge died down. But while scholars haven’t debated the issue recently, voice in writing is very much alive in our classrooms. In fact, voice is alive everywhere – in print, politics, digital media, and email. In addition, the audience is so wide and varied now that using voice is more important than ever in letting others know who you are and how you feel. How else would you stand out in such a vast sea of written text?

In his essay, Voice in Writing Again: Embracing Contraries, Elbow examines written language through 2 lenses-text and voice. When seen through the lens of text, “words are interchangeable and not attached to persons,” there is no particular speaker and no particular audience, while the voice lens highlights how “language issues from individual persons and physical bodies and how the same words differ, depending on who says them and how,” so the words are produced by people for other people. 

I understand the conflict, but think there is a need for both. Expository essays, academic research papers, and news articles are usually text based, although more and more I see voice infiltrating news stories. When I want to be strictly informed, I don’t appreciate any form of voice. It is distracting and I don’t like my information biased. I like to make my own judgments based on the facts. Because there’s so much voice in the news today, I have to read a wider range of articles about the same story just to glean the facts. In fact, some newspapers or news outlets have become too full of voice that I avoid them entirely. I agree that voice is power, so watch how you wield it.

I also support the enthusiast view of getting voice into writing. Everyone including young children has something important to say and in their own way. We have become a much more student-centered society and I don’t blame teachers for encouraging students to put their true selves into their written work. It makes reading more interesting and grading papers less of a chore. But teaching voice as opposed to text seems like a much harder task. How do you generate voice? Elbow says, “With practice, people can learn to write prose that “has a voice” or “sounds like a person.” The ritual of reading aloud helps students produce words and sentences that are more pleasing for the audience to read in silence. The more I read about it, the more I believe that voice is a gift, not something that is easily taught in typical Language Arts or English classes. Teachers can only go so far in helping to find your voice, it’s up to you to hone it. I like having choices. If you are the kind of person who prefers to stick to the facts and take a more technical, mechanical, or formulaic approach, go for it. On the other hand, if you like asserting your voice into your written work, then do that also. If you can figure out when it is more powerful to use one over the other, then you are well on your way to becoming a good writer.

I went to school at a time when classrooms were very teacher-centered, where complete authority and knowledge was in the hands of teachers. Every writing assignment was handed in as a final paper. There was no such thing as drafts, a progression of work towards a finished product. When it was graded and returned, that was the end of the assignment. My teachers never offered to let students revise their work and there was no negotiation. The concept of multiple drafts was something I was introduced to in graduate classes. What Brannon and Knoblauch propose in their essay about giving students the rights to their own texts was unheard of a generation ago, and I’m not sure how I feel about it today. Teachers would have to develop a relationship with each student to form a partnership to allow “students control of what they want to say in the way they wish to say it,” thereby incentivizing them to write in the first place and also be willing to revise. In theory, I think it sounds good and it might work in a class of serious, more mature writers, to have the skill and commitment to clearly communicate what their intentions are in writing what they write. However, in practice I don’t think this is a practical approach. Most writing prompts or assignments ask students to address a particular topic with specific questions to be answered or issues to be explored. To do this requires a certain amount of focus, development, and coherence, a skill the average student does not naturally possess. Teachers are necessary in helping students acquire these skills, and they don’t have it easy. They walk a fine line between “appropriating their students’ texts,” that is, correcting it to what they think it should look like and allowing their students the authority to shape their own work. Should students be allowed this authority? It depends on the age. There are certain skills that we all need in order to communicate effectively, letting your audience know clearly and precisely what you mean. Teachers should be the ones to teach students the basic skills to do this, especially at a young age. This often requires the red pen or just letting students know they’re going off topic or don’t understand the assignment. I’m all for giving students greater authority over their own writing, but if they want readers to take seriously what they have to say, they have to “earn the authority” to do this by following instructions and learning to take some criticism. I’m old school and still believe that adherence to rules is important especially in lower grades. As students mature and have shown mastery of certain skills, then teachers should loosen the reins and let students have more authority over their own writing.

Power Dynamics in Writing Theory

Image result for power dynamics image

 Whether it is the writer’s authority in the teacher-student relationship (“On Students’ Rights to Their Own Texts: A Model of Teacher Response” by Lil Brannon and C.H. Knoblauch) or the rhetorical power of a writer’s voice (“Voice in Writing Again: Embracing Contraries” by Peter Elbow; or the public voice in civic writing (“Why Civic Writing” on the NWP’s CEWAC website), the issue of writing and power is an undercurrent in English, specifically in writing instruction. Through the lens of this writing-power paradigm, I re-evaluate my relationships with my high school English teachers and college English professors.

Fortunately, I have had positive relationships with my English high school teachers at Mainland Regional High School in Linwood, NJ; my white English teachers encouraged me, a Vietnamese, working-class refugee, to express my opinions in a majority white, upper-middle-class. One English teacher, in particular, Ms. Dermond, with her curly red hair cut in a bob, was very supportive of me. She gave me a college essay book to help me write my college essay. Years later, I returned to Mainland Regional High School to thank her and my guidance counselor, Dr. Phillips. Unfortunately, Ms. Dermond left, and Dr. Phillips passed away.

While in college, I experienced what Brannon and Knoblauch described as this “awkward English professor-English student relationship” where the professors, especially the newly-minted PhDs, had the “authority” over their students since they were “intellectually maturer, rhetorically more experienced, technically more experienced than the apprentice writer” (158). Since the English professors were published writers, experts in their field, they did not believe undergraduate students had much to offer; therefore, their writing did deserve “serious consideration” — hence, the professors did not spend time reading their undergraduates’ essays. The mundane task of grading essays was tasked to teaching assistants, which freed up the professor’s time to work on more important tasks of writing and publishing. To further explore this power relationship, Bannon and Knoblauch provide a power paradigm of an “Ideal Text” in that “the teacher knows best” and “there are two types of paternalism: conservative and liberal. The conservative teacher underestimates the student’s competence; whereas, the liberal teacher exaggerates the student’s competence” (159). Both types of teachers are equally destructive. Brannon and Knoblauch agree that “there needs to be a change in attitude in the teacher’s attitude and the teacher-student relationship, as well as a change in pedagogy” (161). I propose that this shift occurs on both the high school and college levels.

Proposed Shifts in Teacher-Student Relationship

  • Take the student’s writing seriously.
  • Transfer power (or “return to choice-making”) to the students.
  • Use multiple-draft writing so that students can “reassert their points.”
  • Provide students with opportunities to revise their writing so that the focus is on improvement rather grade justification.
  • Encourage students to close the gaps between “intent and effect,” which also helps with metacognition. 
Intent (Stated Intentions) 
My relationship with my former teachers and professors. 

Effect (Actual Effects of My Writing)
Analysis of power dynamics in English class through a personal example.
  • Use one-to-one conferences, peer-group collaborations, and comments on students’ essays.
  • Ask students to self-evaluate. My students grade their writing using a rubric that I provide for them. It is a helpful exercise that shifts the power relationship since students have control over their grades.

Another way to return control to students and to empower them is by helping them to develop their voice. Why is it important to give power to students in the classroom? And in turn, why is it essential for our professors to empower us, students? Why is important for our professors to listen us? Peter Elbows explains the importance of achieving this power shift by asserting that “…the anti-elitist attitude political desire for a fairer and less oppressive society — a desire to give more power to students and citizens at large” (168). Interestingly, Elbows links power in the classroom with power in society wherein teachers are not teaching students only writing but the confidence and skills to become informed citizens equipped to participate in a democratic society — and not an authoritarian society where “parents know best,” “teacher knows best,” “professors know best,” and “political leaders know best.”

Throughout the first part of his essay, Elbow engages in a power struggle with his colleagues by debunking the critic’s claims against voice instruction. He asserts his authority, his voice, and his rhetorical power by citing Greek sophists, Plato, and Aristotle’s either/or fallacy, citing examples of voice in the classroom, in social media, and in politics and the lack of voice in the classroom, stating the limitations of compromise, and then proposes “embracing contraries” in this voice debate. In essence, Elbow asserts that it is agreeable for theorists ‘to agree to disagree’ .

It is not until the middle of his essay does Elbow addresses the question of how do we make writing audible? One strategy that Elbow proposes is read aloud, which I use in my classes. To illustrate, I have the students record their writing and read their writing out loud. Sure, listening to “a good recording of a text” can be especially helpful for ESL students or struggling readers or students who do not want to read out loud. Another strategy is to have students read a chapter out loud, or to read “crux passages” in classes. (179) So, voice is helpful with reading. Elbow also provides advice in developing voice and self. He suggests that writers develop a genuine rather than a sincere voice. What is the difference between sincere and genuine? The problem with sincerity is that it not be believable. (Think ‘fake nice.’) However, being genuine is being real, natural, and being believable. He also suggests that we consider “resonance,” which is a connection to the audience. 

A final way to empower students is to have the students engage in civic writing so that their voices, their opinions can be heard. The NWP CEWAC provides helpful resources such as the Civic Writing Rubric to encourage civic writing. The rubric addresses Organization, Opening/Closing, and Linkage of Ideas, which is accessible for students.   

Overall, civic writing is real-life writing that citizens engage in a democratic society. We need to promote more civic writing to help students become global citizens.