Write Like Me: Finding Our Voice

“Mrs. Davis?” a fifth grader at the time, Kay looked up at me from the stack of mentors that littered the tabletop, “When do I get to write like me?”

Days into immersion for our next unit of study, this question shook me in a way that ensured I would remember Kay forever.  At ten years old, she was already a gifted writer, and while she understood the power in learning from authors as mentors, she was also keenly aware that she was growing into her own style. Her own voice. 

Ruth Culham, author of the original 6+1 Traits of Writing defines voice as “The tone and tenor of the piece—the personal stamp of the writer, which is achieved through a strong understanding of purpose and audience” (The Writing Thief, 2014, p. 24).

Just what gives our writing its tone and tenor? And how do we teach students to develop their “personal stamp”? Well, we all begin by getting to know our students personally. From there, we can turn our eyes and theirs to their own writing to notice what sets their voice apart. 

In his post The Cardinal, Slice of Life regular Tim Gels describes an exercise he uses to teach bird enthusiasts as they learn to listen for the “voice” of each bird. He asks everyone to close their eyes and try to identify which group member says “Hello.”

“The point,” he writes, “is that each of us has a different voice. We might say similar things, but we’ve learned how to identify one another based on the qualities of our vocalizations.

This is, essentially, the same with writing. Or at least we want it to be.

It’s being able to hear the author who wrote a piece given only the arrangement of words on a page, and it is enhanced by our awareness of ourselves and each other within our writing communities.

This is one of the reasons that—if you joined us for Slice of Life Tuesdays in August—I recorded a quick video to accompany each of my posts. “I want them to hear my voice when they read things I’ve written,” I told my husband. I want my readers to know that I write in incomplete sentences because that is the way I talk. It’s the way I connect one idea to the next. The way I build from one idea to another. (See what I did there?)

I want readers to recognize that when my sentences get long and complex, it’s because I am likely still thinking and puzzling on something and don’t have it all figured out yet, so I process in the air and on the page, and it often takes a lot of polishing to get things whittled down to what I really mean, but by the time we get to the end, you can ask me again, and I can give it back to you in far fewer words, maybe even a bulleted list. The short answer: I write the way I think.

Voice. It is as much about the connection between reader and writer as it is about the writer’s awareness of their own “personal stamp.” 

Try this: Think aloud as you study the attributes of your own writing. Take time for students to closely study theirs, too. Keep a page in your notebook—ask students to do the same—where we record things we are learning about our own personal styles.

Try this: Create a shared piece of writing with students. Then, give each one a copy and ask them to add their “personal stamp.” What will each of them do to make it their own?

Try this: During writing conferences, ask your students to read their work aloud. Compare what they read to how they read it? Is there a way to capture their phrasing, their emphasis, etc. in a way that is not yet found on the page?

Voice is personal. When we name what it is that makes our writing our own, we can choose it with greater intention. As we discover this about our own writing, we can better share this experience with our students, ensuring that everyone gets a chance to “write like me.”

6 thoughts on “Write Like Me: Finding Our Voice

  1. And isn’t it amazing, when you know someone, how you can never NOT hear their voice in their writing. It’s one of the best parts about getting to know a student writer (or any writer for that matter). Morgan, I hear you every time I read what you’ve written! Thanks for sharing, again!

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  2. This is such a compelling post. I find the concept of “voice” difficult to explain to 4th and 5th graders. Their voices do ring out loud and clear but it’s hard to get them to think about it. Maybe it makes them too self-conscious and then their authenticity disappears. I love your ideas and I will try them – Your words: Voice. It is as much about the connection between reader and writer as it is about the writer’s awareness of their own “personal stamp.” – really got me thinking of how to convey to kids their own unique style of writing/speaking.
    Thank you!

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    1. I’d love to hear how it goes! Voice is definitely one of the hardest aspects of writing to understand and to teach. It’s one of those “you know it when you see or hear it” things. Thanks for sharing!


  3. Morgan, there’s so much to like about this post, but on the second reading I was most excited to look deliberately to see how you used phrasing, sentence fragments, and — my favorite — em dashes to show your voice within this piece about voice. Thank you for sharing!

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  4. I like these ideas (including Tim’s… that was new to me!) for illustrating what voice looks like/sounds like. Adding our personal stamp to our writing, so that it sounds like our own — not just anyone’s writing, is a critical way to really taking one’s writing to the next level.

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