Writing is a muscle that requires frequent practice to build stamina and hone the many tools of the craft. If one can talk and form a written sentence, one can write. Good writing requires finding one’s voice, and teachers can help students do that by starting out focusing on details, word choice, and sentence fluency.
In all forms of communication, details lie at the heart of purpose and understanding. A writer maps a path for their ideas through details. Specific. Concrete. Personalized to the audience. Without such details, a reader becomes lost and finds it difficult to follow along.
Help students explore texts by authors they value in both fiction and nonfiction. Use reading protocols to dialog about ideas they like and have students cite textual evidence that supports their thinking. Help learners understand the author’s craft of using details—by looking at illustrations, anecdotes, factoids, and sequenced steps—so that they can expand their writer’s toolbox.
Move from mentor texts to the students’ own writing material. Use feedback protocols that encourage small groups to review each other’s writing for areas that work and areas that need more specificity, concreteness, and/or audience personalization. Consider using the starter statements “I notice _____” and “I wonder _____.” These help students practice looking for and providing evidence.
Where details are the major components of a dish, word choice is the communication seasoning that turns bland to flavorful. Word choice can enhance meaning, creating spiced meals that readers either consume or push away. Consider words that appeal and make sense to the target audience. Study passages by memorable authors like Dr. Seuss, Barbara Park, J.K. Rowling, Martin Luther King Jr., or Abraham Lincoln.
Three-dimensional writing—writing that includes three of the five senses—is a helpful way to craft thoughtful word choices that shine. Using sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell in appropriate doses brings texture and context to deepen the details. The right word can make an idea shine brightly and resonate with readers.
There are many types of sentences. Short sentences state an idea or ask a question. Long sentences, when done well, provide a series of specific and concrete details, such as examples or experiences, that give readers a broader context for the author’s intended meaning. Longer sentences, as the previous one shows, may be complex in construction. Authors use each kind of sentence for a purpose, such as emphasizing a message for their target audience. Another purpose is to provide a flow of ideas and show their connections. Short sentences are fast paced and create momentum. Long sentences delve into details, linking connected ideas for deep understanding by the reader.
If you expose students to sentence construction as part of grammar and mechanics, avoid isolated lessons in which students will see little or no context beyond the lesson itself. A better approach is to use real, published texts and to have students study and tinker with sentences with a target audience in mind.
Five Recommendations for Developing Students’ Writer’s Voice
An author’s voice is compelling when writers thoughtfully combine details, word choice, and sentence fluency. Here are some important considerations for developing a writer’s voice.
1. Have students grow a writing portfolio: Writing is a muscle that requires daily exercise. Have students write often, with frequent opportunity to choose the topic. Collect all writing, creating a portfolio.
2. Study texts by other writers: Have students analyze texts by various authors across genres, looking at details, word choice, and sentence structures. During readings and protocol-based dialogs, such as Socratic seminars or critique sessions, include reflective opportunities to unpack an author’s choice of words, turn of a phrase, and use of details. Encourage students to share passages from authors of their choosing.
3. Have an authentic audience in mind: Purpose is key. When the audience is a specific person, group, or organization, writers can choose details that create personalized context, word choices that resonate, and varied sentence structures. Provide students opportunities to pick their audience, giving them practice with determining a workable focus.
4. Practice these three areas after the first draft: Writers need to focus on getting their ideas down first, before working on details and other aspects of fine-tuning their work. A common mistake is to require a complete first draft, with all criteria included. Use the first draft to hammer out ideas. Teach students that revision is a positive part of writer’s craft.
5. Break from formulaic writing structures: Hamburger/sandwich paragraphs and five-paragraph formats might be instructional tools to show one form of writing, but presenting them as “the” way to write is not helpful to students. I did a random check of a variety of books and magazines, and none use either approach. A paragraph is as short or as long as needed. A paper may be three or 20 paragraphs. What’s paramount is a voice that provides clarity of ideas. Move students beyond artificial structures, so they can focus on what matters.
Patience is the writer’s friend, speed the teacher’s enemy. Developing a writer takes time. Going slow enables students to develop the three skills discussed here separately, and to practice them in combinations. Patience provides numerous chances for practice and study of texts to gradually hone a student’s craft, and grow their writer’s voice.