Voice First: An Argument for Rethinking Priorities for Novice Writers

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My Co-Departmental English 11 class is currently undertaking the same Narrative Journalism writing assignment I wrote about a couple of entries back.  They tackle almost all of the same writing assignments as the traditional English 11 classes but can’t move at the same rapid pace.  Most of them read below a middle school level and about half of them would struggle to produce a paragraph of writing on their own without both scaffolding and at least some one-on-one support.  

It’s my favorite class when it comes to writing.

Of course, in order to take joy from the struggles that come with this sort of territory, you have to be prepared to let some things go.  

But as I discovered on this most recent endeavor into a new genre, it’s also important to remember that just because they haven’t mastered mechanical elements of writing, there’s no reason to expect that they lack mastery of the creative elements of it

Goodbye Grammar

That’s probably a bad subtitle; grammar isn’t ever tossed out the window in our writing workshop, but my co-teacher and I learned to set it aside for a while while the kids tackle the more creative aspects of an assignment.  Grammar is fixable–Grade Proof, the Google add-on for Google Docs is one wonderful way to address it systematically–and it has its time and place.  The hardest thing to do with novice writers, though, is to recognize that focusing on grammar first is the best way to eradicate any interest they have in writing at all.

We learn to pick our battles–a focus on some particular element that they MUST be mindful of.  The rest gets workshopped after all the ideas have made their way through at least a couple drafts.  Do those early drafts sometimes leave me grinding my teeth in my sleep and the corners of my eyes twitching involuntarily?  Sure.  

But the remedy to all that stress emanates from the same fractured lines of writing that cause it.  Because when you let struggling writers simply have a voice–and give them some tools to develop it–they turn out to have some rather lovely things to say.

Guiding Their Voices

Since our Narrative Journalism paper involves a mix of storytelling and research, we chunk the writing for the class–a pretty standard Tier 1 intervention strategy that helps them to focus on one piece at a time instead of feeling overwhelmed by sheer volume (five of my students in this class haven’t produced a successful piece of writing longer than a paragraph yet this school year).  This certainly isn’t the right sort of approach for all students, but it makes it easier to build confidence in inexperienced writers because small tasks can be quickly accomplished–and then celebrated as small victories.

We chose to start with setting this year.  A simple split page activity.  Step One:  Fold your paper in half and fill the left hand column with descriptions of what the classroom looks like.  

Too easy for grade-level writers, this activity actually took my struggling writers about ten minutes, during which they produced perhaps four or five good, concrete pieces of imagery.  Next, I wrote three prompt stems on the board:  

  • It _______ like…
  • It’s the sort of place where…
  • It reminds me of…

Their homework was to complete Step Two:  Fill the right column of their folded paper with figurative language–a concept that usually doesn’t even occur to them.  The results it returned, though, were lovely.  Some relied heavily on those prompt phrases, others sort of got the idea and ran with it–the key was inviting them to engage their voice and personality instead of exhausting them with grammatical reminders.  


Image via SentenceCorrector

One student described the room as “Hard like back pain,” in reference, thankfully, to the cinderblock walls rather than our class culture!  Another young lady observed that the room was “silent as an insane asylum” when we were doing independent reading.  She’s right–our silent reading game is on point (I assume insane asylums are sound proofed for the sake of her comparison).  

Their descriptions of other environments were equally clever.  One lovely narrative provided a rather unremarkable description of a living room filled with family photos and a fireplace and some candles but topped it all off by observing that “It’s the sort of place with apple cinnamon scents.”  While she couldn’t articulate her intent here as a writer, what this novice writer had done was to create a serene, warm sense of mood to open her narrative.  As an inexperienced writer, phrases like “It’s the sort of place…” probably won’t occur to her for various reasons, but once prompted with a few different ways of writing about setting, she had no trouble applying her own creative spirit to her descriptions.

What’s more, the class didn’t wait for me to provide a second mini-lesson (the plan was to use anecdotes to help them establish characters next); they simply recognized that figurative language was a useful tool for all sorts of descriptive shenanigans and began applying it to other aspects of the story.  One student who was writing about her attempts to not use the words “dude” or “like” for a whole week described the experience thusly:  “It tasted wrong to the point I could almost smell musky.”  Note the grammar failure at the end–she was simply looking for a way of saying that having to control her language left such a bad taste in her mouth that she could smell it too.  The phrasing can be fixed. It’s the idea that’s so wonderful.  A pure expression of frustration expressed figuratively and cleverly by a student who otherwise would never have even thought to speak in metaphors at all.  

Another writer who struggles to create ANY grammatically complete sentences in his writing decided an allusion was the best way to express some frustrations with a bad experience he was having at school, suggesting that “it’s kinda like what Kodak Black said on Tunnel Vision but change a word Novi; ‘Novi wanna see you in the penitentiary.’”  Note again the grammatical shortcomings will need work, but the observation itself is rather sophisticated.  I had to look up the reference because despite exhaustive efforts on my part to stay hip, I am old, but darned if it wasn’t relevant.

Here’s the even better part–it’s part of a playful tone throughout his piece.  His allusion is also a hyperbole, and his humor about everything in his piece is what makes it such fun to read.  He later describes eating a snack called “Dab of Ranch” while racing from school to his OSTC program and admits “I think I ran a red light eat(ing) chips and dabbing.”  Again, a writer with no confidence in himself suddenly produced wonderful, playful voice when we made it clear that voice mattered and removed the shackles of grammar.  

When Grammar Matters

We certainly can’t toss grammar completely aside–least of all with our lowest writers who will be judged by their grammatical abilities for the rest of their lives whether we like it or not.  What we can do is articulate to them that grammar and punctuation are pieces of the writing puzzle, but not really the most important ones.  Maybe it’s safe to say they’re the edge pieces that make the puzzle look complete and finalized, but they aren’t the central pieces that help you see the picture the puzzle creates–that’s all done with voice and style and content and creativity.  If we ranked all of our writers based only on those aspects, would our “lowest” writers still rank at the bottom?  I know mine wouldn’t.  

Grammar is hard like back pain, but that doesn’t mean writing has to be.  Sometimes our least motivated writers need to be reminded of the ideas they’re capable of producing.  We can deal with a run-on sentence together, so long as it’s running away with a good idea!

-Michael Ziegler

How do you help writers who lack confidence to engage with the writing process?  

What’s your favorite way to help students improve their grammar?

You can connect with me on Twitter @zigthinks or on Facebook at facebook.com/movingwriters.


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