Helping Students Find Their Writing Voice

Everyone has a story to tell, and everyone has their own unique writing voice. Storytelling is sometimes what excites students the most; it’s an invitation for them to read, observe, dissect, understand, feel, and write. Through writing stories, we learn about our past, current, and future selves. We get an intimate glimpse of our joy, loneliness, sacrifice, anxiety, heartbreak, anger, fear, guilt, surprise, and all the nuanced emotions that make us human.

Storytelling is also a universal method for making sense of the world, and as the world grows more complex, storytelling will become increasingly important. It gives the writer a voice and engages the reader’s heart and mind; it helps us make sense of the world, our situation. This human connection is the reason why speakers of all industries open with stories. Here are a few ways to help students find their writing voice.

1. Let students experience the power of stories. To start, have students read books embedded with rich, complex stories that will serve as a model text, and discuss them in book groups. Meanwhile, kick off the power of stories with quotes for storytelling or TED talks about storytelling. The Power of Personal Narrative (J. Christen Jensen) and Your story is your strength (Tiffany Southerland) are particularly inspiring.

2. Give students choice. The first step in the writing process is for students to brainstorm a personal story that they’re willing to share publicly. Let students know that any story can work—a time they felt wronged, a childhood memory they think about often, a day they felt was their happiest, a time they failed at something—as long as they can show transformation in their storyline, that is, a change in their thinking, feeling, or behavior.

3. Provide students with story structures. Once students have settled on a story they want to tell, show them how stories are structured, such as using a narrative arc or story spine. Begin the writing lesson by choosing a story that students have read and use annotation to highlight the narrative elements—exposition, conflict, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution—to see the underlying structure and its variations. Then, direct students to visualize or outline their story by having them fill in the narrative handout.

4. Offer pre-writing peer feedback. To help students flesh out the plot and characters of their stories, put them in small groups and have them tell their stories aloud. When students tell their story to others, or as my students put it, “let it all out,” they can see how their story takes shape and in which areas development is needed. The feedback students give to each other could be something like this: (1) say one thing that you thought was effective and (2) ask a question or make a suggestion.

5. Have students write the first draft. The first draft is where students get their ideas down on paper. As students begin to write their first draft, offer some guidance on what it means to have a strong opener (starting with tension, a question, humor, an anecdote, or conversation), an engaging middle (using literary elements to show versus tell), and a satisfying ending (closing with lessons learned, a transformation, or a significance). And, show students how to write an effective title, one that’s unique and connected to the storyline. Lastly, it’s really helpful for students to see examples of these narrative sections in the stories they’ve read.

6. Peer review the first draft. When the first draft is complete, guide students in determining their writing goals: How would you rate your story? What are you proud of? What changes do you want to make? Ask students to share these goals with their peers so the feedback they receive is specific and targeted. Then, have students read their story aloud to one another, all while annotating their own draft with notes for revision or codes/symbols to journal their thoughts. Learning to take suggestions and constructive criticism into account is an important step in developing your writing voice.

7. Conference with students. Conferencing with students is one of the best methods of providing feedback. Students come to their conference with their annotated draft, and they initiate the conversation, telling you how they feel about their draft, what revision ideas and questions they have, and how you can help. Having a two-way conversation helps students see that the instructor is a partner in their learning process.

8. Assess the final draft. To assess the final draft, you can use the assignment rubric to craft narrative comments, rather than checking off boxes. Generally indicate what is working well and provide suggestions for improvements should the student decide to revise further. An alternative assessment method is having students self-assess: assign themselves a grade and provide evidence to support it. This method builds in self-reflection and agency in their learning.

Allison Green
Boston Tutoring Services

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