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Finding your Writer’s Voice -- and AP Online course registration is now open!
Editor's Note from Susan Richman: We're now looking ahead to the next school year of our AP (Advanced Placment) Online courses for high school level homeschoolers-- and many of our teachers will be sharing here over the next few months about their approaches to learning and teaching online. We have course descriptions updated for 2012-2013, and you can also pay tuition online (or by check) once a student has been accepted into a class. Click here to see full info on all AP classes being offered-- we hope you find something that will be a wonderful fit for your student.
We've been especially delighted that our growing group of AP Online teachers includes a number of amazing homeschooling graduates. Kathryn Walker is one of these-- and we hear only high praise of her AP English Language course that she leads with our program. Here you can gain a sense of how Kathryn helps students find and develop their writer's voice -- and what you might do as a parent now to help this process along, too.
In the past few years of my career as an English teacher, I’ve had several students confess to me as one of their writing weaknesses that they write the same way that they talk. That’s not a weakness! I long to proclaim. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that a writer cannot be ultimately successful if he doesn’t write, at least in some sense, in the same way that he talks. The writer’s mind, speech, and pen are intimately connected, and a genuine writer’s voice comes only when a young person can authentically connect the three.
In my AP Language and Composition course, we spend a trimester studying and explaining the relationship between thought, speech, and the written word. Our study begins with George Orwell’s famous essay “Politics and the English Language,” in which he so aptly reminds us that our language “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” Writing is a direct product of our mental processes, and our mental processes a result of the language we speak and listen to. Through Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as Young Man, Woolf’s The Legacy, and T.S. Eliot’s poetry, we see the human mind portrayed through its purest consciousness and the beauty that can emanate from simple thoughts and impressions purely expressed.
While some would hold that the success of writers hinges upon their diligence to revise, I’d counter that far greater success comes from cultivating clarity of thought and speech and allowing one’s written words to reflect that clarity. C.S. Lewis is my favorite example of this truth. One of his best-known works, Mere Christianity, is actually a compilation of radio broadcasts he gave during World War II; they’re not meant to be essays, but rather conversational dialogues. The clarity of his prose in them, however, is on no different plane than the rest of his written work. Read any of Harper Collins’s recently published collections of his letters to see that even his hastily-written and prolific everyday correspondence matches his deliberately literary works in their beauty and power of expression. Good thinking begets good writing.
How does one approach, then, the teenager whose language one can scarcely tolerate? Don’t mistake me for saying that students should all just write what comes to their minds. As the students in my course so aptly acknowledge, much of teen-speak today is vapid and confusing in its repetitive abbreviations. Excessive peer interactions (which I’ve experienced to the extreme as a boarding school teacher) tend to foster this mindless conversation, but the beauty of homeschooling is the opportunity parents have to mold their children’s thought and speaking habits. A lifetime and lifestyle of attention to a family’s vocabulary, sentence structure, and conversational patterns creates a habit of mind that allows young people the power of communicating through their pens with eloquence.
The absorption of language through literature is a crucial element of this mind-shaping as well. While I don’t hold to the philosophy that children need only read great works to get their grammar and composition instruction, constant exposure to great writing, with its variety of styles, is an excellent way to form a writer’s voice. Students can even practice imitating great authors in different contexts to apply consciously the forms and tactics they use. This habit is cultivated through the reading of novels as well as non-fiction; I feel my style is improved as much by a novel like Middlemarch as by a non-fiction periodical like First Things.
Of course, it isn’t that academic writing and conversation are identical. The phrases I’ve used in this article aren’t the same ones I’ll speak with my husband at dinner this evening, though I hope the discrepancies between them aren’t too great. To make our conversational prose appropriate for class work, colloquialisms, slang, use of first and second person, and generally jumbled thoughts certainly need filtering, but an emphasis on holding to the student’s true voice and viewing his thoughts and speech as the beginning of the writing process are integral to the development of a strong and unique voice.
So how can you tell if a young person is developing a voice in writing? All writers have some kind of voice, I suppose, but not all of them are authentic. Generally speaking, I believe you can measure the strength of a high school student’s voice by comparing it to his actual dialog: can you hear his true word choices and phrasing echoing through his written words? If superfluous modifiers, verbose sentences, and ambiguous phrases are common in a student’s essays, it’s likely his voice isn’t speaking true to him. My advice to students who demonstrate these characteristics is to read their written work aloud to a parent or friend, asking this helper to stop them at any point when their sentences don’t sound like those they would actually speak. The results of this exercise are amazing: sticky verbosity pares itself down to paragraphs of stunning elegance. I wish I could show you the before and after of a particular young woman in my English class who tried this trick—her writing has evolved from a jumble of fancy expressions to a mature and accomplished prose.
Perhaps the same could be true of your student. Encourage him or her to put aside distractions as he writes to think clearly (easier said than done, I know!) and to allow his written words to flow genuinely from his thoughts. Promote stylistic and grammatical revision in ways that are authentic to him, always encouraging him to read aloud as he improves and edits. He’ll begin to discover his own voice, as well as improve upon his grammar and style.
Biography: A PHAA graduate, Kate holds a B.A in English from Hillsdale College, a M.Ed from Eastern University, and PA Teaching Certification for English 7-12. After teaching English for several years at Valley Forge Military Academy, she now lives in Lancaster and works as a consultant, evaluator, and online teacher in order to stay home with her children. She has published work in First Things, Touchstone Magazine, Independent Teacher Magazine, and Veritas Press’s Omnibus curriculum. She teaches AP English Language and Composition online for PA Homeschoolers.
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