Voicing the Words on the Page (Part II)


By Luke Coulter

Recently, I wrote a blog post about embracing voice when it comes to writing essays. Today, I want to talk a little bit more about voice and how it can help both your writing and your life.

Back in 2009, I was teaching English in Hanoi, Vietnam. I had very little teaching experience and even less training. However, because I had grown up in America, my natural accent was considered extremely valuable, and I had several offers from accredited universities to be a conversation specialist. I refused these offers because I didn’t like the idea that my voice was more valuable due to where I grew up, but this rejection gave me an idea. I started to build some of my classes around things like local legends, family recipes, cultural traditions, and a host of other concepts that were tied directly into my students’ pasts.

These were some of the most amazing classes I have ever been a part of. I learned that the methods of making both rice cakes and hot pots can be controversial, that much of North Vietnam’s mythology is about defeating very powerful nations in war, and how significant Tet is to almost everybody. More importantly, though, all of my students were engaged and willing to contribute, rather than passively sitting by as I lectured. They were getting much more practice in English, and it was because they were talking about things that they were passionate about. The things that would help them with their voice in their native language helped them when they were learning English, too.

Back in the US, I tutored a student who was having trouble with some reading journals. Xuan* was doing an excellent job summarizing the plot in the book she was reading. She understood the plot, picked up on the foreshadowing, and was able to explain the events clearly. Unfortunately, she wasn’t getting good grades on these types of assignments, because it was asking for both summary and analysis, and she wasn’t sure how to inject analysis into her writing. I asked her some of the same questions about her memories that I had asked my students back in Vietnam. Connecting the text to her past opened up some analysis possibilities for her. She was able to take things that had happened in the text and emotionally connect with them so she could explain her theories on why the writer might have included them. By reaching out for her voice, she inadvertently found the thing that was missing from her journals.

Voice isn’t an easy thing to develop, but it is something that everybody inherently has. If you’re having trouble with an essay, stop and think about your past — a lot of times writing blocks can be overcome by reaching inside for a voice that you might have accidentally stifled.

* Names have been changed for privacy purposes.

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