How to Develop Your Authorial Voice in Academic Writing

Find out why authorial voice is so important to academic writing and get tips for how to develop your own.
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Academic writing is often—unfairly!—considered dry, dense, or frustratingly abstruse. We tend to associate an author’s voice more with creative writing than scholarly texts. But, in fact, the academic texts that are the most compelling to read—and the most enjoyable to write—have a strikingly clear authorial voice.

Many guides to developing a scholarly voice focus on cultivating a certain level of formality in writing and are aimed at undergraduate students encountering academic writing for the first time. However, graduate students and scholars often find they have the opposite problem: they’ve embraced formality and certain habits of academic discourse and, in the process, have lost their own voice. 

This post is dedicated to helping you recuperate that voice and make sure it comes across in your writing. 

What Is Voice? 

Voice can be difficult to pin down. Journals have published pieces on the topic, although in general it’s under-discussed in academia. You may write in different scholarly genres or with different levels of formality, and your style may even vary, but your voice is present no matter what. 

Voice conveys how you see things and how you tell stories. That includes both the kinds of details you believe are important to your argument and the tone and figurative language you use to shape a narrative.

Authorial voice also distinguishes your argument and contribution from those of the scholars you are citing. Of course, proper attribution should always make it clear which ideas are your own, but if you have a consistent, strong voice readers will come to recognize your argument. Your voice will come across more strongly when you are presenting your own analysis, rather than summarizing other people’s work, so make sure not to rush those parts of your text. Give your ideas space to unfold in your own words.

How to Find and Craft Your Voice

 

Read

Think about a text in your field that you loved reading. What about it pulled you in besides the content? Were there images or metaphors that really brought things to life for you? Was the writing wry or even humorous? Was it sharp? Could you hear the sentences as if they were being read aloud in your head? 

You don’t need to copy other writers, but you can try to identify which elements of their writing you like, which aspects “sound like you.” There are even online tools to compare your writing to another text and point out the grammatical and stylistic aspects you may instinctively like but had not thought to incorporate in your writing.

You should also read outside of your field: sometimes we’re so caught up in the vocabulary and conventions of our subject matter that we forget there are other ways to speak and write! Reading fiction or journalism can remind you there are other ways to present an argument or tell a story.

Imagine

Voice is about your specific use of language, which is something you can craft and refine (see the section on editing below), but it is also about how you imagine things and how you tell stories. These are things you already do and that are unique to you. 

You want your reader to see something the way you’re visualizing it, be that a historical development, the characterization of an artistic movement, or the connection between sociocultural developments and individual actions. What does that “thing” look like in your head? 

Having a clear sense of what you’re imagining will help you use figurative language to tell your story vividly.

Write

Try freewriting: this could be unstructured writing about your topic or about something entirely different that’s floating around in your head. Don’t look up citations or consult your notes. What does your writing sound like when it’s not constrained by worries about precision or having to bring across a specific argument succinctly? 

You can encourage this by using a different method, such as writing by hand or recording yourself speaking. You can even type on your phone. Try to detach this writing from the idea of a final product.

Edit

Once you have a sense of what sounds good to you and are imagining the story you want to tell, you face the challenge of conveying it on the page while contending with all of the nitty-gritty of academic writing—citation, paraphrasing, detailed analysis. It is possible to follow the conventions of your field without losing your voice, and stilted writing does not equal rigor. 

As you write, rewrite, and edit, keep the following points in mind so that your voice comes across clearly:

  • Use the first person

Using the pronoun “I” is now acceptable in most fields. It allows you to build strong, active sentences and shows your intervention in the field. It’s much easier to let your voice come through when you’re narrating your argument in first person. 

Think carefully about when you use “we”: Who are you including in that group? Does everyone in that group really share the perspective you’re ascribing to them? With a judicious use of “we,” you can allude to yourself and the community of readers who have followed your argument through the text and seen the evidence you’ve laid out for them—by the end, we should believe you!

  • Use verbs rather than noun phrases

Wordiness gets in the way of your meaning and muddles your voice. Rather than “enacts the development of,” use “develops”; instead of “contributes to the maintenance of,” “helps maintain”; for “creates a distortion in,” “distorts.” Once you start seeing and hearing these sorts of phrases in your text, you’ll be able to write and edit your way to a clearer voice.

  • Track your figurative language

Even if you don’t think of yourself as a literary or flowery writer, there are metaphors lurking in your articles and book chapters! Every time we talk about “framing” or “signposting”—or a “palimpsest of ideas” or “conceptual bridge”—we are creating an image in our readers’ minds. 

Look for these in your writing, and make sure they align with the narrative you are imagining. This will help you avoid mixed metaphors. When you are signposting a palimpsest of ideas that frames a conceptual bridge, you’re essentially throwing too many conflicting images at your reader—and creating a figuratively unstable structure!

  • Vary your sentence length

This is a stylistic trick that has the same effect as punctuating your speech with a well-timed pause or brief remark. It drives home the point you are making and gives your audience time to absorb what they’ve been reading.

Finally, just because your voice is your own doesn’t mean you have to be alone in crafting it. You may be getting in your own way or you may simply not be able to hear your own voice in sentences that you’ve read over and over. Consider hiring an editor. A professional line editor will prioritize maintaining and amplifying your academic voice. They may help you really hear yourself for the first time.

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About the author

Tess C. Rankin is a Spanish-English translator and editor who works with many ESL authors. She has served as managing editor of an academic journal and published her own work on gender and the scientific imaginary. As a line editor and copyeditor at Flatpage, she enjoys listening for what makes authors’ voices unique and making sure their ideas come through clearly.

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