Voice in academic writing

Voice in academic writing

Image credit: Kona Macphee

Heather Dyer

We know what ‘voice’ is in creative writing: it’s the way Ernest Hemingway’s sentences are clean and direct, or Jane Austen’s are witty and elegant. It’s how a writer sounds. It’s a reflection of who they are. But is it possible to cultivate a voice in academic writing?

Poor academic writing can be convoluted and obscure. The writer’s voice might be described as detached or passive — as though the writer is talking from a lofty position a long way away, to nobody in particular. Such writing can alienate the reader, not only because it’s difficult to understand but also because the writer and the reader don’t connect. The writer isn’t reaching out to the reader to help them understand. And if the writer cares about their subject, it doesn’t show.

In contrast, good academic writers communicate their ideas simply and clearly, conveying a sense of wonder or excitement about their subject and bringing a little of their heart into their writing. Here are some ways you can cultivate your voice.

Care about your reader

It’s hard to make difficult concepts easily understood. Help your reader by imagining someone who knows less than you do, rather than someone you’re trying to impress. Break processes down into steps and lead the reader by the hand through each step. In doing this, you’re likely to gain a deeper understanding of the subject yourself, too.

Get out of your own way

Stop trying to sound ‘academic’ and think hard about the subject. We’re at our most authentic (and most convincing) when we focus not on how we sound but on the subject itself.


Instead of imagining yourself lecturing from a podium, imagine you’re trying to explain your idea to a friend over a coffee. How can you help them ‘see’ what you’re describing? The imagination is powerful. Metaphors, similes or analogies can help a reader visualise what you’re talking about. Be creative.

Be emotive

Revealing emotion might seem to go against the core ethos of academic writing, which is usually to be impartial and objective. Yet a degree of subjectivity can help to engage the reader and convey your passion for the subject. Do you find a theory ‘compelling’? Or is an idea ‘baffling’ or ‘uninspiring’? Subjective words are powerful. Employ restraint, and only use them if you mean them.

Our writing voice can enthuse and convince. It’s a powerful tool that develops over the span of our writing lives.

9 January 2020
You before me: prioritising the reader

You before me: prioritising the reader

Katie Grant

Image credit: Debbie Toksvig

When writing the first draft of a novel, I don’t think much about the reader, if at all. The reader would distract from the world I’m creating. When I plan, I plan for the characters, for their relationships with each other and for what happens to those relationships. During first creation, it’s ‘me (the writer) before you (the reader)’.

For doctoral students writing a thesis, the priorities are precisely the opposite. Even at first draft, the thesis writer has to think carefully about what the reader needs to know at any given point. Likåe a novel, a doctoral thesis can surprise or shock, but while readers of novels can be bamboozled and even, if the novelist wishes, hoodwinked, the reader of a doctoral thesis should never be bamboozled, and hoodwinking is out of the question. From the start of a thesis to the end, it’s ‘you (the reader) before me (the writer)’.

Running an academic writing retreat this summer, it was clear that while doctoral students understand ‘you before me’ in theory, it’s not easy in practice. Unsurprisingly, doctoral students at the writing-up stage want to show off their research, their academic insights and discernments, their original thinking, their argument. And so they should. But research, insights, discernments, original thinking and, most importantly, the force of an argument are all diminished if the thesis writer has prioritised what they want to say above what they have prepared the reader to absorb.

So how do you prepare the reader? First, you must decide who the reader is. Doctoral students should rightly focus on their supervisors and examiners as readers, but sponsors and research partners might also need to be taken into account. The readability of their text should be discussed with their supervisor, as well as perennial worries, such as how much explanation is required for discipline-specific terms.

But whoever the reader, the persuasive power of a thesis lies in the writer shepherding them smoothly from point to point, making sure each point builds on the one before. One useful technique is the ‘nine-point thesis’. This involves identifying up to nine critical points in your thesis – for example, when there is a shift in argument or an approach from a new angle – and listing these points (a sentence or two) in the order you will present them. Any disconnect or jolt between points should spring out at you, and you may need to tweak the order.

At this summer’s retreat, my fellow facilitator and I asked participants to practise the nine-point thesis using a fairy tale familiar from their childhood. From the Western tradition, Little Red Riding Hood in nine points! From other traditions, other stories. It’s a fun task, and demonstrates the linear structure from which most theses benefit. The students can play about with their nine points, too. If they change the order in their tale, what difference does it make to the story? They return to their theses with readerly eyes, ready, if necessary, to adjust the order of the points they are making, and with a technique to help them do so.

A novelist, too, cannot ignore the reader forever. For me, the morphing of ‘me before you’ into ‘you before me’ is part of the editing process. That’s the novelist’s privilege. It’s not a privilege a thesis writer enjoys. For doctoral students aiming for maximum impact, it has to be ‘you before me’ all the way from first draft to viva.

18 October 2018
The story of your research

The story of your research

As a storyteller, I see stories everywhere. We all do this to some extent. In fact, we only ‘exist’ in the context of our stories: who we are, how we came to be here, where we’re going and why. We ‘story’ our existence because we want to understand how things fit and what will happen.

Stories aren’t a random series of events, though; they have a pattern. Typically, a hero ventures out into the unknown, faces challenges and defeats, and invariably has to let go of a false belief or flawed thinking in order to learn something new. Even following a cake recipe is a story of sorts: you want to achieve something, you begin, you carry out challenging steps, then you entrust the cake mixture to the oven, hoping the result will satisfy your guests. Even if the recipe doesn’t work out, maybe you’ll learn something.

The principles of storytelling can be applied to academic writing, too. When students are struggling to shape their research into a dissertation or thesis, I ask them the same sort of questions I’d ask a creative-writing student about their novel:

• What was the status quo before you began?
• What are you trying to achieve? What problem are you trying to overcome?
• Why is this important? What are the stakes?
• What do people believe? Does this need to change?
• How are you going to get to where you want to go?
• What are the difficulties?
• Does your journey have a high point? A low point?
• What have you found? What do you think you’ll find?
• What’s the significance of your findings?
• How will they change things? What will happen now?

Finding the narrative of your research can help you write a powerful abstract, case study, press release or funding application. It will make the story of your research more compelling. Being able to tell this story in a few sentences can also be helpful when you’re networking at conferences or trying to explain what you do to people outside your area of expertise.

18 April 2018
Who’s listening?

Who’s listening?

Nothing is more paralysing than speaking to people who know more than you do about the very thing you’re speaking about. Students sometimes write badly for a related reason. They write with defensive terror, knowing the person reading the essay is their tutor: the expert. It’s the person who will literally judge them! Liberate yourself by imagining your essay is a talk to a group of sympathetic peers or perhaps to colleagues from different fields from your own. These are people who want to hear from you, who want to be convinced by you, who want to walk away from your essay knowing something they never knew before, and thinking something they had never thought. Then you will relax and lose that fear of your audience.

James McConnachie
29 November 2017

Seeing the obstacle as a gift

Seeing the obstacle as a gift

I think of obstacles as friends in the process of writing.

I have often found that when I’ve stumbled upon a problem when writing a play, that very obstacle has turned out to be a gift. In finding the solution, I’ve pushed the play into directions and dimensions I hadn’t thought of when I first had the idea, allowing it to achieve its greatest potential, and giving me a key to unlock my own deeper motivations for writing the piece. Here’s just one example.

Years ago, I was writing a radio play about the relationship between a young woman who had recently been paralysed and a capuchin monkey being trained to be her aide and companion. How do you give a voice to a monkey, a voice that isn’t Disney, and isn’t simplistically anthropomorphic? By chance, I discovered that the capuchin monkeys being trained in this way come from a part of the Amazon rainforest where a people called the Bororos live. The Bororos believe that monkeys are human children who died in childhood and were born again as monkeys, so I used the mythology of the Bororos to find a child/monkey voice for the character of Jacu. Along the way, the play took off in several unplanned directions, and became much more layered, exploring how we connect with nature, with animals, and with our mothers, and how missionaries sometimes colluded with the persecution of the Bororos by prospectors and developers.

In my work as an RLF Consultant Fellow, I’ve shared this idea about obstacles with students and academics, and they have almost always been able to run with it. One senior lecturer in Pharmacology wanted to argue the case for giving pharmacologists a more active role with patients in these days of acute stress within the NHS, but kept tripping over memories of her father’s work as an old-style pharmacist. To her, such personal recollections seemed out of place in an academic study. I suggested that she could embrace the apparent obstacle and write her paper partly as a memoir, to include vignettes from her childhood. Thus she could foreground the central role a pharmacist once held in communities in Britain, as a powerful contrast to the current situation.

The effect was immediate: her writing became much more compelling — as if it had been set free. Afterwards, she said of the process: ‘I found a narrative voice I didn’t know I had, and changed my research question very radically as a result.’ For her, as for me, the obstacle had been a gift, and it had given her a more personal connection to the work — with no loss of academic rigour.

10 May 2017
Voice and tone

Voice and tone

As Anna Barker has so eloquently pointed out (Finding your voice, November 2016), an author’s voice is their most important attribute, although this doesn’t mean it should be constantly in the reader’s ear. It’s there, though. Just as habitual listeners are unlikely to mistake Rachmaninov for Mozart, so habitual readers will immediately recognise, for example, Jane Austen, James Joyce or Martin Amis. When I write a newspaper column, I want readers to know it’s me without looking at my byline. Without voice, authors might as well be robots.

Academic writing is, of course, different. It’s vital to find your own voice, but for doctoral theses and journal articles, that voice must be tempered by academic conventions. Postgraduates find this a challenge. During immersive writing sessions at the University of Glasgow, my co-facilitator and I asked doctoral students to describe their feelings about academic tone. ‘Prison’ was a favourite description. For staff and postgraduates at the Glasgow School of Art’s Institute of Design Innovation, tone was also a daunting hurdle. Their work involves living people and living landscapes. Academic tone seemed to drain all the life away.

Historical novelists face the same problem. Dialogue written in the style of the novel’s era is a real life-drainer. ‘Zounds, sirrah, prithee hie for the apothecary’ is Blackadder territory. Serious authors must discover how to evoke the period without strangling their story. Hilary Mantel is an excellent tutor. ‘Cromwell has the skin of a lily,’ she has the king say near the start of Bring Up the Bodies, ‘the only particular in which he resembles that or any other blossom.’ The tone is not 21st century: we might say ‘skin like a lily’ or ‘lily-like skin’; ‘the only particular’ would be ‘the only way’; ‘flower’ is now preferred to ‘blossom’. Nevertheless, we get the joke. Far from tone being a constraint, in Mantel’s hands, it’s fuel.

A historical novelist myself, I particularly empathise with students struggling with tone. One successful strategy for both novelist and student is to be punctilious with punctuation. Inserting every comma, every full stop, every semi-colon and colon, injects formality. Another is to study in detail the tonal technique of authors you admire – words, phrases, sentence and paragraph structure – until you understand how tone actually works. It takes time but not one second is wasted.

As for robot authors, they are already with us. Many media outlets now use software to write data-heavy stories. Some predict that a machine will one day win a Pulitzer Prize. On that day, forget voice and tone. Unless they’ve got shares in the software, the only sound will be human authors shrieking.

15 March 2017
Writing with empathy

Writing with empathy

anne-wilson-profile-picA rough-looking man took us to the caravan, leading a frisky horse and surrounded by barking dogs. His eyes were muted with mistrust. It had taken an education liaison worker several weeks to gain the Travellers’ trust and negotiate our meeting. Once inside the spacious, spotless interior of the caravan, I was mesmerised by cabinets full of Royal Crown Derby bone china, hand-finished in 22-carat gold. I learned later that this china is highly prized by Traveller women and displayed as a sign of wealth.

My job was to write a script for a film that would persuade the Traveller community to send more of their children to secondary school, my task that day to listen: to imagine myself in the shoes of parents who fear that their children will be victimised, vilified and bullied; their daughters corrupted and their sons led astray.

Empathy is crucial to the type of writing I do. I help people to communicate – online, in film, in print, in person – by balancing the story they want to tell with the interests and concerns of their audience. Our film would only convince Traveller parents of the value of school education if the content, style and structure of my script addressed their feelings and anxieties. As writers, though we often have an equally clear story to tell – about our research, for example – it’s easy to forget that readers’ own knowledge, perspective and expectations are not the same as ours, which can prevent them from hearing our message.

When I work with students and staff in universities, I challenge them to imagine all their various readers, to define what is most important to each and guess how long an individual will spend reading what they write. I encourage academics to put themselves in the shoes of an overloaded reader on a rainy Monday morning and to write in a way that connects strongly to their audience’s interests. Empathy helps us to understand and engage our readers; it breaks down barriers and allows them to hear what we have to say. Identify what drives your audience, speak to it — and you will have your readers in the palm of your hand.

7 December 2016
Finding your voice

Finding your voice

Image credit: Anna Barker

Image credit: Anna Barker

When I began my writing career, I devoured the novels of authors I admired and read creative writing self-help books cover to cover. I wrote plot outlines on huge sheets of brown paper and stuck them on my wall; I played around with character sketches until I had what I thought was an interesting cast. But one area of my writing development had me stumped. I had no voice. My words were flat, pedestrian; there was nothing in my work that jumped off the page and sizzled in the air. I wanted the magic the writers I admired had in abundance. When I read what I had written, I sounded like a terrible parody of a writer. Where was my voice?

I went down many a dark alley in my writing looking for it. In the end it came from writing about something very personal, something only I could write about. I chose a subject filled with pain and grief, which tore at my guts as I wrote it. And there it was, like a whale coming up for air. The words jumped off the page.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines voice as ‘the distinctive tone or style of a literary work or author.’ That’s certainly a good starting point, but it seems rather nebulous. Often, voice comes from originality and having the courage to express it, from being less tentative and timid and more confident and forthright. When I read academic writing that lacks a voice I immediately look for the location of the writer’s ideas. Are they at the end of a long train of dutiful acknowledgements of more established ideas? Does the writer position front and centre what is unique about their perspective, for example — at the beginning of paragraphs, sections or chapters? If not, the writer hasn’t yet found their voice.

This is unsurprising. Students tend to describe themselves as researchers, not writers. But to thrive in their careers, especially if they stay in academia, they will benefit from developing a distinctive and compelling voice – something I stressed when co-facilitating a thesis-writing immersive course for postgraduate students at Teesside University earlier this year.

As I sit down to plan my third novel I’m already thinking not just about the characters’ voices and what problems I might set for them, but also how I can feed my own voice. I’m reminding myself about what allows my voice to infuse my writing: dialogue, nature, process, sexuality — and courage.

9 November 2016
What’s your investment in your writing?

What’s your investment in your writing?

Image credit: Soren Levy Sands

Image credit: Soren Levy Sands

So much of a writer’s work happens off the page that it is sometimes difficult when teaching ‘craft’ or writing technique to convey the importance of the work that takes place before you put fingers to keyboard. Off-stage is a vast territory of motivations and ambitions, impulses and imaginings, to say nothing of the essential grunt work involved — at least in academic writing — in structuring an argument that is grounded in extensive research. How to bring it all together? How to focus your attention on the single thing that feels authentic? How, in other words, do you locate the place from where you speak?

Reading Mary Karr’s latest book, The Art of Memoir, I came upon a sentence that summed up for me the way into this question. ‘The goal of a voice is to speak not with objective authority but with subjective curiosity.’ Start, in other words, from the inside, and then work your way outwards.

But there’s more: the best voices, says Karr, ‘include a writer’s insides’. They never lose site of the ego’s shape, its blind spots, its prejudices, its wants — all those filters that colour everything you think and see and remember and value.

In memoir, part of the writer’s job is to keep those filters visible and in play, something I consciously attempted to do in my work, especially in my latest book The Middlepause. In my work as an RLF Consultant Fellow with PhD students at the London School of Economics, I feel that getting them, too, to be properly acquainted with their insides is part and parcel of the job. They know about subjectivity (that is to say, they know what they think and feel), but many believe that academic writing involves erasing themselves, striving for an ‘objective’ voice that carries authority, flushes out bias. They fret about whether or not to use the first-person pronoun for fear of contaminating their dispassion. My feeling is that researchers gain critical insight into their work when made to answer the following question: what is your investment in this?

I suggest that this investment is their subjectivity, and that it goes far beyond whether or not they use the word ‘I’. I tell them that I’m talking about bringing all of themselves to their work, so that a vital curiosity animates everything they write, and that recognising the filters through which they process information will inflect every thought with self-awareness.

12 October 2016