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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.

Imagine

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
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