Voice in Academic Writing

Every summer I take a break from editing/translating and teach academic reading and writing at a UK university as an English for academic purposes (EAP) tutor. The course (and wider EAP community) has a few topics it focuses on and promotes. Two of these are arguably Anglocentric – an insistence on “critical thinking” and on “developing one’s own voice”. In today’s blog post I will focus on the latter.

“Voice” is often used in several different ways that easily get confused by students and researchers alike, so it’s worth breaking them down and considering them in turn:

  • Voice as (grammatical) points of view

First, voice can refer to a way of addressing the reader, e.g. through using the first person singular, plural or impersonal forms, active and passive voice etc. For example:

In this paper, I will discuss…

We will now move to consider the main topic…

This paper discusses…*

This topic will be discussed…

Here, voice refers both to its strict grammatical definition (active v. passive), and to grammatical points of view, e.g. first person singular (I), first person plural (We), impersonal forms of addressing the reader etc. In my experience, even really experienced authors sometimes mix and match between these different forms over the course of a book or research paper. Extreme switching breaks the flow and style of the text and makes it difficult for the reader to follow, so it is worth learning to follow these “switches”.

To make things more complicated, what is permitted (e.g. the use of “I”) varies a lot across academic disciplines, so please take care! When editing, the principles I follow here are (i) using any disciplinary knowledge I have to gauge what is acceptable and (ii) applying “regional consistencies” (cf. The Subversive Copyeditor) if the switching is messy.

  • Voice as articulating a viewpoint

The second sense of voice is that of the researcher being able to articulate opinions on paper, using any of the personal or impersonal forms mentioned above. In Anglo-American academia, there is often an emphasis on the author articulating independent original ideas that they reach after individual consideration of a topic. For instance:

This paper argues that climate change denial is a significant threat to humanity

In this paper I argue that Extinction Revolution should not be considered an extremist organization

This is largely the meaning that is taught on the EAP course. Note that using “voice” in the first sense is a pre-requisite for using it in this second sense. Learning this approach can be especially different for students coming from traditions where there is less stress on individual expression (e.g. more collectivist societies).

  • Voice as “creating your register”

Finally, the third sense of voice goes above and beyond the second level. It refers to finding your own personal writing style. This may not be necessary in many disciplines (e.g. scientific disciplines) where a more objectified writing style is commonplace. I would argue that this is a higher level “calibration” and is something that might happen (but not always) over the course of writing a PhD in the arts and humanities. Here, the “personal is political”, and your style – like a good literature review – will link to the body of literature with which you engage, whilst also representing your unique “take” on, and “positioning” within that literature. People who come to know your work will likely be able to recognize your writing style when you get to this level, and of course, it will evolve and develop over time as well. When copyediting books and research articles, preserving the author’s voice is one of the hallmarks of a decent editor. Like the second sense of voice, it is arguably culturally loaded – but that would be a topic for another blog post…

*Some stickleback editors will say a paper can’t discuss anything, so this should be rephrased!

2 thoughts on “Voice in Academic Writing

  1. Interesting post Andrew, thanks. I also teach EAP and find students often confused about if they are supposed to use ‘I’ or not – also there’s a false idea that you are always supposed to use the passive voice and not supposed to put in your own opinions.

  2. Thanks and yes – these points come up every year when I teach EAP. I think EAP is great for going over the basics of academic writing and this helps when trying to understand more complex issues that can come up in editing too.

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