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This is a reposting of a blog from last year with a refreshed URL.

By Cally Guerin

Doctoral students are often told they ‘must find their own voice’ in their writing, and they must explain the literature ‘in their own words’. Even if the literature they are reading is beautifully expressed, they can’t just copy it: they must find another way of explaining the same ideas. But – and it’s a big but – they have to do this in a way that is recognisable to others in their discipline. Their work needs to match the expectations of their disciplinary community (for example, they need to demonstrate that they can use the ‘correct’ structures, the ‘correct’ citation conventions, the ‘correct’ vocabulary, the ‘correct’ genres and forms) (Eira 2005). Confusingly, they must ‘be original, but not too original’ (Picard & Guerin 2011).

I’m fascinated by the slippery concept of ‘voice’. It seems to me that everyone talks about it as if they know what it means, but if you start to ask them ‘So, how do I demonstrate my voice in writing?’, I’ve noticed some scholars start to look a little shifty and change the subject.

One way of thinking about voice in writing is to notice how we are required to adopt a particular identity or persona for a given writing situation. Bowden (1999) helpfully explains:

as a metaphor [voice] has to do with feeling‐hearing‐sensing a person behind the written words, even if that person is just a persona created for a particular text or a certain reading.

In a sense, then, authors act out an identity in their writing.

Hirvela and Belcher (2001) use Ede’s (1992) concept of the ‘situational voice’, exploring the ways in which writers adopt difference voices for different texts and purposes, rather like they might put on different outfits for different occasions. So, a writer might wear fairly casual clothing – jeans and T-shirt – for an informal seminar in their own department, but choose a smart suit to present the keynote at an international conference. The levels of formality in clothing echo the levels of formality in the language that is used. By contrast, if an academic turned up to a seminar in a ball gown, others are likely to feel that s/he had got the situation extremely wrong – just as using entirely inappropriate language might also be read as not understanding the expected discourse of a particular writing situation. (Proviso: the ball gown might be gorgeous and excite enthusiastic responses from others – I’m not suggesting it is necessarily a bad thing to wear fabulous outfits and maybe there should be more experimentation in these matters…!)

But there’s a further catch – as scholars we are expected to use the language and authorial voices that others have used before us. In being original, but not too original, doctoral writers must select their outfits from the second-hand rack (Ivanic and Camps, 2001), to recycle the language and voices that demonstrate they understand the expectations of the particular writing situation, to show they know how to fit in with the discourse of a particular discipline.

So how and where do we see ‘voice’ in writing? The most useful explanations I’ve been able to find are from Helms‐Park & Stapleton (2003) and Zhao & Llosa (2008). They identify the following voice markers in language:

  1. assertiveness – hedging language, intensifiers;
  2. self-identification – pronoun use, active voice;
  3. reiteration of central point – frequency & explicitness of presentation of central ideas; and
  4. authorial presence and autonomy of thought – presentation of alternative viewpoints, and ‘reader’s impression of the overall authorial presence in a particular piece of writing’.

(This last bit about overall impression I still find somewhat unhelpful, I have to admit.)

Alongside these categories I’ve used the very helpful list of examples that Paltridge and Starfield (2007) provide in their book, which describes some of these concepts in slightly different terms (e.g., ‘boosters’ in place of ‘intensifiers’). They also point out ‘attitude markers’ and ‘engagement markers’, which further help to unpack the idea of how voice appears in the text.

I’ve argued elsewhere (Guerin & Green, 2012) that the process of developing a greater sense of confidence and authority in the persona created in the text is a threshold concept for doctoral candidates. Working out how to balance the demands of which language elements can/should be recycled – which items of clothing are available from the second-hand rack ­– is part of this learning.

What other metaphors or resources have you found useful when explaining or learning about ‘authorial voice’? Have you invented any of your own definitions to pin down this slippery concept?

A longer discussion of this topic is available in Guerin & Picard (2012) Try it on: voice, concordancing and text-matching in doctoral writing. International Journal of Educational Integrity 8(2).

Bowden, D. (1999). The mythology of voice. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook.

Ede, L. (1992). Work in progress: A guide to writing and revising (2nd ed.). New York: St. Martin‟s Press.

Eira, C. (2005). Obligatory intertextuality and proscribed plagiarism. 2nd Asia-Pacific Educational Integrity Conference. Newcastle, Australia, 2–3 December.

Guerin, C., & Green, I. (2012). Voice as a threshold concept in doctoral writing. In Narratives of Transition. Conference Proceedings of 10th Quality in Postgraduate Research Conference, Adelaide, South Australia. http:// http://www.qpr.edu.au.

Helms-Park, R., & Stapleton, P. (2003). Questioning the importance of individualized voice in undergraduate L2 argumentative writing: An empirical study with pedagogical implications. Journal of Second Language Writing, 12(3): 245–265.

Hirvela, A. & Belcher, D. (2001) Coming back to voice: The multiple voices and identities of mature multilingual writers. Journal of Second Language Writing 10(1): 83-106

Ivanic, R. & Camps, D. (2001) I am how I sound: Voice as self-representation in L2 writing. Journal of Second Language Writing 10(1): 3-33.

Paltridge, B. & Starfield, S. (2007) Thesis and Dissertation Writing in a Second Language: A Handbook for Supervisors. London & New York: Routledge.

Picard, M. & Guerin, C. (2011) “Be original, but not too original”: Developing academic voice through innovative use of text-matching and concordancing software. In Beyond Transmission: Innovations in University Teaching. Libri, UK.

Zhao, C. G., & Llosa, L. (2008). Voice in high-stakes L1 academic writing assessment: Implications for L2 writing instruction. Assessing Writing, 13(3): 153–170.

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