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By Susan Carter

This post reports on a workshop that proved illuminating, leading me to think that closer investigation of voice could be a research project for the future. Are the doctoral students you know conscious of developing their own voices in their writing, or still experimenting to find it, or a bit confused as to what voice actually is? And is this something that as supervisors we are certain about ourselves and can give support for?

The DoctoralWriting SIG has tackled the issue of voice previously, noting that the acquisition of voice is a threshold concept and that voice is the equivalence of persona. We’ve offered tips for developing an authorial voice, suggesting how to inflect voice culturally, and summarising what others have written on argument and voice. I think we circle around voice because it is a rather vague term, and a concept that matters.

Barry White addresses voice, mainly linking it to active versus passive verbs and use of tense (White, 2011, pp135-137). I wondered if thee is more to this, so  I facilitated a workshop so the doctoral candidates who came could engage with what voice is and think about their own performance of voice. What are the textual features that mean you can sometimes recognise authors according to the prose they write?

One article links authorial voice to the use of concordances and the need to avoid plagiarism (Guerin & Pricard, 2012)—and that raises awareness of how complex the nuances are in what is entailed in voice. On one hand, doctoral writers want to sound like others in their discipline; to put that into academic-speak, they need to demonstrate epistemological awareness in their writing. On the other, they must avoid the risk of plagiarism. It is little wonder that academics find it hard to pin down what voice is and how you acquire it.

In the two hour workshop, we first individually addressed the following two challenges.

  1. Construct a definition of voice in academic writing.
  2. List linguistic features and moves that contribute to the creation of authorial voice

We did not get far with definitions–writing is about style, voice emerges from the writing, voice is what writing is–and the lists of what contributes to voice were fairly modest. That did not take us far—I’d love to know whether this works better for others. Ours was a small group and you could try this workshop with a bigger one.

Then, we compared short samples of our own writing to try to find those linguistic features and moves that might comprise distinctive authorial voice. This exercise was more useful; I always find looking closely at actual writing as an exercise is more useful than dealing with abstract concepts of writing.

Finally, we assembled everything we had to see whether we could go further than what we’d found in literature about voice—mostly that advice manuals tend not to directly address it.

Here are findings from a small group doing close reading for a purpose: having gone on the hunt for voice, we suggest the following elements contribute to ‘voice’.

Choice of words

This one was important. Some authors preferred to use as much technical jargon as possible, and Latinate terms in order to be sure that they sounded academic; others preferred simple Anglo-Saxon words and a more natural speaking tone to their prose, e.g. ‘use’ rather than ‘utlize’ and similar options throughout. The terms ‘homely sounding’ and ‘readable’ were floated.

One writer in our group ranged widely and quite wildly with word choice, at times achieving vivid resonance, and at other times raising eyebrows. Another kept her lexicon tightly in check.

One aspired to a style that was ‘almost poetic’ and lyricism could be seen as distinctive. That author liked alliteration: runs of words starting with the same letter, like ‘ doctoral candidates commonly experience doubt, despair and drudgery.’

Extended metaphors

The level of literality varied between those who drew on extended metaphors and those who kept prose literal–theory on the inherent nature of metaphors aside (Lakoff & Johnson, 2003). There is voice difference between ‘Attention at micro and meso levels can prevent candidates from staying aware of the macro level of the doctoral thesis’ and ‘Doctoral candidates can find that they don’t see the woods for the trees, and they may not notice the trees while they stumble around in the undergrowth.’

First person pronoun

This one is also important. We agreed with White (2011) that the use of active verbs and first person pronouns gave a very different inflection from the use of passive verbs and avoidance of first person pronouns. And yes, he’s right that authors who stay doggedly in the past tense do somehow have a more conservative tone that those who venture into the fictional present while discussing literature considered still relevant.

Sentence length

One author consciously varied sentence length; another admitted to a tendency towards sentences that were really too long; readers could identify the difference as ‘voice’.

Punctuation

We noticed that when commas were optional, some people put them in, and others bowled along without signalling a sense of the spoken voice, where people pause for a breath.

Articles

One author tended to drop article use: ‘When writing Literature Review…’ rather than ‘When writing the Literature Review…’.

Moving on from there…

The next question I posed to the group was ‘Do you already have an academic author whose voice you like, admire, and maybe aspire to emulate?’ Helen Sword came up as a style maestro in this workshop and we set ourselves a new goal: to find authors whose voice we admire before the next workshop and to each see how we can manipulate lexicon, grammar, syntax and punctuation to consciously build voice.

If you have other suggestions about what voice is and how you might teach doctoral writers to develop their own, we are interested!

References

Guerin, C., & Pricard, M. (2012). Try it on: Voice, concordancing and text-matching in doctoral writing. International Journal of Educational Integrity, 8(2), 34-45.

Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (2003). Metaphors we live by (2nd ed.). Chicago, Ill. ; London: University of Chicago Press.

White, B. (2011). Mapping your thesis : the comprehensive manual of theory and techniques for masters and doctoral research. Camberwell, Vic.: ACER Press.