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Claire Aitchison

So much has been written about voice in research and thesis writing and yet it continues to be a perennial concern amongst bloggers, writing teachers and researchers. In a recent supervisory discussion, I was reminded again of just how contentious this issue can be.

Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash

What is voice?

Some people consider voice simply in terms of rhetorical and linguistic devices, but for me, it is SO much more.

I think of ‘voice’ as the sense of the author conveyed, intentionally or otherwise, through a host of interacting features including affect, tone, style, self-revelation and involving complex issues of identity, intent, and academic and disciplinary practice. In other words, I regard voice as a social practice of identity making. In this, I am heavily influenced by the work of Ros Ivanič (1998) who sees voice in relationship to an author’s struggles with authority, self-representation and personal history. For doctoral writers and their practices, these struggles are in direct relationship with questions of the ‘autobiographical self’ (the writer’s life-history, the motivations driving their research scholarship), the ‘self as author’ (i.e., the authorial self, the authority they bring to their writing) and the ‘discoursal self’ (a writer’s representation of self).  Some of this identity formation through writing is conscious and some unconscious, sometimes it is conflictual, and it is always contextual – influenced by the norms and practices of the discipline, the methodological approach, the topic itself, the impending examination, and perhaps even the preferences and predilections of the supervisor!

What kind of voice is acceptable in doctoral writing?

In some disciplinary traditions, factors combine to inhibit doctoral writers from straying too far from historical notions of scientific objectivity in their writing. For example, quantitative researchers in STEM often work within strict expectations concerning writing style which require the author to keep their presence at bay and foreground factual, objective ‘truth-telling’ as if untainted by humans. This kind of writing generally eschews the use of the first person, favours the passive voice and adheres to well-established structural forms. The voice of the individual scientific writer is less easy to identify in such writing – many of these theses and publications are formulaic.  The ‘voice’ matches the expectations of the scientific community of readers and researchers (and examiners).

For many humanities and creative practice researchers there is the opposite expectation – that is, that these writers develop and demonstrate their own authentic writerly voice. Even social scientists will be more likely than STEM writers to put their own stamp on their doctoral writing. However, when candidates wish to break away from ‘the long arm of the scientific method’, there are fewer certainties, and the job of the supervisor can sometimes be tricky as they steer this exploration of voice towards a safe and appropriate version.

For these scholars, their voice will likely evolve over years and iterations of writing the thesis. The shape and form of this voice will be determined by their growing dexterity with linguistic and rhetorical devices that traditionally signal authority, such as use of the third person, active/ passive/ agentless passive constructions, nominalization, reporting verb choices, the appropriate use of hedging and modality and so on.

Importantly, too, other aspects of voice such as tone and stylistic conventions will be explored for their suitability to the task and audience. Self-revelation, the explicit bringing of oneself into the text, can be overt (as in putting oneself into the research story), or more covert where a writer takes a stance (as in a critical evaluation of literature or theory). Self-revelation may also be unintentional, for example, where an author’s bias is clear to the reader (but perhaps not to the writer).

These signalers work together to create a sense of the author – their ‘voice’ – and this sense needs to be holistic and consistent. Achieving this across the thesis can be a challenge.

Getting the voice ‘right’

Many a supervisor, reviewer and examiner has identified when the voice is wrong – for example, when the writing is too tentative or timid, when the style is defensive, bombastic or pretentious, when there is simply too much of the writer and their presence overshadows their message, when the voice is too flowery or too sharp, when we ask ‘where are you in this?’ and so on. Other times the voice comes and goes – or only features once, in the methodology for example. This litany of complaints about inappropriate voices, defined by their wrong-ness, doesn’t help us help students get it right.

Getting the voice ‘right’ involves making sure it matches the kind of study being undertaken, that it enlivens the thesis but falls short of making it ‘entertainment’, that it maintains a sense of authority and gravitas appropriate to the task. The right voice needs to be authentic for the writer and the identity they wish to wear – and it needs to engage the reader and meet (or even exceed) the expectations of the examiner.

In workshops on voice in doctoral writing I have found it useful to ask students to bring their favourite thesis and, in groups, discuss what they like and why – and what aspects they might adapt to their own thesis writing. The groups then discuss the following questions in relation to their own thesis writing.

Identity and intent

  • What kind of person do you wish to portray through your writing?
  • What kind of writer/researcher/academic/person do you want to be known as?
  • What aspects of writer identity will be foregrounded in your text?
  • Can you identify if, and where, in the text your writer identity may shift?

Content and audience

  • Who is/are your audience(s) and what are their needs/expectations?
  • Does your writerly voice change depending on what you are writing about?

Disciplinary and methodological practices

  • What are the disciplinary expectations of you as a scholarly writer?
  • In what way(s) is your writing influenced by the theoretical and methodological frames you are working with?

Personal aspirations

  • Are there tensions between these expectations and your own desires as a writer? And, if so, how do you resolve these tensions?

If you’re interested in more on voice in doctoral writing a good starting place would be to explore posts on the subject in our blog, and at Patter and Exploration of Style.

And, please let us know of other useful blogs and resources you’ve come across.

Reference:

Ivanič, R. (1998). Writing and Identity: The Discoursal Construction of Identity in Academic Writing Amsterdam: Benjamins.