Completing assignments and writing papers requires much of a writer as writing is more than just filing in blanks of information. Writing, real writing, in which we wrestle with ideas and come to conclusions is hard work. Writing requires critical engagement with material, deep understanding to be able to summarize others’ work, and original articulation of ideas. To succeed, you have to attend to a multiplicity of elements: the topic, the purpose of writing, the conventions, and your audience. With a thesis or dissertation, however, there’s an additional expectation of scholarly voice.
Your writing voice is your unique expression. While voice is somewhat elusive to pinpoint, we know it when we see it. It’s the originality related to topic, style, tone, word choice, sentence structure. On top of that, it’s also the “character” behind the writing: You, the writer. And all of this is in your control. You might think about the last letter you wrote, and how you worked to ensure that your reader could hear your voice through your missive. Now, let’s move away from this informal audience to a more formal context with clear expectations and evaluative criteria.
Before we get into how to achieve a scholarly voice, let’s take care of the elephant in the room. One deterrent in achieving voice in academic writing is the level of formality expected in academic texts. We might see varying degrees of formality in our class assignments, but formality escalates with project writing (capstone papers, theses, or dissertations). Conventions, language, distance of the reader, the high stakes in the writing, all impress upon the writer to maintain a stiffness and correctness that can impact original expression. It’s no wonder, then, that we often see voice come alive in the later chapters of the Ch. 4: Research Findings and Ch 5: Discussion & Conclusions. Why is that? Could it be that it’s in these sections that the writer finally has full control in presenting and discussing the findings and conclusions? Of course, it is.
We wish we could tell you to follow a linear path to achieving a scholarly voice; however, it’s not so facile. Writing is a complex and individualized as a cognitive activity; and then add the context of a highly formalized structure. Scholarly writing has its rules, and the paradox at hand is that unless we take control, the rules can intimidate to the point of obviating original thought. Theses and dissertations demand authentic, creative understanding; it’s essential for writers to assume control of the written word.
As with any craft, writing benefits from a writer’s investment in practice, receiving and integrating outside feedback, and revising. Furthermore, the more a writer takes command, the greater the growth. As an apex of academic writing, scholarly voice demands “perfect practice” and self-conscious refinement of writing. Bottom line: in order to refine your voice, you’ll have to go out of your comfort zone.
To develop meta-cognition as writers we need to consistently engage in a writing process that allows for awareness of our pitfalls, an openness to receive outside feedback, and making the effort for substantive revision. It’s not for the faint of heart, certainly; but any growth takes commitment and courage. At this stage, your writing deserves you to take the additional time to polish for a scholarly voice.
After all this, I have a few suggestions on how you might achieve greater sophistication in your writing to achieve a scholarly voice. An initial examining the writing style particulars will help define how voice is created. For the most part, scholarly writing prefers clarity, concreteness, conciseness, connection, and conversation. Let’s call them the 5 C’s, and you may use these in self-editing your work. It will take time initially, but you it’s like developing anything: you have to be intentional in order to reach greater success. If you need help, a WEX coach or editor is here to help.
The 5 C’s:
- Conversation: Academic writers enter a conversation, and you’re expected to follow the norms related to ways of engagement with the material. There are successful approaches to summarize and synthesize others’ ideas. One way is to frame quotes with what we’ll call a quote sandwich: introduction–quote–explanation.
- Connection: Drawing connections with your material is fundamental to academic writing. Here, though, we’re talking about the actual transitional expression. Transitions not only help the progression from topic to topic, they also help frame the material and create emphasis.
- Conciseness: Strive for greater directness in your writing. Wordiness and heavy prepositional phrases will weigh down on the precision of your writing. (Here’s an example: how about your writing’s precision?).
- Clarity: Write in plain, unfettered English: Avoid academese or convoluted, pretentious writing. Check your writing for overly lengthy sentences and jargon.
- Concreteness: Use your vocabulary and be intentional with your word choice. For example, verbs are controlling words in any sentence. Are you using versions of “to be”? If so, you’re missing the opportunity to create greater definition to your writing. Use the Thesaurus function and find synonyms. (Caveat: use only words that you know and might use.)
Other ways to improve as writers:
- Read other writers as a writer: Find an author you admire. Look at how the author presents material and probe deeper into the author’s syntax and language. What aspects resonate for you? Try integrating those stylistic devices in your own writing.
- Make writing a daily practice: Open a notebook and begin freewriting to stir up creative juices. If you’re unsure of how to get started, WEX has a full month of freewriting activities (See below).
- Use a WEX editor/coach to get you started. WEX coaches and editors are experts in writing. In fact, many AU writers have refined their writing with editing and coaching.
- Check your word choice. Do you overuse certain words? Use your Thesaurus for synonyms.
- Vary your sentence structure and length.
- Read your work aloud or to another person and ask them for feedback. What made sense? What was confusing?
- Do you write only in declarative sentences? Try adapting a few into questions.
- Line edit your own writing.
WEX has several resources that can help you garner greater writing success. Take a look at the following:
The VWC also has excellent resources that help complicate academic writing:
- How is academic writing different?
- Academic Writing and the Writer’s Craft
- Writing for Academic Audiences
Graff, G. & Birkenstein, C. (2010). They say / I Say: The moves that matter in academic writing. New York: Norton.
Pinker, S. (2014a, September. 26). Why academics stink at writing. Chronicle of Higher Education. http://chronicle.com/article/Why-Academics-Writing-Stinks/148989
Robbins, S.P. (2016). Finding your voice as an academic writing (and writing clearly). Journal of Social Work Education, 52:2, 133-35. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/10437797.2016.1151267
Hope this helps!