Academics often worry about finding their ‘voice’ when writing. They feel that it’s something they ought to have. However, they also often feel that the process of getting/finding their ‘voice’ -whatever voice is – is pretty difficult when there is so much else to do. Cite literatures. Discuss methods. Report data. Who has time to work out what their ‘voice’ might be?
The worry about ‘voice’ begins with understanding what the term usually refers to. Here’s one view of it, Kirin Narayan’s. Narayan is an anthropologist who works, among other things, on the craft of ethnographic writing. Her recent book on writing begins with an orientation to narrative and then focuses on four key ‘sites’ for writing – place, person, voice and self.
She begins her chapter on voice by suggesting that getting to grips with ‘voice’ is particularly important to ethnographers. I’m going to quote her at some length on this as reading her conveys something of her own writing ‘voice’.
Ethnographers build texts from conversations: overheard words, directed interviews, theorists’ debates. These varied voices might be reproduced through specific quoted words – recorded words, remembered words, words mediated by translation – or they might be paraphrased. An ethnographer’s own voice can serve as a guide and interpreter, sorting out these other voices. (p 69)
Narayan directs readers first to spoken language, and the ways in which meanings are conveyed through different accents, timbres, textures, pitch, inflections, rhythms, pauses and accompanying gestures. She provides exercises that offer readers opportunities to develop description about the spoken conversations that researchers typically engage in. She points out that informants’ key ideas are conveyed through their speech, and she directs readers to consider how they can identify these by listening to the words that are repeated or emphasised in noticeable ways. Narayan offers particularly helpful advice on transcribing interviews and for thinking about the ways in which cultural and political conventions might limit interviews and conversations. Nevertheless, she reminds us, forbidden topics are often communicated without words.
She then comes to writing and voice. She says:
“Voice” doesn’t just refer to spoken words: it also implies the sense of a communicating presence behind written words. Without even using “I” or explicitly introducing the self, the choice, sequence, and rhythm of words establishes a witnessing evaluating presence. Largely because of voice, some writing magnetically commands attention – you can’t help but keep reading. Other writing can seem about as appealing as a half-swallowed mumble, a mechanical recitation, an incantation of prestige-laden names and terms. (p 85)
Narayan considers the way in which the voices of singers can suffer from particular training regimes, from fear, or from regimes that are too demanding. She turns to a Hindustani classical singer who learnt to sing by exploring a single note. Narayan uses this example to suggest that ethnographic writers need to do something like this – to spend time exploring their own ‘self’. She does this, she reveals, by producing one handwritten page each morning.
The page could be about anything at all, and is above all a way to be with myself. I find that this solitary, inward-turning writing practice helps me sort through thoughts, images, feelings, stories. Finding words for the fluctuating welter of each day’s inner themes can grant me a more limber and confident voice for writing that faces outward, as a performance for others. (p88)
Some bloggers suggest that writing posts serves something of the same function.
Narayan offers three exercises which could help academic writers to develop their own writing ‘voice’. One is to analyse the writing of someone important to your study, a person whose writing you admire. The second is to rewrite a distinctive piece of academic writing in your own words and to analyse the difference. The third is to go to the data:
Present a dialogue that reveals information of insights central to your project. (This could draw from interactions you participated in, overheard, or are piecing together from other accounts). Pay attention to the textures, cadences, and intonations of voices, including your own. 2 pages.
The other chapters have similarly challenging and potentially useful exercises.
I like Narayan’s book a lot. It sits in my book shelf with others that I like to dip in and out of to help me think about writing. I’d recommend that anyone who is concerned with developing their own writing ‘voice’ might borrow it from the library – and for a bit of time, not just for a quick flick through. The whole book is worth considering slowly, not just the chapter I’ve featured here.
Kirin Narayan (2012) Alive in the writing. Crafting ethnography in the company of Chekov. The University of Chicago Press.