‘voice’ and the craft of academic writing

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.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, Kirin Narayan, voice and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to ‘voice’ and the craft of academic writing

  1. Edda says:

    Thank you for this inspirational post. I went straight to the library and got the book by Narayan – since I am totally stuck in writing a chapter in my self-study thesis. I have now had her book in my hands for two hours and already have found some points to help me to get unstuck.


  2. Daniel says:

    Thanks for sharing this. I haven’t read Narayan’s work before – will have a closer look.

    Thought you (and perhaps your readers) might be interested in a similar post I wrote on voice and academic writing a while back, drawing on Roz Ivanic’s work and a bit of Bakhtin: http://www.danielfryer.no/EN/Blog/Entries/2012/10/26_Whose_Voice_Is_It,_Anyway.html



  3. maelorin says:

    I find that my ‘voice’ in writing comes out as I write. The more I write, the clearer and more consistently my own way of expressing things come out.

    My voice is affected by what I read. Read a great many dry papers, and my writing becomes dry(er). Read a thriller novel, and my writing becomes more ‘racy’.

    When I am ‘stuck’ in my writing, I deliberately go somewhere else and read something else. Changing ‘body space’ can be as useful for changing ‘head space’; and reading can loosen up one’s inner voice. Give your subconscious a chance to flit about, before trying to reign it in to refocus on the task of writing. Sometimes I have to resort to talking about what I’m trying to write: well, by that I mean, speaking literally *is* your voice, and sometimes it’s not until you hear yourself say something that it makes (enough) sense to be able to write it down.

    I have a strong feeling that much of the purpose of rewriting one’s own work is to reread it in your own voice. Or, at worst, to rewrite it in a more consistent one.


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  5. Kip Jones says:

    In a recent article, I write about finding the ‘right’ voice in order to write the story for the short film, RUFUS STONE, with the purpose of conflating my own voice with the voices of others.
    ‘As a story writer, I allowed my self to be “embodied” by my characters, not
    the other way round. I found that contemporary fiction, more often than academic
    prose, provided the blueprint for how to say all of this. Although biography
    and history are often my favourite reads, I found myself returning to fiction
    and the novel for inspiration when writing the back-story and treatment
    for the film’. –Infusing Biography with the Personal: Writing RUFUS STONE


  6. mapetite says:

    I’m off to pick up Kirin Narayan’s book as well, at the very least, because my last name encompasses hers ;). This is something I have struggled with since the early days of my doctoral journey documented at http://phdtalk.totallyvidya.net/academic/what-is-academic-writing/.

    I have been writing all my life, personally as well as professionally, so the process itself was/is not a challenge. However, developing my “academic” voice was a whole other beast. Looking back, much of it was learning academic vernacular, style, and expectations congruent with discovering the “academic me”. Cadence, sequence, rhythm, language all have a role to play, but the heart of the written piece comes from you. As in ethnography, figuring out who “I” am in the process ultimately held many of the answers.

    Great post, thank you for your thoughts :).


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