thesis to book – finding your author ‘voice’

At the start of a new book, Barbara and I always think about our joint ‘voice’. We decide first of all how we are going to talk about ourselves, and how we are going to address the reader. We find that focusing on this writer-reader relationship is a good beginning, an orientation to all of the writing to come. That’s because it’s not simply a question of choosing a couple of pronouns but thinking about the impressions and relationship that those pronouns create.

The choices for addressing the reader are deceptively simple. Is it ‘you’? Do you want to address the reader directly or not? Most advice books written for doctoral researchers use the second person pronoun. The advice givers speak directly to you – just like this blog. But Barbara and I decided that in our first two books about writing that we would avoid ‘you’, and talk instead about supervisors and doctoral researchers as a group – we hoped that this would give readers the choice of whether to identify with one or the other – or not at all. However, in our current book – a resource book written just for doctoral researchers – we have gone for ‘you’ because we want to create the sense that we are actually in conversation with each and every reader.

The pronoun choices for the writer are also deceptively simple – it’s either I, we or (absent). Of course Barbara and I can talk about ‘we’ when we write, because there’s two of us writing. However, we sometimes get ourselves into a muddle because we lapse into a royal we, a general and communal and unspecific we. And we’re not the only ones who have we trouble.

William Germano’s “From dissertation to book” has a useful little section on what he calls “pronoun trouble”. He has something to say about this ambiguous ‘we’.

“As we have seen”, begins the dissertation, and so I find myself looking around quickly to see who is peering over my shoulder. The imaginary collective reader is a commonplace of collective writing. Thousands of dissertations, as well as scholarly articles and monographs, appeal to the slippery “we”. Is the writer using an intimate “we” – just herself-as-writer and me-as-her-reader? Perhaps her “we” is more crowded, a pack of like-minded scholars of which she is, however modestly, at the vanguard? Or is the “we” meant to write me, too, into this larger scholarly community? I might be flattered that the writer thinks I’m smart enough to join in, but as a reader I don’t much like being told what I think”. (105)

Germano doesn’t like ‘we’. He’s a former publisher now turned academic and it’s not just ‘we’ he takes exception to. He clearly doesn’t like a lot of scholarly writing conventions. He may not be able to take on the whole academic writing community, but he does want to do something helpful in relation to writing academic books. So his advice is to avoid ‘we’. He’s also not that keen on ‘I’, and not because some disciplines avoid it, and some supervisors counsel against it. No, his concern is that too much ‘I’ can become, as he puts it, “wearisome”.

Germano is also quite cognizant of the problem with the (absent) narrator who speaks with great authority from everywhere and nowhere at the same time, refusing to reveal themselves. But he refrains from advocating any particular pronoun use. However, he does suggest that both a self-aware, judicious ‘I’ or a lively (absent) might be OK. Pronouns might be tricky, but they aren’t really the problem, he asserts, addressing his reader directly:

In the best academic writing, the author’s persona is present through the choice of language and the clarity of argument, but not through assertive pronouns. Let your facts or your interpretation speak. (104).

Germano notes that writing as (absent) is often associated with writing in the passive voice. And it is this combination – (absent) plus passive voice – which produces that sense of a dry, even, factual, distanced, impersonal writer…. Anything but lively then… Writing which does not speak to its reader. The reader has no way to connect to the writer because the subject matter is presented in the same monotone as legal and bureaucratic documents. Germano has something witty to say about this too.

…someone who writes in the passive hopes no-one will notice that she’s there. It’s a cozy place to hide. Writing can be like going through customs. “Anything to declare?” asks a flint-eyed customs officer. Most people rely on a cheerful smile and a shake of the head, hoping there won’t be any questions about the extra bottle of wine or the embroidered tablecloth. Most academic writing hopes to slither through customs, too. Instead of a smile, scholarly writers too often depend on the passive, fearful that a direct statement might open them up to equally direct inspection. (113)

Scholars are often encouraged to write inert prose, Germano observes – he doesn’t understand why, but he suspects “the dynamics of academia tolerate only limited individuality, because the training of scholars remains in many ways a guild process…” (106)

One of the things I like most about Germano’s chapter “Making process speak” is his notion that writing the book of the thesis is an opportunity to do the work on writing ‘voice’ and ‘style’ that wasn’t encouraged/required/possible in the dissertation. This should be thought of as a chance to build on the dissertation, a time to, as he says, “find out who your writing self is.” (106)

So rather than think of the minimum amount of revision possible, the idea Germano promotes, and I agree, is to think of the conversion of the thesis to book as a time to hone your writing craft. After all, you know what to say. You made a contribution in the thesis and it was recognized. You were successful. The book is the time to really focus on how the research is communicated to a wider group of readers. And considering the writer-reader relationship is not a bad place to start.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
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2 Responses to thesis to book – finding your author ‘voice’

  1. Pingback: exorcise the inner “doctoral student” from your writing | patter

  2. Pingback: what is author ‘voice’? | patter

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