academic writing voice …. and voices in your head…

I’ve just been to a summer festival. It was a picture perfect weekend. The weather was hot. While it was humid, it wasn’t so sticky that it brought the mosquitoes out. There was no need for wellies, the ground was dry and firm, the grass green, the estuary water warm, the evening breeze cool, the flower beds vibrant with blowsy annuals. It was a quintessentially bucolic summer occasion.

It was of those festivals where there is a mix of events. Some music, some books, some art, some cooking, some theatre. I like to mainly hang out around the spoken word events and break this up occasionally with music. Inevitably I go to listen to writers. They, of course, are there to talk up their latest book. However, they also often talk about writing and the writing process. Their conversations are not usually of the I-write-every-morning-for-two-hours variety. It’s more a case of this-is-what-I-was-thinking-about and I’ve-been-wanting-to-do-something-about-this-for-some-time and I-started-working-on-that-but-then-this-just-demanded-my-attention…

Quite often when I hear people discussing their fiction/non fiction writing it prompts me to think about what of their experiences are common with academic writers and their/our writing. And so it was when, at this festival, I heard Rachel Cooke note in passing the sheer chutzpah it takes to make a mark on the blank screen. A writer often has, she suggested, a distinct combination of egos: large – I have something important to say – and fragile – I am really upset by this mis-reading of my work. The large ego has to dominate the writing, she suggested, in order to actually write a sentence and then fill the blank screen. The fragile ego can’t get in the way.

Now this idea seems to make sense for academic writing too. Many academics find it difficult to start off a new text. They experience the blank screen or page as something very intimidating and off-putting. I wondered, as Cooke made these comments, whether her notion – a fresh piece of writing as a matter of chutzpah – could be helpful for academic writers. What if starting to write is not a question of being adequate or smart, or of writing the perfect sentence, but is just about being brave, having a go, taking a risk, of sending the fragile ego off for a little rest? Is this a more helpful way to approach the next academic writing task? Is it easier to be courageous than feel obliged to be clever?

Occasionally I hear a writer at a festival say something that makes me think about the distinctiveness of academic writing and the very particular challenges it has. I am jolted into considering how academic writing is NOT like fiction/non fiction. At the most recent festival this sudden awareness happened during a session with one my favorite British novelists, Hanif Kureishi. He was asked whether there were young novelists whose writing he liked, and who he read. Indeed, what was he reading now? Kureishi replied that he was reading the writers of his childhood. His list included PG Wodehouse. P G Wodehouse? Bertie Wooster and Jeeves? Yes indeed, that Wodehouse. Kureishi was reading Wodehouse, he said, for the elegant structure and organisation. And he should be so lucky, Kureishi told us, to tell a joke as well as Wodehouse. But it was a problem for a writer to read other people’s books. Kureishi didn’t want to end up with other writers’ voices in his head when he was writing. It might get in the way of his own voice. It was perhaps better to read translations where another writer’s voice was muffled by the translator.

Now this idea of having other writers’ voices in your head really struck me. It wasn’t just that I was surprised that someone like Kureishi would still feel that he had to work at his writing voice, and that he presented voice as a rather vulnerable accomplishment, always in formation, always liable to be overtaken by another that was strong and eloquent, well-modulated. Yes, I was surprised by that. But I also realised at the same moment that academic writers must, because of the very nature of scholarship, always be reading other people’s work. We must always be in conversation with other writers. We must always, using Kureishi’s distinctive formulation, have other writers’ voices in our heads.

So is this, I have been wondering since hearing Kureishi speak, why so many academics struggle with finding their own academic writing voice? We have a cacophony of other authors in our heads and thus find it hard to disentangle our own particular refrain? I’m still mulling over this possibility and Kureishi’s words. I’m also thinking about daily writing as an exercise in working on academic writing voice, of perhaps overpowering those other academic voices. And I’m pondering blogging as practice for developing academic voice and drowning out some of the other voices, even if on a temporary basis …

What do you think? Does the notion of having other voices in your head make sense of something difficult to and for you too?

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, authorship, voice and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to academic writing voice …. and voices in your head…

  1. brettcrumley says:

    “And I’m pondering blogging as practice for developing academic voice and drowning out some of the other voices, even if on a temporary basis…”

    This is an interesting idea: I’ll compare blogging with peer-reviewed texts to explain why I think so…

    I’ve found blogging helps to develop my own voice (whether I’m developed yet is questionable). The benefit seems to be from the sheer pace of the format. The peer-reviewed process is rigorous–and time-consuming due to the demanding standards–so it partially hinders personal writing development: peer-review can intimidate into safe-writing, or into emulating what is perceived as successful–in the voice of those successful pieces.

    Blogging, however, seems more amenable to experimental work. As posts are subjected to less criticism pre-posting, and there is an expectation that blogging is (semi-)frequent, there is created an opportunity to throw work to a public audience, gauge responses, and self-reflectively consider whether the voice in any given piece (which need not take long to invent) should be repeated or relinquished. In this rapidity, there is less need to write safely. Blogging is also less conducive to over-the-top references.

    This space for freer writing without worrying so much about finding iteration of an idea, allows one to, say, cite one source and ramble about it singly. When all those other references–which would ordinarily cement one’s work in the literature–are unnecessary, those other voices do not (cannot?) interfere. It is this, in blogging, that I think helps with my voice-development–perhaps because it helps “[disentangle the] cacophony of other authors in our heads (…)”?

    And that’s my long-winded attempt to say I agree!


  2. Jane says:

    Great article. I agree, it is hard to find a voice of your own in academic writing when the discourse is all about building on, refuting, questioning, agreeing or assessing (and all the other …ings) what has gone before. Even with new and innovative work there is an emphasis on visiting everything everyone else has ever done to create a perspective and context. To publish in academia everyone’s voice apparently must be heard, so even reading people’s work it is sometimes hard to hear the writer’s voice.
    I have been experimenting with free-fall and tactile writing (I citing the references, just because I am thinking not being academic) and I find that blanking out my computer screen (or at the very least making the text colour the same as the background) and just looking at the key board or staring into space as I write for between 20 minutes and an hour produces some really powerful thoughts, that I am pretty sure are my own. I love the idea that maybe one day I might actually find my own voice, but at the moment it feels like most of the voices are someone else’s and they are competing for space.


  3. Haitham Al-Sheeshany says:

    The authoritative and/or own voice thing is harder than I anticipated for sure. It needs a lot of objectivity to “admit” that certain authors are influencing your own style. Not just influencing, maybe also having small ,yet deep, imprints on how we think/write.
    I don’t know if reading a famous humorist would help to this end but the idea of consciously drifting away from your own area or even close areas appeals to me and I might try that! My technique is often to re-read my old drafts that I produced toward a certain project (a chapter, a paper “more like an attempt to one”, or even a small book review) and see how I reached there from point A to B or C and try to detect if there are any “jumps” that are not really “me” and see from where I caught that. Hard to tell but after a while I believe your usual suspects begin emerging :).

    “easier to be courageous than feel obliged to be clever” I really liked this line, I think we can all agree that a messy draft is better than a no-draft. We need to just jolt ideas down and then take it from there, not delaying this back until we find the great idea, the best intro, the neatest opening paragraph, etc… we do know this but yet get locked and do not “do” it

    * If you are reading/writing in a language that is not your mother-tongue then I would say yes, it does help in discovering your own voice and not be baffled by many other voices


  4. Even placing a comment on a blog is a form of fearlessness for the new…

    Thanks Pat. Interesting thoughts. I am a still-quite-new academic writer.
    Guess I am posing a chicken and egg question, and pondering the importance of stage/experience in the process. Is this process about me modifying my existing writer’s voice, shaped by my circumstances (mostly as a teacher, so with a focus on using plain language and giving clear instructions) to the conventions of acwri-speak, or, do I need to learn the rules of acwri-speak, demonstrate that I can write in this more sophisticated style, (which perhaps favours the use of language ‘in vogue’ to its discipline, and the teasing out of complex, nuanced arguments) and then gradually grow my own unique voice, if it seems I am lucky enough to begin to have a place in the academic conversations that interest me?
    Is ‘a voice’ something that can only begin to exist when a writer has acquired a little position? Maybe not for a writer of fiction, but certainly for a no-name fledgling academic that wants a dissertation passed, or articles to be easily accepted by the majority of reviewers?


  5. Emily Ryall says:

    Nice article. I struggle with academic writing I’m sure for that very reason; I always think that I need to make sure I cover all bases and include everyone else’s work and research to ensure my own voice is credible. I realise though that this isn’t necessary – you can never include everything and everyone is standing on the shoulders of many others, it’s just that many (successful) academics don’t realise or acknowledge it. There are several books in my area of research written by people who don’t give too hoots about researching previous work or acknowledging the great wealth of literature there is on the subject. But they’re the ones that get work published.


  6. Helen Kara says:

    Very interesting post. I absolutely agree that starting is just a case of having a go. Novice writers often seem to find it helpful, even a revelation, to learn that they don’t have to start at the beginning, either; just get down what they want to say, and sort out the structure at a later stage.

    For me, voice is a two-part thing. It must be my voice, for sure – or maybe one of my voices – because also, whenever I write, I’m thinking about the reader, the audience, and the voice I want to use to communicate with them. As with speech, I wouldn’t use the same voice to speak to my partner, a shopkeeper, my MP. So with writing, I’m not only seeking a consistent voice, I’m seeking the consistent voice for the piece of writing I’m doing.

    I think academic writers can learn a great deal from, and in some cases academic writing can benefit from the use of, fiction techniques (I’ve written on this elsewhere). I also think fiction and non-fiction writing techniques are nowhere near as different, as separate, as they are made out to be. (I learned that initially from Sol Stein, I don’t know whether you’ve read his books?) Voice is a case in point – it’s essential for both.


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