what is author ‘voice’?

Patter is on annual leave and is posting pre-prepared writings snatched from elsewhere.


The term ‘voice’ is not as straightforward as it might first appear. Commonly used in relation to a number of art forms, it is highly ambiguous and slippery.

Peter Elbow, the veteran writing researcher, argues that the notion of a writing ‘voice’ can be used variously –

  • to describe the sense that readers have of hearing the words on the page as they are reading them  – audible voice;
  • the way in which the audible voice is more or less full of character- dramatic voice;
  • the way in which a distinctive authorial style can be recognised by its deployment of language, syntax, speech, metaphor and so on  – distinctive voice;
  • the degree of confidence and expertise that the writer asserts  – authoritative voice (Elbow, 1994).

Elbow also points to voice as a ‘presence’ in writing. ‘Presence’ is a much more murky idea, he contends, because it assumes that the writing is a sincere and authentic representation of the writer. As Elbow puts it, writing

 … can never fully express or articulate a whole person. A person is usually too complex and has too many facets, parts, roles, voices, identities (Elbow, 1994, p. 12).

 The very idea that a writer’s text is a manifestation of a person’s artistic vision, intention and voice is deeply problematic, according to Elbow. In fact, he suggests, the notion of mimesis – the duplication of the real by a text – the very idea of authentic voice embodies, actually opens the door to its other. ‘Authentic’ presence also thus allows for irony, fiction, lying and games and other forms of poly-vocality and disjointedness in texts.

Rather than seeing writing as having a singular or homogenous ‘voice’ Elbow argues, in tune with much contemporary literary theory, writing should be understood as a place where writers ‘try out’ parts of the self, where they experiment and play (see also Elbow, 2012).


Elbow, P. (1994). What do we mean when we talk about voice in writing? In K. Yancey (Ed.), Voices on voice. Perspectives, definition, inquiry (pp. 1-35). Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Elbow, P. (2012). Vernacular eloquence. What speech can bring to writing. Oxford: Oxford University Press

See other posts on writing voice:

voice and thinkingwriting

academic writing voice and voices in your head

thesis to book – finding your  voice

thesis to book – changing your voice

voice and the craft of academic writing

a musing on voice


Image: MR 38

Patter is on annual leave and this post is extracted from the introductory section of THOMSON, PAT, 2016. Artist ‘voice’ in inter-cultural contexts and practices. In: BURNARD, PAM, MACKINLEY, LIZ and POWELL, KIMBERLEY, eds., The Routledge International Handbook of Inter-Cultural Arts Research Routledge.







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 voice, Peter Elbow, voice and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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