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What is the Academic ‘Voice’?

Tomorrow's Research

Message Number: 
1697

In my experience, many students and early career researchers faced with writing in an academic style for the first time feel they need to adopt an ‘academic’ tone and, as a result, often reject the style that has gotten them through the course or their education to date.

Folks:

The posting below gives some good advice on finding your academic writing style. It is from Chapter 14 – Writing and Reporting the Research, by Gary Beauchamp, in the book, Doing Research in Education – Theory and Practice, edited by Ioanna Palaiologou, David Needham, and Trevor Male. Published by SAGE Publications Ltd , 1 Oliver’s Yard  55 City Road London EC1Y 1SP. www.sagepublishing.com  © Ioanna Palaiologou, David Needham, Trevor Male and contributors 2016. Reprinted with permission, all rights reserved.

Regards,

Rick Reis
reis@stanford.edu
UP NEXT:

Tomorrow’s Research

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What is the Academic ‘Voice’?

The factors we have begun to consider above are some of the many challenges you will face when finding your voice, or writing style. One of the first things you will realize is that trying to copy the voice, or style, of someone else adds another unnecessary challenge, so it is easiest to keep things consistent by using and improving your own ‘voice’. Neville (2009: 123-124) defines this as taking ownership of your work by:
- deciding yourself which position or direction to take;
- selecting evidence that allows you to present a strong set of arguments or descriptions;
- summarizing or paraphrasing in your own words what you have read;
- writing in a style that comes from within.

Practical Tip
A report which features a range of different voices, or writing styles, which are not acknowledged by speech marks and supporting references is an early indicator to readers that it is the work of more than one person – such as work which has been cut and pasted or copied without acknowledgement, which would constitute plagiarism.
 

In finding your academic voice, it is important to remember that you are the person doing the writing, about your ideas. An added complexity to this, however, is that you will also need to read, interpret and present the voices of other writers. Sometimes you can do this by using direct quotations, but more often you will need to summarize the key ideas and write them in your own words and in your own style. In my experience, many students and early career researchers faced with writing in an academic style for the first time feel they need to adopt an ‘academic’ tone and, as a result, often reject the style that has gotten them through the course or their education to date. Often they might save time and effort by refining their existing style rather than trying to reinvent themselves. A common example of this is incorrectly using unfamiliar (‘academic’) vocabulary they have read in the work of others, when a word they know would be just as good.

Academic writing does not need to be wordy or complicated. As Thomas (2009: 238) correctly points out, ‘writing is about communicating; it is not about trying to sound clever’. Although a series of long words and complicated sentences may sound impressive, a much worthier achievement is making your meaning clear in short and straightforward sentences. An added bonus in adopting this approach is that this makes punctuation much easier to use and to understand. Having said all this, throughout your writing you will be faced with many choices of terminology and developing your vocabulary is important as sometimes a more ‘complicated’ word is the best choice. For instance, in describing certain concepts it is very difficult to use words other than the ‘labels’ given by the person(s) who developed the idea. An example may be the use of the word ‘Piagetian’ when describing a view of child development. This gives the (informed) reader a clear idea of what you mean without having to go into a lengthy explanation (although in this instance you need to make sure you understand Piaget’s work before you do this, as this is often misused and simplified).

Before we progress further, it is worth considering what constitutes an academic tone in writing. Rosen (2009) suggests academic writers:
1. Review and constructively criticize the work of others;
2. Build support for their conclusions by using logic and evidence from information in the research of others;
3. Acknowledge all sources that they use, both in the text and at the end of their writing;
4. Maintain a serious, formal tone.

The end result should be writing which is ‘informed, logical, clear, well structured, and based on evidence’ (Rosen, 2009: 1), both in discussing your own work and how it relates to that of others. In making judgments about the work of others, we move from describing to analyzing. The ability to constructively criticize (in other words, to be critical) is an important feature and, although there are many definitions of being critical, this summary from Manchester University Academic Phrasebook is helpful:

As an academic writer, you are expected to be critical of the sources that you use. This essentially means questioning what you read and not necessarily agreeing with it just because the information has been published. Being critical can also mean looking for reasons why we should not just accept something as being correct or true. This can require you to identify problems with a writer’s arguments or methods, or perhaps to refer to other people’s criticisms of these.

To this could be added the suggestion that being critical can also mean looking for reasons why we should accept something, perhaps because it makes a particularly strong case based on the arguments, methods used and what other people have said about its strengths. This may be particularly the case with longitudinal, large-scale international studies undertaken by established academics. Even in this case, however, it is important to note when the study took place and any major changes in education (such as a revision to the National Curriculum or the introduction of the Foundation Stage in England or the Foundation Phase in Wales) since that time which may affect the validity or currency of the findings. It is also worth noting where the study took place and any implications of this – such as following a different curriculum or having different educational resources or funding.

Not all writing is analytical as there are times when something needs to be described in order to help make judgements. Cottrell (2008: 286) provides a useful summary of the distinction between descriptive and critical writing in the table below.

Table 14.1

Descriptive writing
states what happened
states what something is like
gives the story so far
states the order in which things happened
says how to do something
explains what a theory says
explains how something works
notes the method used
says when something occurred
states the different components
states options
lists details
lists in any order
states links between items
gives information

Critical analytical writing
identifies the significance
evaluates strengths and weaknesses
weighs one piece of information against another
makes reasoned judgements
argues a case according to the evidence
shows why something is relevant or suitable
indicates why something will work (best)
identifies whether something is appropriate or suitable
identifies why the timing is of importance
weighs up the importance of component parts
gives reasons for selecting each option
evaluates the relative significance of details
structures information in order of importance
shows the relevance of links between pieces of information

draws conclusions


To give an idea of how this can be reflected in your writing let us look at a sample sentence and how a more critical tone can be introduced. First we start with:

Beauchamp (2011) suggests that interactive whiteboards are a good idea in the primary school.

One simple first step is to insert a judgement word when reporting the work of others, for instance:

Beauchamp (2011) makes the valid suggestion that interactive whiteboards are a good idea in the primary school.

This can then be developed to include factors such as sample size, methods used, when the study took place or the year of the study to show criticality:

Beauchamp (2011) makes a strong case [judgment word] for the use of interactive whiteboards  in the primary classroom based on a large-scale recent [sample size and year of study] study across seven European countries [context], although the different educational systems in each of the countries mean the results need to be treated with caution when applied to UK classrooms. [academic caution]

Neville (2009: 38) proposes six other ways of approaching critical analysis which may be useful in your writing:

1. Agreeing with a particular point of view, but presenting reliable evidence to support position taken.
2. Rejecting a particular point of view, but again using reliable evidence to do this.
3. Conceding that an existing point of view has merits, but that it needs to be qualified in certain respects, and stating what these are.
4. Proposing a new point of view, or re-formulating an existing one, backed with supportive evidence.
5. Reconciling two positions, which may seem at variance, by bringing a new perspective to bear on the topic.
6. Connecting or synthesizing different ideas, so that new approaches and points of view can be advanced.

References

Cottrell, S. (2008) The Study Skills Handbook (3/E). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Neville, C. (2009) How To Improve Your Assignment Results. Maidenhead: Open University.

Rosen, L.J. (2009) The Academic Writers Handbook (2/E). London: Pearson.

Thomas, G. (2009). How To Do Your Research Project. London: SAGE.