Contribution and Voice in Academic Writing

In my line of work, I hear a lot of sentences that start, ‘My supervisor says …’. And the supervisory comment that seems to elicit the most confusion involves the concept of voice: ‘I can’t hear your voice in this’ or ‘your voice is missing from the text’. In my experience, these concerns are met with a great deal of bafflement from graduate student writers. The reason for this largely baffled response is, I suspect, the way that we tend to think of voice as a feature of literary or expressive writing. Voice is usually associated with the distinctive style of a particular author: the sum total of the way that person writes. Thus, when we hear about a lack of voice, we take that to mean a certain bland quality to the prose or a lack of overall consistency in the diction, the phrasing, the pacing, etc. Given those associations, it’s no wonder that novice academic writers may be puzzled by the suggestion that they lack a voice. Since we cannot fix a problem that we don’t understand, that puzzlement unfortunately often leads to inaction or ineffectual editing.

If, however, we shift from discussing voice to discussing contribution, writers often start to see what might be missing. ‘I’m having trouble seeing the contribution that your work will make to this area of research.’ Articulating our contribution is a significant challenge, but it is a goal that generally makes sense. Moving away from the nebulous concept of voice allows us to direct our attention towards the genuinely difficult task of clarifying our own contribution. There are lots of reasons that this task is so difficult; here are the three that I find most prevalent.

1. Modesty: One fundamental reason for downplaying the novelty of our own work is a lack of confidence. This lack of confidence often manifests itself in an unhealthy reliance upon the existing literature. If you are one of those writers who feels better when thoroughly encased in other people’s insights, you may be under-emphasizing your own contribution. You need to use the scholarly literature to set the stage for your contribution, rather than allowing it to take centre stage itself.

2. Inexperience: Our own contribution can also be neglected when we are unfamiliar with the new genre in which we are working; in other words, we may simply not know how to draw attention to our own contribution. In a recent post on introductions, I emphasize how we can craft an introduction that clarifies the centrality of our own contribution. In general, developing any sort of genre expertise requires a great deal of attentive reading of the sorts of texts that we need to produce.

3. Familiarity: In my view, the most persistent obstacle to a sufficient explanation of our research contribution is our preoccupation with our own material. While we get more and more familiar with our subject matter, our future reader maintains the same degree of unfamiliarity. The longer we spend with a text, the more implausible it becomes that we need to keep reiterating our key contribution. But we cannot ascribe an unrealistic degree of familiarity to the reader just because we are so fully immersed in the document. Finally, keep in mind that your readers will often be experts in the field, meaning that they may be very familiar with everything but the new ideas you are developing. Make sure you are emphasizing the novelty.

Overall, the absence of a well-articulated explanation of the research contribution is a significant weakness for many novice academic writers. But the problem becomes much easier to fix when we confront it head on. If we are sidetracked by the notion of an absent voice, we may fail to solve this crucial problem. To be clear, I am not saying that our academic writing can’t have a distinctive and personal voice; in the long run, most of us are striving to find just that. In the meantime, however, we can all be helped by the reminder that a clear articulation of scholarly contribution is essential in academic writing.

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14 responses to “Contribution and Voice in Academic Writing

  1. Clear and thought provoking as usual! Thank you.

  2. Mmm, I really get this because recently I read Thompson and Walker’s (2010) doctoral student’s companion and I forced myself to make ‘contribution’ statements about my doctoral research. I was quite shocked that I could state contributions to the field. When I feel particularly ‘absent’ or lacking courage I go back to these contributions to remind myself of what it takes to come out from behind everyone else’s ideas.

  3. Virginia Yonkers

    My own research (you can see a post about it here (http://connecting2theworld.blogspot.com/2012/04/knowledge-ownership.html) in collaborative writing also suggests that writers who are perceive the writing as “not their own” because they lack power in a group or the format/knowledge is perceived as the “group’s” or organizations, distance themselves from that writing. If a format has been imposed on them (which often happens to students), they may perceive the writing as the “supervisor’s” or “instructor’s” rather than their own. Yes, they are doing the writing; yes, it is their own analysis/thoughts; but no, it isn’t “theirs” because they are writing it in a format that will be accepted or rejected based on someone else’s criteria.

    One way around this is create more of a dialog process between group members, supervisors, instructors, or others who are evaluating the writing. The student then feels he or she has more control over the writing and therefore can begin to include his or her own voice. Another is to have students blog their findings or preliminary thoughts so they can keep track of their own changes in thinking as they move through the research process (blogs don’t have to be public or you can make them public whenever you want),

    • Thanks, Virginia. I think this is such an important point. I also think that more genre-based teaching can shift graduate student writers from thinking of the required format as an alien imposition to thinking of it as a valuable way of entering an established communicative space.

  4. Pingback: Clear articulation of scholarly contribution is essential in academic writing | Impact of Social Sciences

  5. I find it helpful when my supervisor reads in front of me and comments on how/whether she is understanding things, what she looked for that isn’t there, what grabbed her and why (and usually that is buried too deep, not emphasized enough)… helps me understand the ‘why’ of the ‘format’ (and also that there is actually some give in the format and it can be manipulated/exploited in order to communicate in routine and surprising ways).

    • Thanks, Jen. I think that’s exactly right: understanding the ‘why’, as you put it, is precisely what makes the generic format start to seem less like an arbitrary imposition and more like a helpful tool.

  6. Pingback: Contribution and Voice in Academic Writing | Po...

  7. This is such an interesting discussion.
    I particularly like the shift from using the term “voice” to “contribution statements.” For me, voice seemed to be a writing code word that I did not understand. Thank you for that perspective change.

    In addition to contribution statements, I find that voice is evident when the writer connects personally with the reader – creates a relationship. It seems that the word “you” is very helpful to link the idea of the paper with the audience (what does this mean for them). I also find that the colloquial use of words and phrases that communicate an idea at an informal level is useful to establish a relationship with the reader. Are these strategies that others use to include more identity in their writing?

    • Thanks, Lori. I think you raise an interesting point about voice and formality. Does our writing have less ‘voice’ when it is more formal? I think so, although most of the time in academic writing that trade-off is one that we have to make. But if we want to think about connection in our formal writing–when we can’t necessarily rely on the strategies you suggest–I find it helpful to focus on aspects of our writing where we can meet the rhetorical expectations of our reader. That is, even if we can’t make a more explicit connection, we can welcome the reader with clarity of purpose (so they know exactly what we are doing before they embark on reading us) and a commitment to helpful signposting along the way.

  8. Thanks rcayley. I like the idea of using a clear purpose and signposting but I wonder if academic writing needs to be formal? I suppose it depends on our own definitions of formality.

    For me, I believe that some of the hegemonic assumptions in academic writing (such as the exclusive use of third person and the insistence on mechanical formatting of introductions, paragraphs and conclusions) can and should be challenged. No doubt, academic writing must include careful thinking and coherent structure but I also believe that regardless of the genre or formality, personhood/voice/identity/contribution of the writer is essential. From my view, if we all subscribe to the same rules of writing and follow them explicitly without the use of voice, we lose out on the only thing that the author truly offers – their perspectives, opinions and experiences. Perhaps this is one of the main ways that readers begin to see arguments in another light? I have certainly read work where the writer reports findings from high quality research but it is inaccessible because of the writing style and the disconnect with the reader.

    Great conversation! What do others think about formality in academic writing?

    • Virginia Yonkers

      I think it depends on the profession. In some science and business genres, there is a shared understanding that the individual should not be giving an opinion (scientific method), but only using the data. A reader won’t continue to read if the first person is used (it is uncomfortable because it breaks the rules of the profession, therefore the author must not be a member of the profession). Therefore, there are other rhetoric mechanisms to “give voice” or contributions. This is often done 1) in the literature review by connecting to certain theories so you place yourself in a context; 2) in the methodology section in which you justify your choice of research; and 3) in the conclusion where you identify short comings and place the relevance of your research back with the literature and your interpretations/theory building.

      As someone who has published across disciplines, I have had to learn the different devices for each profession, which can be really different. This is what a new researcher needs to learn.

  9. I think the relationship between formality and engagement is an interesting one. I very much agree with Virginia’s suggestion that appropriate formality can itself be a form of engagement. When we write in ways that place us ‘outside’ disciplinary conventions, we may run the risk of alienating the very audience we are trying to engage.
    Much of the inaccessibility that we see in academic writing is caused by stylistic problems more than the generic demands of formality. That said, those two things aren’t fully distinct: many writers get themselves into stylistic difficulties trying to fulfill expectations of formality.

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