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.