Academic Voice

Wherein I try to talk about a thing that I have not mastered.

My supervisor was wonderful for a large number of reasons (I’ll bullet point them in a blog post one day, so you can all drool in envy), but one of the main reasons he was the most useful was his ability to make things comprehensible.

Academic voice is not really comprehensible, in the strict definition of the word. Mostly this is because everyone has a slightly different view of it. And everyone has their own rulebook. I dislike rulebooks, as I think we’ve already established (I’ll blog about that one day too). Writing shouldn’t have a rulebook, because everyone writes differently. You write based on your own experiences, so how can anyone tell you how to do it?

Academic voice is equal parts understanding and doing. The understanding isn’t terribly easy, and the doing is pretty damn near impossible. A lot of people get it wrong. A lot of well-established academic writers get it wrong. You are not alone.

But now that I’ve made you feel better, here’s what little I do understand, and a few more things I’m pretty sure of.

Academic voice takes practice. It comes from reading other authors, and reading how they write and how they sound. One of its foremost components is that the voice of the author should be suppressed. As in, YOUR voice should be suppressed. This is why academic voice means writing in the third person, and why people will tell you not to use ‘I’. The point is that you want the reader to focus on what they are reading, not on you.

Academic voice is also very formal. We do not use contractions, or slang. It is best to void asking questions of the reader, particularly if they are rhetorical in nature.

Academic voice is, by its nature, very factual. We generally try not to overuse words such as ‘possibly’, and its synonyms. State facts, back them up with evidence. This is the entire point of writing academically about a topic. Act like you know what you are talking about and are certain it is true. Leave it to someone else to poke holes in your theory; don’t do it for them. But also, on the flip side of that, don’t state things that are untrue or that you cannot justify. This way lies the reams of scientific research papers that have been disproven by everyone except their originator. As Desiderata suggests: ‘speak your truth quietly and clearly’. Don’t shout it from the rooftops, and don’t oversell it, but do be as clear and concise as possible.

But one of the most important things I learned about academic voice from my supervisor, and the one that I think most people are not ever taught, is the difference and use of passive and active voice. These are sub-sections of academic voice. They are about what words you use and how you couch them….and when you do so.

Passive voice is meek. It’s when you aren’t quite sure about something, but you have to talk about it anyways. It’s when you’re admitting that other people know more than you, and you’re using their research for a reason. It’s about covering your bases, to use a baseball analogy (sorry, I’m from Toronto and the Blue Jays are finally winning something). Passive voice is particularly useful when you are trying to draw the reader’s attention to the person you are discussing, or the thing you are discussing, rather than your opinion of said person/thing. So passive voice is particularly useful in situations like the literature review, when it is the authors and their research you are discussing that should be at the fore, not necessarily your opinions of them, and certainly not your desire to state their research as fact (because it may not be!). I used passive voice in my lit review primarily to talk about other people and their research, and only got to active voice at the very end of the chapter when I was linking that research to my own.

Active voice, however, is what you should be using when you are talking about your own research. You are the subject doing the research, and this is exactly what active voice exists to represent. You are doing the research. You use academic voice to put the focus on the research, but you use active voice to remind the reader that you are the one that did the research in the first place. It is about what you did, what you believe, what you found, etc. Active voice should be used in any of your chapters that showcase your own research, and in spades in your conclusion. Use it like a sledgehammer in your final paragraphs, because if there was ever a time to be clear about your contribution, that’s it. Also use active voice in your first chapter, wherever possible, but methodology can be discussed in a slightly more passive voice, especially when you are discussing methods used by others that you are employing.

I don’t know a lot about academic voice, I admit. I could spend the rest of my life studying it and never quite grasp the concept completely, or develop a knack for it. It’s one of the main reasons I’m not planning to continue in academia (more on that later). But academic voice is something you need to, at least, have a general idea of when you are writing up your thesis. I hope this helps!


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