I wasn’t surprised when my writing came up in my annual review. My supervisor and I had identified my writing as an area that needed work. I was less nervous going into this year’s APR, but just before it began I was still going over my ‘proof’ that I had done my due-diligence in addressing the matter. Per-usual my anxiety was unfounded. The reviewer running my APR was encouraging and offered some helpful insight that got me thinking.
My reviewer told me that the piece of writing I had submitted really only lacked one major thing: my voice. As we talked he helped me come to understand something that I had seen, but couldn’t describe. When we wrote undergrad and master’s essays opinions, for the most part, were strictly forbidden, creating that tight dense, and often opaque – not to mention boring – style that characterises academic essays and mutes the individual voice of the author. But at the PhD level it is exactly those opinions and the unique sound of the individuals voice coming through that is meant to bring our writing to that next level. Personally, this idea makes me excited and a bit uncomfortable.
In blog posts and creative writing, I’m happy to present my opinion and let my voice come through. It’s something I was trained and encouraged to do by some wonderful creative writing lecturers and friends. It allows me to connect with the reader and express myself creatively, the very purpose of the writing. But when I turn to my academic work, expressing my opinions and writing in my own voice, goes against a life time of training and practice. I feel like I’m breaking the rules. On another level this just one more symptom of the imposter syndrome, questioning, who should ever listen to me? Granted, the point is not to expect people to take my opinion on faith; my research should support it, but that self-doubt is still there, also asking: what if I’m wrong? Well in short that’s the whole point of academic dialogue, to collaboratively work towards the truth. Although, it’s one thing to recognise that, it’s another thing to actually put myself out there, to make myself vulnerable, by expressing my opinions and in my own voice. In doing that I’m not just expressing objective ideas, but my ideas and part of myself in the process. However, like most difficult things, I think this one is worth doing, because just like creative and informal writing it’s the expression of your unique voice that allows the reader to engage and connect with your ideas and you.
I’ve heard time and again from other PhD candidates: “I want my PhD to make a difference.” There’s a frustration with the separation between academia and the general public, but it’s also frustrating trying to figure out how to effectively engage the ‘public’. At the moment I’m don’t think anyone is quite sure on how to do it, at least I’m not. But I do think that focusing on our writing, specifically finding and expressing our own ‘academic’ voice in our writing, is a good place to start because it is that human element that allows us engage and connect, to communicate.
Now the question still remains, how do you find your ‘academic’ voice and express it in your writing? To be honest, I’m not sure. However, if I think back to how I found my voice in more personal and creative writing, I think I may have some ideas about where to start looking.
Be Yourself – Often I try to hard to sound a certain way when I’m writing. In creative writing it was trying to sound artistic or creative, whereas my academic writing it’s trying too hard to sound objective, and well, intelligent. In both cases they’ve led to some crap writing. When I stopped trying to sound a certain way and just wrote, the creativity just happened, and I’m hoping the same will prove true in my academic writing.
Talk to yourself – I find sometimes my academic writing reads more like computer code or the terms-and-conditions for Facebook. In some way this is due to the complexity of some of the ideas and what writing as a medium of communication can do, but at it’s roots, writing is a visual representation of the spoken word, so often as I’m writing I talk to myself. That takes two forms: one, it means I can hear the words in my head as I’m typing them out; and two, it means when I get stuck I actually talk to myself. Sometimes that means typing out an actual conversation, having an internal dialogue, or even saying things out loud. I know it may sound a wee bit crazy, but it’s a trick I adapted from Stephen King’s book On Writing, and it works. Although, referencing Stephen King may not be the best argument for it not sounding crazy.
Communicate your passion – We’ve all had that lecturer or teacher that’s passionate about their subject; who’s presentations are engaging, interesting, and ignite a similar passion in us. It is their ability to communicate their passion and excitement that engages us. Now the question is how do we communicate and express those emotions in our intellectual work with its restricting style? I’m honestly not entirely sure yet, but I certainly think it’s the right place to start.
I’ve found these effective ways to find my voice in my non-academic writing, but as I’ve said, I’m still searching for my own ‘academic’ voice, so take it with a grain of salt and feel free to offer your own advice, critiques, and suggestions. Overall, I think so much of the struggle of a PhD, well at least for me, is building my confidence and accepting my own talents. I think both of which are key to writing and particularly to writing in your own voice, making finding my ‘academic’ voice just one more skill to learn or step of journey.
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