My quest for the summer has been to find and develop a strong authorial voice in my PhD writing.
Sounds easy, right? Well, no.
I’ve been reading around the internet to understand what exactly is that ‘authorial voice’. Is it how the speech flows? The style?
I think this metaphor nicely captures the essence of it:
It’s like if you give me and Jia some fabric and tell us to make a dress, I’m going to pick a simple, straight pattern that’s going to emphasize the bust and de-emphasize the waist and avoid pleats. Maybe a zipper or an accent button. Jia might like glitter, silk and flounces. And spaghetti straps. 😉 That’s voice – it’s all those things that combine to make your story have a personality.
And yet, it’s much easier for me to imagine such voice in the non-scientific literature, where there is more freedom of expression, space for metaphors or creative display of content. But academic writing? Sure, I’ve seen scholars making reference to and drawing parallels between literature and some whatever phenomenon they are analysing. Then there are papers that you can just feel them being thought in another language and then translated because of the use of peculiar phrasing or terms like “the gift of ubiquity” (‘il dono dell’ubiquità’, rather common in everyday Italian). Does that make an authorial voice though? Is it coming up with new metaphors and ways of calling things, that, even if translated, makes something your own? Or is it alluding to the literature, which certainly makes a piece of writing stand out? Maybe it is an authorial voice, because it reveals some of the author’s personality, evokes a certain reaction/emotion in the reader and reveals a specific edge. I just know that this voice is not mine: every once in a while when I come across these, I think to myself that I would not like to write like that.
Others say authorial voice is what you select to put in, and what you decide to leave out. But surely, if I’m writing a literature review, I’m already selecting the bits that I see as relevant to build an argument in my research?..
As I’m writing, I think that to me the ‘authorial voice’ comes as trying to be crystal clear and engaging. If I’m not, I don’t understand the matter well enough. It is writing as if I was talking, though using slightly more sophisticated vocabulary. Trying to make sure that, even if a text is dense content-wise, it is very readable, and that even a person that has never heard about my topic could understand it. It’s coming across as a reachable and friendly author, not one that has been stuck in the ivory tower for so long that they forgot how ‘the real world’ talks. It’s trying to make others understand a stream of literature after reading a single chapter or paper, without having to go through six or seven other books or papers to understand what on earth is the discourse all about. It’s something that eventually comes out after drafts and drafts and drafts of the same work.
What I need is a stronger evaluative twist to it. In my case, though, this largely depends on the particular literature stream that I’m examining. I have much stronger views about some than about others, and thus can make a better argument. I’ve been told that sometimes a strong voice only emerges towards the very end of your PhD.
The Thesis Whisperer has quite recently visited our university for a workshop on academic writing. She had asked us to bring a paper by an academic whose writing we admire, and analyse how they do it. Dissecting my favourite article that way was really helpful. I realised that I don’t quite have the guts (yet) to write like my favourite academic writer does. I don’t think I’ve already earned the right to, and I don’t want to make unsubstantiated assertions as I write just to sound more like him. And that’s probably the thing for me – how do you develop the confidence to express your own argument and be more evaluative towards others’ work? Is it something that comes with time?
Ah, first year PhD problems.
For the moment, I’m taking inspiration from this Atwood’s quote:
The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date. Otherwise you begin excusing yourself. You must see the writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of your right hand; you must see your left hand erasing it.
As I’m writing, I’m imagining that no one will ever read it. That I’m writing this just for myself, and the words I’m typing will never be seen by my supervisor or anyone else. I know it is not true, but this mind trick is working so far, and the idea that I still have quite some time to work on my chapters is actually helping to create this impression. Future academic me, there is still so much progress you need to make…
On edit: Pat Thomson has recently posted a great blog post on authorial voice. She raises an interesting point: in academia, you join a conversation and constantly hear many different voices. How do you develop and maintain your own?