Who Am I: Finding Your Academic Writing Voice
For many students, one of the greatest challenges in essay writing is developing your own academic writing voice. Your academic voice is the way in which your own ideas, arguments and thoughts come through in an essay that you are writing. It is important to have a strong academic voice because it enables your reader to clearly distinguish between your ideas and those of other historians.
Finding your writing voice can be a complicated process, so we’ve collated the experiences of various staff in the Department of History at the University of Auckland to get a sense of what their journeys have been like.
Dr Paul Taillon
“I am not a great writer and I really cannot say what is my "voice" let alone how I might find it. But if I have a philosophy of writing it is "Do Simple Better!" I try to write as simply and as declaratively as possible. I try to write as leanly, cleanly, and as efficiently as possible. The fewer words, the better. Why use two words when one will do? Fancy words? Only if they suit my purpose. Writing this way helps me clarify my thinking. I also try to be kind to my readers, for they do me the honour of sharing their time and attention. The least I can do is make the reading process as pain-free as possible!”
Dr Aroha Harris
“I feel your writing voice is less something to find and more something that we already have which we coach, nurture, and generate. I think we all have an authentic and natural voice. Unfortunately, during our growth as scholars, we often lose sight of it because we overlay it with the rules and expectations of so-called academic writing. Yet the rules should serve and support our voice, not obscure it. So, for me, finding our writing voice ought to be an exercise in getting to know the voice we already have. That means learning what our own writing habits are, not only our strengths but also our quirks and kinks. We can learn a lot, too, from thinking about the writing that we most like to read. What are the reading experiences that keep us engaged? What are the qualities we enjoy? For example, humour - yes or no? (Or how?) Being open to editing and feedback is also important. That doesn't mean you have to bow to every suggestion your supervisor or editor makes. But it does mean that good editors can offer insights that improve our written expression. Our responses to editing matter too. They teach us what elements of our writing we want to keep - why we like them enough to protect and keep them - and what elements we're willing to let go. Writing is a huge part of the historian's craft, deserving of our dedicated attention.”
Associate Professor Maartje Abbenhuis
“Writing is difficult. It's difficult in part because it's (usually) the end product of a long process of research, analysis and contemplation. The act of writing is the moment where the ideas and arguments that have swirled in my head for so long have to find their own life on the page. Of course, in my head and even when I share them or teach them, these ideas have a multidimensionality, I can grab onto various strings and tie them together as I discuss them. My ideas can feed off those of others as we share them. It is so much harder to replicate the same complexity in a way that is clear, engaging and concise for others to read. I guess, writing is the ultimate test of historical construction and it is in the act of writing that more often than not the flaws of my interpretations become glaringly obvious. Planning a piece of writing, then, is essential (with the hope of catching flaws/gaps/issues while I am still germinating them as opposed to when I am well into the writing process). For me planning is finding clarity about what it is that I am trying to say (What questions am I asking and then answering? What arguments am I trying to make? What sources do I wish to highlight? How do I want to make my case?) and then developing a narrative thread to which I can attach the content of the piece. In a book that might be a 'big picture argument' and each chapter illustrates the components of the bigger claim. In a chapter, it will be developing and asserting the integrity of a particular question-answer argument. But even this does not really boil down what writing ends up being. For in the end, I am most concerned about bringing across the essence of a historical moment, development or perspective in a way that makes it understandable. When I am contemplating a historical narrative, then, it is never about whether to prioritise chronology over themes for example, but it is always about how best to tell an authentic story that stays as true to my sources and historical agents as I can get. Playing with words, playing with ideas, playing with sentences matters but not as much as constructing a cohesive argument and providing my readers with a thread that they can follow throughout. In the end, the proof of the pudding is in how well I have passed on my understanding. How well have I constructed a story that explains something essential about the past and the people and communities who lived it and shaped it, the systems and 'world views' they embodied, the opportunities and limitations of their environments?”
Evidently, even historians with extensive writing experience feel that the process of finding your writing voice is challenging and complex, and a journey that is continued throughout your career. To have a strong writing voice, it is important to plan your argument carefully, be confident in yourself and your ideas, and write clearly and efficiently. Most importantly, however, is to practice - the more you write, the clearer your voice will become.
--- Kathryn Cammell is the co-founder of Tahuhu Kōrero and a Master of Arts student in History at the University of Auckland, studying New Zealand history. Thank you to Dr Paul Taillon, Dr Aroha Harris and Associate Professor Maartje Abbenhuis for your contributions to this post. All posts by contributing authors reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences, and do not necessarily represent the perspectives of the University of Auckland History Society.