Friday, April 04, 2014


In a comment to Monday's post, Randall Westgren recalls a mentor who told him that "[he] was a poor (academic) writer because [he] hadn't found [his] voice". Is this—i.e., finding your voice—the same thing as "having presence" in your writing, he asks?

It's certainly worth thinking about. What is voice? What is it in our writing? Well, what is voice in speech? Voice is the sound of our speaking, as opposed to the mere sense. A voice can be light or dark, high-pitched or deep. It can have "fry", something which there was a great deal of commentary about not long ago.

Two people can speak the exact same words in the exact same situation and one can sound like they mean at, the other not so much. You can sound sincere, that is, or insincere. You can sound like you are lying or telling the truth. You can sound like you like what you're saying or you don't. It's the sound of your voice we're talking about here, of course. "There was something in his voice that worried me" we sometimes say. Here we usually mean something quite situational, not something durable about the person.

But we can also talk about somebody's voice in general. And this is where "finding" your voice comes in. I'm something of a mystic, or perhaps just a moralist, about this. I really do believe that your authentic voice, whether in speech or writing, is the way your words sound when you are speaking your mind, i.e., telling the truth. This is why I emphasize that when you do your academic writing you should remember that knowledge is justified, true belief. You should train yourself to write down the things you believe, not just things that are conveniently true.

In my answer to Randall, I said that I'm not sure that voice is essential in academic writing. I'm not sure that I would encourage people to "find their voice" in order to write their journal articles. Or maybe I just mean they should do it a very specialized way. In any case, rereading these loose remarks, I can see I'll have to think about this some more.


Rachael said...

Here's something I wrote a while ago on voice in academic writing: In short, while I think there we can, over time, develop an authentic voice in academic writing, voice is usually used as a stand-in for contribution.

Jonathan said...

Not parrotting the voice you think typical of academic writing, the typical jargon or lingo; having a contribution intellectually that is distinctive (not what anyone else would say); having "Mayhewisms" if you are Mayhew, but not if you're not; having some go-to devices that you can rely on in a pinch, like the "Perloff imperative" used to introduce an example: "consider this poem..."

Having a combination of all those things constitutes a critical voice. Perhaps social science eschews voice, but think of the voice of Kenneth Burke, who is a social scientist in some ways.

Thomas said...

@Rachael: I think your approach is probably correct in most cases. Worrying about voice as such will not solve the problem; think in stead about what you want to say and try to say it. That's the best way to solve the problem that is sometimes identified as "voice".

That said (and somewhat @Jonathan), there does seem to be a distinct problem of voice, at least in the social sciences. I normally think of it as a problem of presence ("there's no there there"), which may reduce to contribution, but it's probably true that it sometimes stems from parroting.

It's the age-old problem of mimesis, I think. You get good at something by imitating people who are good, and when you get good people stop noticing that you're imitating and call it your voice. It's that embarrassing period of apprenticeship that gets in the way of developing your voice. The voice of the earnest student, sincerely trying to learn how say the right words in the right way, but not quite understanding what they mean, is something we have to learn to love. And something earnest student has to learn to love too, I guess.

Rachael said...

Thanks, Thomas! That's very helpful. I think I wanted to focus on contribution because I'm talking to graduate students. Graduate student need to think about contribution more than anything--largely because it is generally there, just not being clearly articulated. It's often a relatively easy way to make dramatic improvements in a piece of writing. The broader question of academic prose lacking individuality (due to the inherent conservative tendencies of a demanding professional environment) is also really interesting.

Presskorn said...

This difficulty of this question (which I can't my head around) is, I think, connected to the difficulty of distinguishing clearly (and in practice) between "the sound of our speaking" and "its mere sense". Voice is often semantically, even assertoricly, relevant.

Thomas said...

I guess the model for this is the "simple" case of the sentence as a spoken and the same sentence written down. The difference between these two utterances is "voice" in a literal sense. Perhaps this has provided a model for the idea that there is a difference between the sentence as written (with all its accidents of style and errors of typography) and its "propositional content", or sense, which again can be distinguished from its full "meaning", i.e., that which includes the fact that the sentence is about, its reference.

I think that what you're getting into is the question of whether it's style "all the way down" (and all the way up). This may include not just voice, but gesture, and will cover every function of language between perception and action. It's the full ramification of the way the "picture reaches right up to reality".

And yet…

Isn't science and politics just the perfectly legitimate task of softening and sharpening the voice enough to explicate some relatively unambiguous "content". I.e., to make a determination of sense and motive, i.e., what we "mean" by our seeing and doing.

Presskorn said...

Perhaps encouraging people to "find" their voice is bad advice, because it is really a matter of merely "using" your voice. I.e. of reducing the gap between your ordinary voice and your authorial voice. After all, in conversation, we rarely run out of words or run into severe doubt as to how present an argument.

Of course, writing is not speaking - so all this would have to be within the bounds of reason. But I think there is something to it. E.g., your advice to always write the proposition you're arguing for as the very first sentence of a paragraph seems to draw on a similiar intuition.

Aristolian rethoric would have us think that we must state the premises before proceeding to the conclusion. But as Toulmins studies of ordinary rhetoric shows, we never do this in actual conversation. We start with the conclusion and then proceed to justify it.