Writing for Publication: Transitions and Tools that Support Scholars’ Success - Mary Renck Jalongo, Olivia N. Saracho 2016
Voice in Academic Writing
From Unpublishable to Publishable
Professional Roles and Publishable Writing
Professional writing should not be dull, dreary, and dry. It should not imitate the style of the most boring textbook ever published or the most abstruse scholarly publication that was assigned reading during graduate study. Authors would do well to produce “reader friendly scholarly writing” because “The best scholarly writing communicates complex ideas in a straightforward, clear and elegant manner” (Holland & Watson, 2012, p. 14). A major, yet frequently overlooked, task in scholarly writing is acquiring an author’s voice that reflects knowledge of the discursive practices of the academic community (Kamler & Thomson, 2006).
Voice refers to the way we reveal ourselves to others when we write (Natriello, 1996; Richards & Miller, 2005). It is that place where, like a singing voice, you can sing comfortably without straining to hit the high notes or bottoming out on the low notes. Also, like a vocal range for a singer, a writer’s voice can be extended with coaching and practice. Just as singers become more confident, stay on pitch better, develop technique, and acquire performance skills through guided practice with accomplished vocalists, scholars can advance as writers through feedback from published authors. Both for a singing voice and a writer’s voice, no one else can do the work for you; it is something that you need to initiate, sustain, and strive to improve. Both in writing and in singing, however, there is something more. Superlative performance in each realm rests on the power of the performance to engage the audience. “Writing well means engaging the voices of others and letting them in turn engage us” (Graff & Bernstein, 2010, p. xvi). This does not necessitate, however, the use of the first person.
Many a graduate student has written a paper using me/my/I only to have it corrected by the professor. The voice of academic writing versus ordinary writing is as different as a book review published in a professional journal and an elementary school child’s book report. In the first case, the review is based on knowledge of the field and critical assessment; in the second, it is based on personal preferences (e.g., “I liked the book.”). Scholars reduce, address or—at the very least—acknowledge personal biases and avoid parochialism in their work.
Although it is a frequently debated topic, several things are evident about the acceptability of using the first person in scholarly writing.
· It is context dependent. Some of those who advocate using “I’ and “me” are from an English literature background in which personal narrative is more highly valued. The best advice is to study the intended outlet for the work and compare/contrast it to the type of material you are seeking to publish. Even within the same publication, the editorial may be written in first person while the articles are not. Shape your writing to the specific context.
· It may be status-linked. After scholars are widely known leaders in the field, you may see examples of the first person in their published work. Relative newcomers, however, should be cautious about imitating the most prominent authors in their field. To some extent, freedom to use first person is linked to having “paid your dues” professionally. It may be the case that your personal/professional opinion is sought only after you have demonstrated expertise and wisdom in other venues.
· The use of “I” can clutter up writing. First person can make it difficult to share an example without including too much extraneous information. To illustrate, read this cogent example written by Laurie Nicholson:
Yet how does a caring and committed early childhood practitioner negotiate meaningful literacy activities simultaneously with John, who is a native English speaker from a middle class home filled with books; Maya, a recently immigrated Serbian child, whose parents’ English is halting at best; and Trevor, a child who is being raised by his functionally literate grandmother after his mother’s incarceration for drug use? (Jalongo, Fennimore, & Stamp, 2004, p. 64)
If this had been written in first person, it would have been something such as: “When I was teaching preschool in North Carolina, one of my students… and “As a supervisor of student teachers, I observed a child who…” While all of these children represent her actual teaching experiences, the material is condensed considerably by writing for the reader rather than about herself. Strive to “Negotiate a voice that is appropriate to the genre and the situation but also lively, unique, and engaging to readers. Writers can project a strong personal voice without using the first person and they can write in the first person without writing personally” (Lee, 2011, p. 112).