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Who am I when I write?

Last evening’s #phdchat session on Twitter focused on academic writing. As always, it was a wide ranging discussion, but one aspect that got me thinking a bit more was my writing voice.

When I started my DPhil journey, I remember saying to my supervisor that one of the things I needed to do was to find my voice. At the time, I had just co-authored an article with her on a project we had been involved with and it was the first serious writing I had done for several years, and my first venture into academic writing as such, in the sense that this was something that might be read by other than my teachers and supervisors. I was used to presenting stuff in all manner of contexts, but writing and a writing voice was somehow different.

A further, personal complication was my longstanding reaction to much academic writing and language. As an undergraduate, way back when, I had found myself virtually struck dumb in seminars and other discussions because I just did not understand half of what was being said, and there was no way I could actually write such impenetrable stuff.  I more or less made a promise to myself that anything I said or wrote should be in accessible English.

It is now about two and a half years since that conversation with my supervisor, and I realise I have found a voice – in fact I have found three different voices, all of which I will be expressing in my writing and my thesis.

First, there is the impersonal, authoritative voice. This is the voice most present in the theoretically based parts of my writing. It is the one that reports on what I have read, provides a context, discusses methodological frameworks and the like. From time to time it may use formal, academic language, but it aims to be accessible and clear. It is also the voice that identifies some of the issues and conflicts between theoretical perspectives and enters into debate with them.

Secondly, there is another voice which also discusses ideas and concepts, but not as impersonal researcher, but as ‘I’. This is the voice that makes observations on what the impersonal has written and brings a ‘real world’ perspective. When the impersonal talks about the number of different specialists a child with a disability might have seen, the ‘I’ voice talks from experience. This voice has a different type of authority from the impersonal voice. The impersonal is speaking from the body of research and professional experience which has been subjected to peer review and the like, but the personal voice is sometimes saying, that is the theory, but this is how it was for me in reality.

The third voice, which is a function of the type of work I am doing, and which in other circumstances might be part of that second voice, is me as participant in my research. Although, I am not taking an autoethnographic approach, my story and experiences are part of my research.  Last summer I blogged on some of the ethical dilemmas I was confronting. I have now found a resolution to these in writing and analysing my own story in such a way that I can use it as data, the same as the stories others are sharing with me. This voice is not recognisable to the reader as being my voice, but nevertheless, it is allowing me more directly to introduce perspectives on my research topic which are not readily available through any other source and is reflective of the very different experiences of different participants in my research domain.

Somewhere along the line, I probably need to do more work on this, and even to find some theoretical framework to hang this approach on, but for the moment, I do know that my voice is very present and real in my writing, and that voice is not a whisper trying to be heard, but is vibrant, strong, objective and authoritative – and it has a story to tell.

Thanks #phdchat for helping me to articulate this.

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1 Comment

  1. Carly Tetley says:

    Great post, thanks for sharing. As a new PhD student I haven’t really had much time to develop my writing voice. I take most of my style from articles and papers that I’ve read and I guess I’m a bit nervous of straying too far from convention because I’m not sure how reviewers and examiners will react! However, somehow I do still think I sound like “me” when I write. You are right that developing your voice takes time and I think it only becomes apparent with continued writing.

    A good example of how #phdchat makes you think!

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