Your Writing “Voice”

What Is Voice in an Academic Essay or Some Other Type of Composition?

Voice has at least two distinct meanings:

  1. The audible sound of a person speaking (e.g., high-pitched, rhythmic, loud, soft, accent, pace). Even in writing, the author’s words create the “sound” of the writer talking. Effective writers can control the sound of their words in their readers’ heads.
  2. The communicator’s implied beliefs and values. Every utterance conveys the impression of a person behind the words—a “self” that may be authentic or constructed as a persona. This “self” can extend beyond an implied personality to include the communicator’s political, philosophical, and social values as well as his or her commitment to certain causes (civil rights, gay rights, women’s rights).


Elements of Voice

Because audiences experience a communicator’s voice as a whole expression, not a set of parts, a reconsideration of some commonly understood elements of voice may be useful.

  • Tone. Tone is the communicator’s attitude toward the subject and audience as expressed in a text. For example, are you trying to convey anger, joy, sarcasm, contempt, anxiety, or respect?

    To gain control of your tone, read drafts aloud and listen to the attitudes you convey. Is the tone consistent throughout the text? Should it be? Have you struck the tone that you were hoping to strike?
  • Style. Style is the distinctive way you express yourself. It can change from day to day but it is always you. The style that you choose for a particular writing assignment will largely depend on your subject, purpose, and audience. Style in writing is affected by such values as the level of formality/informality appropriate to the situation and by the simplicity or complexity of words, sentences, and paragraphs.

    To gain control of style, learn to analyze the purpose and audience. Decide how you want to present yourself and ensure that it suits the occasion.
  • Values. Values include your political, social, religious, and philosophical beliefs. Your background, opinions, and beliefs will be part of everything you write, but you must learn when to express them directly and when not to. For example, including your values would enhance a personal essay or other autobiographical writing, but it might undermine a sense of objectivity in an interpretive or research paper.

    To gain control of the values in your writing, consider whether the purpose of the assignment calls for implicit or explicit value statements. Examine your drafts for opinion and judgment words that reveal your values and take them out if they are not appropriate.
  • Authority. Authority comes from knowledge and is projected through self-confidence. You can exert and project real authority only if you know your material well, whether it’s the facts of your life or carefully researched material. The better you know your subject (and this is often learned through drafting), the more authoritative you will sound. Your audience will hear that authority in your words.

What Is Voice in an Academic Essay?

Many students arrive at college with the notion that they must not use the first-person “I” point of view when writing an academic essay. The personal voice, so goes the reasoning, undermines the student writer’s authority by making the analysis or argument or whatever the student is writing seem too subjective or opinionated to be academic. The student who subscribes to this notion is correct—or possibly incorrect; it depends on how the assignment has been designed. One advantage of not using the first-person “I” is that it challenges the student to present ideas as objective claims, which will amplify the degree to which the claims require support to be convincing. Notice the different effects of these two claims:

I feel that Pablo Picasso’s reputation as a great artist conflicts with what his biographers have to say about his personal relationships, especially with women.  

Pablo Picasso’s reputation as a great artist conflicts with what his biographers have to say about his personal relationships, especially with women.  

      The only measurable difference between the two sentences above is that the first of them is couched in the first-person phrase “I feel.” The two sentences differ more consequentially in terms of effect, however. The writer—and readers—of the second sentence are probably going to sense more strongly the need for support to make the claim convincing. That’s a good thing, for it indicates to the writer the work that needs to be done to make the claim convincing.

      The disadvantage of keeping the first-person “I” voice out of an essay is that it may squelch something unique and authentic about the writer’s voice and vision, turning the essay into something more formal in tone—something more conventionally academic, let’s say. What is more, while denying the first-person “I” a place in an academic essay may heighten awareness of an essay’s argumentative weaknesses, it also participates in a tradition that privileges certain modes of thought and expression. The traditional ways of approaching academic essays, instructors are coming to accept, may be too limiting for today’s students.

      So, is the first-person “I” correct or incorrect? Ask your instructor this question before you begin writing your academic essay. Talk about what you need, in terms of voice, to convey your ideas most effectively.

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