One of the things I remember being told as a phd student and something I have faithfully passed on to others is the importance of ‘finding your voice’ in your writing. Some people find it quickly and easily, and sometimes that ease reveals a naive or even crude voice. Others take a long time to find it and it emerges not wholly formed but in fits and starts, sometimes fluid and in command, at other times stuttering and at the mercy of all the giants of knowledge whose shoulders you are trying to scramble up on. However it is come upon it reflects that point in research when you are no longer in thrall to others’ views and arguments, but able to deploy knowledge, data and evidence in the service of your voice.
Needless to say it took me a good while to find my voice and when I did I found myself then doing battle with my supervisor over it as it wasn’t quite the voice that the supervisor had in mind. This is difficult territory for a phd student as your supervisor knows more about getting a phd than you do (at that stage) and so it is wise to listen. But once you have found your voice you then need to nurture it so that it becomes stronger and can be sustained. Developing a tone or accent that appeals to your supervisor but does not feel authentic to you can have lasting consequences for you once you start writing independently and need to be confident and resilient in the face of peer review and critique.
Wrapped up in this experience of finding your voice are issues of gender and age and experience of different kinds of writing. All of these things can make using your voice in ways that meet the requirements of the particular form, phd, journal article, book, blog, while still retaining what is essentially you, somewhat complicated.
The reason for harping on so long about the phd experience is that it is significant in shaping your voice and your confidence in using your voice. Or at least it was for me. And the difficulty I had in finding and holding my voice in that process appears to have impacted on my subsequent writing endeavours. I don’t slot into my voice easily as some appear to. But rather I find myself flailing about and seeking refuge in over planning or more and more reading (though that has not been a problem for quite some time!).
I am writing about this now because in getting back into ‘the book’ I have been through the over planning and reference seeking (if not reading) and then all of a sudden something shifted and there it was- my voice, and what I wanted to say. And the words came. They are not all the right words and they are likely as not not in the right order, but they comprise a draft chapter on ethics and collaboration that is in my voice.
I am not entirely certain how to explain this, though it may just be effort combined with serendipity. But one thing occurs to me. I have not written an academic journal article for some time. For most of my academic life I have been engaged in drafting academic journal articles. While I write for a range of journals in different disciplines they all operate according to the rules and standards that define academic journal publishing. It is hard work to get anything published (as it should be) and it takes time and effort – so much so that writing in this way can become the default writing mode. And while it is a mode that permits the exercise of a voice, it does so in a particular, and I think for me constrained way.
Writing for a broader range of audiences and in a range of different kinds of digital and other media – professional journals, newspapers, blogs and dare I say it, even tweets has given me different opportunities to find and use my voice. Purists will no doubt criticise my lack of attention to scholarly journal articles and that’s fine. Their time will come again as my research council funded projects come to a close. But for now I am happy to be drawing on all these modes of writing to advance the book. Long may it continue.