Tonight I’m thinking about voice and person in academic writing. I’ve been struggling with choosing and sticking to a particular style.

Research was conducted.
I do not care for the high formal academic style: invisible or distant, third person, inactive researcher/author, passive voice. It pretends at an objectivity that never exists, and it requires all manner of unnecessary words, clauses, and convolution to maintain the curtain of author/researcher invisibility.

I’m used to it in papers on experimental / quantitative research, but I’m always pleased and refreshed by other approaches to composition in such reports.

I did some research.
When I do research, I come up with questions. I decide how to investigate them by designing studies. I make assumptions, reason, and come to some conclusions. My ideas, theoretical lenses, and analysis drive the research. I cannot escape all of my blind spots and biases or pretend they do not exist.

If I have done my job well, the data does not represent me, but my participants. Except, I have to remember that, in much qualitative research, the data doesn’t exist until a researcher starts poking around, observing, and asking people questions. I can’t forget my influence on the data.

It feels dishonest to erase my own voice as researcher and author by writing up such work in high formal academic style. It feels like posing in a costume of objectivity. It also does the reader a disservice by not making explicit my role in the research. The researcher is the primary research instrument in qualitative inquiry; therefore, the results of inquiry cannot be evaluated if the researcher is absent and non-reflexive in reporting.

That said, I tire of repeated Is; they can read as self-centered, narcissistic. The study is not about me. If I start with I, I’m currently seeing no graceful, sensible way to minimize my glaring presence aside from casting the text as an actor. “This paper describes…” “The following section presents/argues/discusses…” That only gets you so far, and definitely not far into the methodology/methods. Further, you must be careful to avoid nonsense like “This paper studied…” I’m sure the drafts I currently have open are riddled with that nonsense.

I have been trying to place my reaction to some of the academic work I’ve run across recently. Case in point:

Leitch, R. “Outside the spoon drawer, naked and skinless in search of my professional esteem: the tale of an “academic pro”” Qualitative Inquiry, 2006, 12: 353-364.

On one hand, the author’s experience in some ways resonates with my own. Thus, I felt some sense of validation and encouragement reading the paper. On the other hand, I felt a sort of irritation and another negative feeling I can’t quite label yet. At one point, I put the paper down and thought, “Why is this published? This is personal journaling material. It is not appropriate to read about this woman crying over her keyboard in a journal that publishes serious and useful methodology and methods papers.” Perhaps the feeling is embarrassment? I’m not sure.

The paper was presented as an exploration of personal experience. I have similar but lesser reactions to some passages reporting qualitative studies. Written in a certain way, explanations of why a topic was chosen, certain questions were asked, or assumptions were made leave me feeling like I’ve non-consensually been pulled into the authors’ group therapy session. Likewise for the papers containing sections about how the researcher felt during the conduct of the study.

The information contained in these passages is required for understanding the study and influences on the results. The trouble for me is that there seems to be a fine line between being reflexively present and honest as a researcher/author, and writing touchy-feely and processy stuff that (to me) belongs in a personal research journal or blog—not in a journal article or book chapter.

I don’t think I’ve figured out how to trace that line without crossing it. The more I write the pronoun I, the more I feel I’m in danger of slipping over.

We are not amused.
I could have sworn that at one point I posted here about we, but I can’t find it.

One of my pet peeves is the single-author article, riddled with we, that displays no explicit statement of team research (or the identities of team members). It is distracting, much like the use of any pronoun with no clear antecedent. Who is this mysterious we? I imagine the author in Queen Victoria drag or as the spokesperson for some secret cabal.

It is I.
So, given my foundational assumptions about the nature of research and my sense of the proper usage of English, it seems I’m stuck with I. So I need to start paying more attention to clever composition tricks useful for avoiding litanies of I statements.

I am a bit concerned about how writing in the first person singular may affect response to submitted articles. I know that I see articles in first person singular in the literature, but I do not have a good sense of the prevalence of usage overall or by specific well-regarded journals. Now I want to throw all other work aside and start a discourse analysis of the LIS literature combined with a survey asking authors to reflect on their use of voice and person.

Note made. Distraction avoided.

As this post nears 1000 words…
I am also committed to writing as simply and concisely as possible without over-simplifying ideas. My natural tendency is toward verbose rambling, so this is a long term challenge.

I’m now also being tempted to avoid pressing work by going through my article file to see if I can find papers by authors writing in a voice that I like. Models are good.

Suggestions of academic authors you consider to be good scholarly writers are welcome. I’m starting a list.

Finally, a bit of writing advice for everyone from The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage:

perhaps those who say i work too much have a point.

I have worked diligently on writing, looking up page numbers in articles, and verifying citations for just over 36 hours since Friday morning. A tad over 12 hours a day. And here I was excoriating myself for not getting started earlier in the day(s).

This is ridiculous.

Every 5-10 minutes I am stopping myself from writing a paragraph that isn’t necessary, so imagine how bad it could be.

more music for writing, or, netlabels are a grad student’s best friend

I downloaded a bunch of stuff recently and have been slowly working through it while working on my dissproposal. I recommend:

ROZA – GLitch ov Batumi

What we really like about the album is that it’s almost impossible to characterize it in a matter of specific musical genre or style. This is the music which can be depicted in such terms as “good” or “attractive”, or “visionary” or “surreal” but not “rock”, “hip-hop”, “glitch”, “negerpunk” or whatever is usually on your iPod/Winamp.

The album starts with a deep, vibrant sound which reminds me the final dark electronic period of Coil magiciansmusicians. But soon the music turns into some sort of Tribal-Folk with a heartbreaking chorals, freakish oriental drum patterns, and blurred sitar/string melodies which flows in an endless ocean of acoustical noises. The more you listen to this epic ballade-intro, the more you realize that “GLitch ov Batumi” will settle down in your mp3-player for a long time. On the “Irenashvili djan” song you’ll have to deal with catchy overdriven acid flavored oriental broken beats a-la Muslimgauze. And on the “Mountings” you’ll be drowned in a deepest lake of abstract ambient. And the comprehensive title of “Drummers ov God” song needs no additional comments, I believe.

Also enjoyed today: Kittenhead, by Djinnestan, but I don’t know how much it would pull me in if it weren’t called KITTENHEAD:

In many ways, it defies easy categorization. It is very ambient, but contains rhythms. It is dark, yet at the same time whimsical. It includes acoustic instruments and vocals, but they have been processed virtually beyond recognition.

And finally, last night, I described the songs Inland and Track 2 by Cisfinitum to Will as “magnificently creepy.” More about Cisfinitum, via Wikipedia:

Cisfinitum’s leader and inspirer Eugene Voronovsky has graduated from the Moscow State Conservatory as a professional violinist. In his music he uses classical instruments such as violin, piano and percussion along with the sounds traditionally considered “non-musical”, like sound of mechanical coffee grinder or dying man’s breath, all of this subjected to thorough processing, in which both Soviet analog tools and modern digital processing technologies are used. That’s why Cisfinitum can be called the industrial-ambient reading of academic music.

“Cisfinitum is the sound of eternity. I’ve always wanted to create the music of Russian cosmos, music capable of expressing information about Russia that is impossible to reveal by means of words. They call this ‘drone’ overseas, but I prefer to define it ‘metaphysical ambient'”, claims Eugene.

And I called “magnificently creepy.” That’s a good thing.


Despite the awkward state of my literature review’s grammar and spelling, (footnotebegin)My advisor strongly suggested I turn it in without the final proofread because she knew it would take me a week to closely read and correct the thing. And that I probably couldn’t leave it alone… (footnoteend) I am quite concerned with writing well. Being an academic is no excuse for being utterly boring. Says the cataloging teacher…

I am now writing my proposal and I noticed I am repeating words: summarize, describe, review. This reminded me I have been meaning to compile an academic writing cheat-sheet: lists of useful active verbs organized by relationship, lists of what not to do (common wordy phrases, favorite terms that I use too much), lists of commonly misused words, etc.

I found a good starting point for the first at University of Toronto Scarborough:
Verbs in academic writing [pdf]
Verbs for citing sources [pdf]
Adjectives and adverbs for academic writing [pdf]
Useful Sentence Stems for Summary and Critical Review [pdf]
Link Ideas in Your Sentences Effectively [pdf]

I want to plug another good resource for academic writing that I certainly never considered before a few months ago: the university writing center.

It felt utterly bizarre to start going to UNC’s Writing Center last spring. It was not my own idea. Honestly, I was highly resistant to the idea. I’ve always thought of myself as a good writer. I was that kid bored out of my skull in English class, doodling or surreptitiously reading a book. And then I made 100s on all the quizzes and got recommended for the school newspaper staff and literary club. Everyone seemed to expect that I would become a writer of some sort. When I switched my undergraduate major from English to Commercial Art, someone suggested I was disappointing God by not using the special gift he gave me. This same person years later learned about the concept of “paradigm” and suggested we lived in two different ones. I’ll say.

Why did I go to the writing center? I was clearly completely stalled on and overwhelmed by my literature review. Recently gained data clearly explained why all my old tricks weren’t working, why they wouldn’t ever work, and why I had such trouble following all the good academic writing advice out there. I needed help figuring out some new strategies.

Kim Abels at the Writing Center is absolutely wonderful. I met with her regularly for a few months. It was very helpful to discuss with her in detail my entire research writing process, from source identification through reading, note taking, outlining (or lack thereof), drafting, revising, and polishing. She immediately identified the pattern causing most of my trouble and gave me a range of practical strategies to experiment with counteracting that pattern.

The most helpful strategy for me was this:

  1. Identify how long you can work steadily (or in my case, how log to work before forcing yourself to take a break to actually move your legs, focus your eyes far away, and go to the bathroom). I settled on 50 minutes.
  2. Break the paper down into pieces you think you can complete in that period of time.
  3. Each piece should be a section, group of paragraphs, or even just one paragraph
  4. Make a list of sections, set a timer, and attack the first section. Desperately try to finish. Make it a game.
  5. When the timer rings, stop. Even if you are not done. (I was rarely done.)
  6. If you did not finish, add that section back to the end of your list.
  7. Take a break, then come back and take on the next section.
  8. Repeat as necessary

I later ran across this same sort of idea under the name “time boxing,” and yep, it addresses my main problem: the compulsive need to work on any project for all available time. It prevents realizing the day before it is due that you’ve only written the first quarter of a paper that you’ve been working on for three weeks. Yes, I’ve done that. But not any more…

So, the point of all this is if you are struggling with academic writing (there can be a million reasons why, and it is not always “butt not in chair”), most universities have valuable resources that can help you for free. Even for grad students. Even for faculty. Even if you are a Good Writer. Especially if you are a Good Writer, since most of us Good Writers have never had to stop and think about any part of our writing. And then we get to grad school…

If you have been spinning your wheels on writing, go to the writing center. The people there have read everything on writing (the research on the writing process, writing how-tos, etc) and they know a million strategies for helping with any writing problem.

Oh, and if you are in the social sciences, read Writing for Social Scientists: How to Start and Finish Your Thesis, Book, or Article by Howard S. Becker.