Style and authorial voice

Persuasive writing is authoritative. That is, it is crystal clear to readers what your argument/ key message is and how it fits in relation to others' scholarship on your topic or issue. In this page, we provide strategies for writing with authority; how you can create a clearer sense of 'you' as a writer and demonstrate a strong commitment to your ideas vis-à-vis others'. As Ken Hyland (2002, p.1091) importantly acknowledged: "Academic writing is not just about conveying an ideational 'content', it is also about the representation of self." 

It's important to bear in mind that the academic writing conventions of your field / discipline can influence how you ensure a clear focus and coherence in your writing, and present yourself in your writing (i.e. voice). They can also shape how you:

  • develop arguments and incorporate evidence
  • reference other scholarly studies
  • organise, present and discuss your data
  • lay out and discuss tables, figures, graphs and maps.

So when it comes to developing your voice and achieving writing clarity, cohesion and conciseness, you must consider what this involves in the context of your own discipline. Understanding the specific writing conventions of your discipline/field is the first step to writing with authority as it means that you understand how best to communicate your research to your scholarly community, and in doing so, you demonstrate that you belong to that community.

Distinguishing your ideas

Academic writing uses language of critical analysis rather than the more informal language of normal speaking, diaries, emails or even presentations. One of the reasons for this more formal language is the requirement to engage with the ideas of other writers, which not only have to be referenced, but analysed, critiqued and evaluated to develop a reasoned argument. Your choice of language can help you to show how you analyse, critique and evaluate the ideas you write about. However, the more you fill your writing with description, the less space you have to develop your argument. Thus, the control and use of academic language signals to your readers the depth or level at which you are writing. The goal is to be as precise and as concise as possible. When taking notes from reading, work out a system that clearly distinguishes the following.

  • Material from other sources that you are paraphrasing, putting into your own words.
  • Direct quotations from other sources, where you are reproducing the exact wording of an author.
  • Your observations, views or comments that you wish to document.

Make clear whether the ideas being discussed belong to you or another, or readers can become confused, and miss your great insights. Take the original text below, where it is impossible to determine which ideas belong to X and which to the writer, which was a problem throughout the chapter. The text was subsequently amended, after discussion with the student, to clarify when she was drawing on ideas from her source and when she wanted to insert her own comment.

First version
X's critique of truth (reference) is based on his analysis of discursive procedures. The relation between truth and power is one between truth and discursive practice. Truth is not a stable and independent entity.
Amended version
X's critique of truth (reference) is based on his analysis of discursive procedures. The relation between truth and power is seen by X as one between truth and discursive practice. This suggests that truth is not a stable and independent entity.

It is clear from the material emphasised in the amended text that the ideas in the first two sentences belong to X on whom the writer is drawing, and that she is offering her own interpretation in the third sentence.

Related to the above problem, is the tendency to place a single reference at the end of a rather long paragraph (sometimes successive paragraphs receive this treatment), which is insufficient to discriminating which information precisely has been taken from the source. If all the ideas in a paragraph are being taken from a single source and you are not interpolating any comments of your own, then simply phrase your lead sentences to indicate that this will be so, as in these examples.

Example lead sentences
The following discussion draws on an empirical study undertaken by X (2001).
Further support for this type of intervention is found in X's argument (2003), as now discussed.
The extent of military interference in the political process is attested to in an extensive study undertaken by X, Y and Z (2002). X, Y and Z's study found that ...

As lead sentences in a paragraph, sentences of this type would set up reader-expectation that all that follows in that paragraph is taken from the nominated source. However, if you want to introduce ideas from other sources, you must make it clear to the reader when you do so.

Reporting verbs and phrases

To achieve conciseness and precision, think about whether you want to simply describe someone's idea, or whether you want to critically analyse or evaluate their ideas. Your choice of verbs and phrases can indicate how much you agree or disagree with different people's ideas. The words listed below are arranged, generally, according to their level of description and critical analysis or evaluation.

Reporting language

Descriptive phrases

Analytical phrases

Evaluative phrases

states

contends

affirms

reports

analyses

agrees

describes

announces

concurs

claims

cites

confirms

elaborates

assumes

makes clear

indicates

compares

demonstrates

makes the point

considers

shows

defines

contrasts

justifies

details

theorises

argues

generalises

speculates

interprets

proposes

reconciles

recommends

presumes

suggests

challenges

reckons on

predicts

affirms

observes

explains

confirms

notes

accedes

approves

points out

in the view of x

contradicts

posits

concedes

refutes

postulates

X's conjectures

evaluates

comments

X goes so far as to suggest

advocates

explores

in X's opinion

dismisses

investigates

according to

 

puts forward

X's approach indicates that

 

Flow >>

 

Resources on style and authorial voice

  • Hyland, K. (2002). Authority and invisibility: Authorial identity in academic writing. Journal of Pragmatics, 34, 1091-1112. doi:10.1016/S0378-2166(02)00035-8
  • Peat, J. (2002). Scientific writing: Easy when you know how. London: BMJ Books.
  • Strunk, W., Jr. & White, E.B. (1999). The elements of style (4th ed.). New Jersey: Pearson Education.
  • Sword, H. (2012). Stylish academic writing. Cambridge, England: Harvard University Press.