On this page:
“When academics write articles... they not only present their own ideas but also refer to the ideas of other academics. This means that they need a way to distinguish between their own ideas and the ideas of other people. They need to express their own voice and to refer to the voices of others.”
Academic writing can feel incredibly disempowering. Students often feel they spend all of their time writing about the work of others, without ever demonstrating what they know or think. This is not the case. While all academic arguments must be based on appropriate evidence (references), you decide what evidence to include. You also decide how to critique or support every source you include. This is how your voice comes through in academic writing.
A critical aspect of higher education is the development of knowledge through debate and discourse. Good academic writing uses a mixture of the voices. In practical terms, this includes a blend of your voice and the voice of others. Whenever you are using the work of someone else, this must be appropriately cited and referenced. Referencing is an important part of voice as it helps to distinguish between your ideas and the ideas of others.
The four different voices of academic writing
There are four different types of voice that are used within academic writing:
- Own voice: An original point or claim written by the author of this work, or an aspect of analysis, synthesis or evaluation that comments on the work of others.
- External voice: The writer summerises or paraphrases the work of someone else. Their name is not mentioned directly in the text and the relevant source is represented through citation.
- Indirect voice: The writer summerises or paraphrases the work of someone else. Their name is mentioned in text and the source is appropriated cited.
- Direct voice: The writer directly quotes the work of someone else. Their direct words are reproduced, their name is mentioned in text and the source is appropriated cited.
Example: Using different voices
Let's look at a sample piece of level 5 writing to look at some of the different types of voice:
Public concern for food safety steadily grew from the 1970's onwards as food poisoning events increased. As these public concerns rose, the term ‘food scare’ started to appear in the media (Knowles et al, 2007). According to Campbell and Fitzgerald (2001), food scared were first associated with the malicious lacing of tablets with cyanide in mid-1980s USA, but once coined, soon became applied to the varied food safety issues that arose over subsequent years. Through this the media began to start portraying uncertainty over food safety, which has led to a wide variety of public responses. This is because there is "no unequivocal evidence is available for determining the role of socio-demographic characteristics in processing food safety information" (Mazzocchi et al., 2008:3). This means...
(Excerpt from: Fallin, 2009)
In this short except, all four types of voice are used.
The use of different voices is an essential aspect of the above excerpts developing academic argument. As important as the evidence is, this must be articulated in the context of the argument - in this case, demonstrating public concern for food poisoning events. For this reason, the author's own voice is used as part of the argument and narrative.
Writer's own voice
The writer opens with a sentence to introduce their point. There is no need to reference this opening point as it will be argued within the paragraph - with the use of appropriate academic evidence.
Public concern for food safety steadily grew from the 1970's onwards as food poisoning events increased.
The writer then uses the external voice. This is because the author has fully summerised the work of Knowles, which is referenced using an in-text citation in Harvard/APA style. Knowles name is not mentioned in the main narrative of the text, but is appropriately cited in brackets.
As these public concerns rose, the term ‘food scare’ started to appear in the media (Knowles et al, 2007).
The writer's next sentence uses the indirect voice. This is because they mention Campell and Fitzgernald by name, but go on to user their own words to summerise the work of these authors. Campell and Fitzgernald are appropriates cited to indicate the origin of this idea.
According to Campbell and Fitzgerald (2001), food scared were first associated with the malicious lacing of tablets with cyanide in mid-1980s USA, but once coined, soon became applied to the varied food safety issues that arose over subsequent years.
Writer's own voice
The writer has then again, used their voice to synthesis the evidence so far - and link to their next point. There is no need to reference this as it is build upon the above evidence.
Through this the media began to start portraying uncertainty over food safety, which has led to a wide variety of public responses.
The writer then goes on to use the direct voice. This is because they directly quote the work of Mazzocchi et al., using the authors exact words. This is represented by the quotation marks and is appropriately referenced.
This is because there is "no unequivocal evidence is available for determining the role of socio-demographic characteristics in processing food safety information" (Mazzocchi et al., 2008:3).
Activity: Identifying different voices
As you have seen form this page so far, the use of different academic voices is an essential aspect of both academic integrity (citations/referencing) and critical thinking (building an argument). As your writing develops, so will your use of voice. However, it is also important to be able to identify these voices in your reading. This will support you in identifying the argument of others - and the sources of evidence for them.
For this activity we will look at a piece of level 7 work and try to identify the different use of voice. Read the text below, and try to identify the different use of academic voice. Once you've finished your analysis, look at the next tab for the answers.
(Excerpt from: Fallin, 2015)
(Excerpt from: Fallin, 2015)
Voice, discipline and level
You will find different disciplines use voice in different ways. This is something you will identify the more you engage with the literature in your field. Your assessments are also an opportunity to develop this, and you will recieve feedback/feedforward from your lecturers and tutors to help you develop your writing in your field.
There is a great variation in how discplines may approach voice, but here are some general overviews.
- Sciences favour external voice and own voice above that of indirect and direct voice. In fact, it is very rare you will find the direct voice in scientific writing. Sciences tend to focus on the re-articulation of core information and knowledge in the context of the current work. There is also less of a focus over who is involved in the work, so the use of the indirect voice is also rare. This is because citations are used to identify authorship, and this is not needed in the narrative.
- Social sciences will often use a mix of all voices, though the balance will depend on the work in question. While the external and own voice are the staple, there is a greater appreciation for theory and authorship, so the indirect voice is also common. There is still a focus on avoiding the use of direct voice (quotations) wherever possible, but they are appreciated where the context requires them.
- Arts and humanities also used a mix of all voices. There is a greater allowance for the direct voice, especially when quoting original or historical work for the purpose of analysis - but not as a means of padding out work. There must be synthesis and analysis for any use of the direct voice.
Level of study
It is also fair to say that your use of voice will vary heavily by level of study. For example, level 4 study generally focuses on acquiring core disciplinary knowledge. At this phase of your studies, your own voice is still developing, and you may find your use of the external, indirect and direct voice is greater. This inevitably rebalances at higher levels of study. By level 6 and 7 you should have really developed your own voice as a way to synthesis and narrate the ideas of others (presented in the other three voices).