book writing

Writing a book pt 5 – finding your voice


Part of the ongoing, not particularly useful series of advice on writing an academic book.

Getting the ‘voice’ or tone right in an academic book is often not as difficult as it is for other forms of writing, because there is an expected mode of expression – the academic voice. This is typically characterised by avoiding casual language, making declarative statements and establishing an authoritative voice. Your publisher will usually have guidelines on use of specific forms of expression, and the copyeditor will follow pretty strict (sometimes overly strict) guidelines. The idea of the academic voice was to essentially remove the author’s personal views from the process – the facts, evidence and arguments speak for themselves. But this is always an overly idealised view of knowledge, and unsurprisingly there has been push back against the idea of the academic voice. Its claim to objectivity can in itself be seen as reinforcing certain values and perspectives. For example, it can be criticised from a feminist, anti-colonial, or methodological perspective.

There is thus a bit more flexibility in the authorial tone now than was perhaps the case previously, and it will vary across disciplines. The tone will also be greatly influenced by the potential audience of the book. A popular science book you want people to pick up in an airport will have a more playful, accessible tone than a book aimed at fellow researchers in a specialised topic.

Having raised some issues with the academic voice, I’d also add some caveats around more informal writing also. Firstly, humorous writing is REALLY difficult to pull off. I’d rather read a dry, objective academic voice monograph, than pages of someone convinced of their own boundless comedic genius. So while the odd light aside gives some humanity to a book, unless you are really good at writing humour, I’d avoid it.

Similarly, the personal voice is not as easy to realise as people often think. I read a book recently where the author kept referring to nights out at conferences with other colleagues, and rock star academics. I’m sure he thought it made him a great raconteur, but it just made me squirm. The reader shouldn’t get the impression they’re just fodder for your ego.

The informal tone of a blog I have found does not transfer well to a book. Maybe it is a combination of the previous two points. I mean we are all in agreement that this blog is hilarious, right? (right?). I don’t quite know why the same text works (at least for me) in one context but not another. Maybe a book is much less of a dialogue, more intrinsically formal. There is usually a tightening up of the prose – a blog comes with expectations (affordance even) of currency, temporariness, informality whereas a book carries connotations of permanence and weight. That may not be true – plenty of bloggers craft posts that are perfectly worded and plenty of books are churned out carelessly, but those social connotations persist.

When you create your proposal, the audience will be a key consideration for the publisher. As long as you set this out, they will often accept variation from the academic voice. In a world of social media, I think as readers, we do expect to connect with the author as a person. It’s a difficult balance to get right, and I would suggest running different versions past people. Your friends and family will know you and sometimes understand the voice better than those who don’t know you as well so it’s worth testing.

In my writing I think I finally settled on something that might be termed ‘academic voice on a relaxed Sunday’, but it took a long time to get there. Find a tone you are comfortable with, if it feels contrived to you then you can guarantee that it will to the reader also. If you’re not sure what that voice is, then the academic voice is a good starting point and make variations from that as you deem suitable.

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