Style and Voice in “Academic” Writing
Many of us, and many of our students, learned the general “rules” of style in academic writing at some point over the years. You know, the sort of rules that discourage the use of clichés like the one in the preceding sentence, that have trained us to privilege active voice in much of our writing, and that turn writing things like “Do not use the first-person voice” on our prompts into a natural instinct. The rules are well-intentioned, and our uses of them are well-meaning. We want to help students to produce clear, confident, and professional prose, the kind of prose that their audiences will recognize, respect, and respond to. We want to help our students write like academics.
Research in composition, however, reminds us that academic writing is not a clear-cut category. Not all of the writing tasks we ask our students to take on are designed to reach an academic audience. Not all academic audiences expect the same features in a piece of writing. Rules for writing often cannot account for the sort of flexibility that effective writers need. Laura Beerits, in her recent article “Understanding I: The Rhetorical Variety of Self-References in College Literature Papers,” illustrates the shortcomings of such rules as she questions outright bans of first-person writing. After analyzing first-person pronoun use in a set of student papers, Beerits argues that “I” can introduce three different types of knowledge in academic writing: a general claim (“I think; I believe…”); a process claim (“I noticed; I wondered…”); or a personal claim (“In my experience; As someone who…”). While general claims “can unintentionally distract from or diminish [students’] ideas,” process claims or personal claims may enable students to “demonstrat[e] facility with sophisticated writing techniques and [mirror] the conventions used by successful scholars” (569). Discouraging students from using the first-person pronoun , then, can potentially preclude “powerful rhetorical possibilities” (569). Data-driven research like Beerits’ reminds us of the importance of considering the expectations and possibilities of writing in our disciplines. It reminds us too that talking about those expectations and possibilities explicitly with students, teaching rhetorical awareness, and being generous readers of our students’ writing—rather than leaning on the comfort and familiarity of the rules— are practices that are more likely to help students produce the type of writing that their audiences (and we, their instructors) want to engage with.
Beerits, Laura. “Understanding I: The Rhetorical Variety of Self-References in College Literature Papers.” College Composition and Communication 67.4 (2016): 550-75. Print.