Why Your Writing Voice is Important

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Academic authors I work with don’t write stereotypical academic books. They want to avoid writing what I call “bricks”—academic tomes with an obtuse argument written for a small set of insiders. Bricks tend to be long and boring reads, more useful for throwing through a window than reading. They are tedious to read and difficult to digest. My academic clients, by contrast, want to write a compelling book to translate their research for new audiences. For this reason, I do something that most other editors do not. The first discussion I have with new clients is about how to retain their writing voice.

Why am I so attentive to an author’s writing voice? Consider James Baldwin, the queer Black novelist who has been described as his century’s “essential voice.” His articles, screenplays, and books move between melancholic, first-person anecdotes and fiery prose to make compelling points about the Black experience in America. Consider how he narrated his meeting with Elijah Muhammad in 1963’s The Fire Next Time to discuss his hesitancy about the Nation of Islam. He tempered his respect for Muhammad with contrast, to ease readers into what he saw as his responsibility as a Black author. In this book, he used these writing techniques to chart poignant middle road for his argument that would reach white audiences—a novel idea in the waning “Jim Crow” era, when Black authors were presumed to write only for Black audiences.

Surprisingly, critics did not initially recognize the enduring character of his writing voice. They griped about his use of the first person in 1968’s Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone. They found his arguments on America controversial. They even took issue with his powerful oratory skills, acquired from growing up in the church as the son of a preacher. Yet, these were the vital components of Baldwin’s writing voice that animated his stories. His writing voice made his words capable of speaking across cultural barriers and endure.

Baldwin at a typewriter in Instabul, 1966

The very qualities that critics complained about were what made Baldwin’s writing voice so unmistakable. You could easily argue that Baldwin was “ahead of his time,” as the cliché goes. It is no doubt true that audience in the United States were not ready to confront their complicity in racial inequality through words written by a Black man. Nor were they exactly ready for Baldwin’s hazy exploration of bisexuality in Giovanni’s Room. But my point here is slightly different. Decades later, Baldwin’s writing voice remains distinct, even among other Black and queer writers. By returning to Baldwin’s writing, I believe we can glean insights that help academic writers animate their books. I believe that an author’s writing voice derives from argument, tone, and style.

Argument is an essential component of your writing. James Baldwin argued (implicitly and, in the case of his debate with William F. Buckley, explicitly) that structural inequalities were at the core of the American experience. Similarly, each academic book has a big argument that connects evidence with a particular conclusion. An author returns to enrich their argument over the course of the book, either directly or through a set of smaller arguments. In this way, an academic author assembles pieces of a puzzle to show a bigger picture. Howard S. Becker refers to this form of argumentation as “telling about society.” Contrary to stereotypes, academic writing should not involve summarizing dry observations. There needs to be more connective tissue.

Without a coherent and powerful argument connecting evidence with theory, an academic writer’s brilliance may be lost. Another tedious “brick” of a book may be created.

Tone refers to the vocabulary an author uses in their writing to signal a point of view. A book’s tone can be polemical—a tirade against established belief—or deeply analytical. Academic authors often imagine their writing having a certain tone. A social scientific book written by an author interested in evenly evaluating evidence will read differently than one written by a critical studies professor keen to alleviate injustice. Baldwin was always clear of the tone he wanted his books to have. “A writer is by definition a disturber of the peace. He has to be,” Baldwin said. “He has to make you ask yourself, make you realize that you are always asking yourself, questions that you don’t know how to face.”

Similarly, my academic writing clients see their writing serving a particular role in society. They don’t just have something to say—they have a reason for saying it in a certain way.

Style is the “personality” of your writing not captured in argument and tone. Academics, particularly ethnographers, can prefer first-person narratives interspersed with powerful invectives, as Baldwin did. Other writers gravitate towards synthesizing academic literature. They prefer to set a framework to analyze a particular phenomena or social problem. Regardless, I’ve found that academic authors are frequently inspired to write by a book with a particular style. The stylistic flourishes we notice in the books of others can form the basis for our own original style.

Writing an enduring academic book does not mean merely “filling a gap in the literature.” It requires making an interesting argument through compelling stylistic prose.

In a memorable academic book, argument, tone, and style comprise a writer’s voice. Working with an editor helps amplify your voice and shape it into a book that will have the impact in the world you imagine. Editing helps all these pieces work together. That’s why I called my company Indelible Voice. I’m interested in working on academic book proposals and manuscripts with a compelling and enduring message.

If that describes you, please contact me for a free consultation.

Dr. Andrew Schrock is Senior Editor at Indelible Voice, an editing service for academic book proposals, book manuscripts, and journal article manuscripts. You can find him on Twitter at @aschrock.