Image: Western meadowlark singing, © Jim Kennedy via flickr.com, CC BY 2.0
I’ve argued recently that our scientific literature is tedious to read in part because it lacks voice – those hints of individuality in vocabulary, style, and structure that show personality and mark one writer’s work as distinct from another’s. I’ve also thought a bit about where our voicelessness comes from Today, the obvious next question in the series: if we wanted to see scientific writing with more voice*, how could we make that happen?
The answer is both extremely simple and very complicated. To start with the simple answer: we get more voice by putting more in and taking less out. Roughly, that’s us as writers, and us as reviewers.
As writers: putting more in. As scientific writers, most of us learned our craft largely by reading the literature already published in our fields, and then modeling what we saw there. This is a pretty good system for erasing any voice we might have had, but the good news is that our voiceless literature is a matter of practice, not of possibility. We could write scientific papers with (a little) voice, if chose to.
Now we come to the massive irony, of course. I can’t tell you how to write with voice – because the very definition of voice is that you write a little bit differently than I do. (Steve Martin may have said this best, with his Nonconformist’s Oath). But I’ll offer one thought anyway. I think the key is a little experimentation. With your next few papers, why not try out a few little things? Perhaps use some contractions. Perhaps use a metaphor, or a pop-culture reference, or a tiny little joke (tuned in such a way that a reader who doesn’t understand simply misses it, rather than being mystified). Perhaps slip in a little alliteration, or an ornament in a figure. If we let ourselves experiment a little, we won’t all do the same things.
It’s important not to overdo this, of course. With every quirk you’re tempted to introduce, ask yourself if it impedes clear understanding of your paper. Clarity should always come first. But “clarity” needn’t be the same thing as “every paper sounds the same”. If you experiment, you may find you’ve written a sentence that doesn’t sound like the rest of our literature. The correct reaction isn’t “gosh, that doesn’t sound science-y, so I’d better change it”; the correct reaction is “OK, that sounds a bit different, but is it clear?”
As reviewers: taking less out
Reading that first part, you probably thought something like “I can’t do any of that stuff – reviewers will just make me undo it”. And much of the time, you’re probably right.** Reviewers who refrain from squashing voice will be just as important as writers who offer it. So: when you have your reviewer’s hat on, you’ll likely have a strong reflex to question prose that doesn’t sound quite like everything else in our literature. Suppress that reflex. Instead, ask yourself this: “does the style I’m noticing make the writing unclear, or just different”? If the former, by all means, squash away; but if the latter, perhaps it’s a good time to praise rather than criticize. Or at least to stay neutral.
Mentors of undergraduate and graduate students will play an outsized role here. As supervisory committee members and especially as advisors, we’re on the front lines as our students learn to write. We may comment on, or edit, a student’s thesis through a dozen drafts – and (as my students will tell you) we can use Track Changes to make a truly impressive masterpiece of markup. And since we’re likely to be the first in that student’s career to have done so, what we say may be influential.*** So it’s worth thinking about how we might work with a student’s writing without flattening their voice. I’ll switch into first person now, because my perspective here is that of sinner, not saint: I strongly suspect that over the years I’ve over-edited, at cost to students’ voices. So, if I’m to do better, how?
Since we’re talking about voice, let’s set aside comments/edits**** that pertain to paper content, and think about those that pertain to paper style. When I’m reading a student draft, I’ll notice a point of style that isn’t how I would have written it. Rather than immediately “fixing” it, I think I should be sorting the piece of writing I’ve noticed into one of three bins:
(1) I wouldn’t have written it that way, because it isn’t clear. This I should go ahead and edit; if style is getting in the way of clarity, then it’s bad. No need for me to change my practice here.
(2) I wouldn’t have written it that way, because it doesn’t sound like a scientific paper. I’ve done this – marked for editing things that were “too conversational”, “too informal”, and so on. That’s problematic because, if our literature lacks voice, then this category includes the very things that could bring it back. On the other hand: too much style that “doesn’t sound like a scientific paper” may mean a manuscript that suffers in peer review. My job as a mentor, then, is probably to bring the text closer to what reviewers and readers expect, without bringing it all the way into homogeneity. As a practical matter, this may mean reducing voice without removing voice. And I should explain this strategy to the student: “This sort of thing isn’t very common in scientific writing. I actually think there’s no reason it shouldn’t be, and you might choose to keep it – but realize reviewers may react negatively if you do, and more negatively if you do it often”.
(3) I wouldn’t have written it that way, because it doesn’t sound like me. This is where I should mind my own business: text that sounds fine, but just isn’t what I would have written. Actually, this category is difficult to recognize: a piece of text that isn’t quite what I would have written may not “sound fine” to me even though it would sound fine to a different reader. Here’s where I need to think of what I’m doing, as I read my students’ work, not as “we’re co-writing a collaborative paper” but instead as “I’m helping this student learn how they write”. Notice – not “how to write”, but “how they write”.
If all this sounds difficult, well, I’m pretty sure that it is. Writing is hard; there’s no reason mentoring writers shouldn’t be hard too. But if we want writing with voice, we can reclaim it: with some work as writers and some work as reviewers, and a little at a time.
© Stephen Heard May 14, 2019
This series of posts on voice was inspired in part by a set of overlapping questions posed to me by Meg Duffy, Helen Fricker, and M. Abas Shah. Thanks to all three! The previous posts in the series: “Do scientific writers have voice“, and “Where did our scientific-writing voices go?”
*^As I’ve pointed out a couple of times – “more” voice doesn’t mean excesses of style that would make our writing sound like James Joyce – or even more modest excesses that would simply make our writing unclear. Nonetheless, some folks will surely object that they don’t want our literature to have voice. As a matter of taste, that can’t really be right or wrong; but there’s an empirical question too, about whether papers with voice might engage and retain more readers. I suspect so, but I can’t prove it.
**^I could tell you stories. Some day I will. But the thing is: if half your jump shots miss the basket, the way to score more points is not to stop taking jump shots; it’s to take more of them. Good Lord, I just made a basketball metaphor.
***^That is, for students who pay attention. Like most of us, I’ve had that kind, and I’ve had the other kind.
****^I’m leaving aside here the issue of whether it’s best for me to simply make an edit (using Track Changes, so the student can see what I’ve done), to make the edit and explain why in a marginal comment, or simply add a marginal comment asking the student to make a change. These are, I think roughly in increasing order of time consumed, but might also be in increasing order of utility for the student learning to write.