How to create ‘authoritative voice’ in your writing

For some inexplicable reason, perhaps to do with Woodstock, kaftans, free love and the rest, the education department in Australia decided to abandon the teaching of grammar in the late sixties and didn’t start again, as far as I can tell, until the mid 80s. I am the ultimate product of a 1970′s education, therefore I am profoundly grammar challenged.

type instructionsI was taught that commas were placed when you feel like taking a breath (mostly wrong) and semi colons were irrelevant (so wrong). Other parts of my language knowledge are thin and I still cannot name any part of a sentence with certainty. By the end of primary school my writing was lively and fun, but full of errors. My love of writing quickly died when my teachers tried to correct the problems in high school and it didn’t really come back until I started to blog.

Some teachers resisted this free wheelin’ trend of course and Mr Thesis Whisperer was lucky enough to have one. He is under instruction to correct me when I use bought instead of brought, then instead of than and so on. With his patient help I no longer embarrass myself at middle class dinner parties and in correspondence with the bank. I’m pleased to see fashions have changed and Thesis Whisperer Jnr, aged 11 and a half, has more technical grammar knowledge than I did at his age (and basic math knowledge for that matter).

Getting through two theses with a white knuckled grip on what little grammar I knew was a nightmare, but instructive. I had to re-learn, pretty much from scratch, many of the technicalities. My poor supervisors had to struggle with me and I thank them from the bottom of my grammar challenged heart.

There’s a saying that the worst students make the best teachers and this is probably why I am such a popular and in demand writing teacher today. I’m not a perfect writer, but I get by. My students quickly realise they can equal or exceed me with little effort. Sometimes imperfection is just what you need in a thesis writing role model – at least that’s what I tell myself.

My approach to teaching writing is deeply informed by my own struggles. I don’t try to teach the technicalities because I can’t. The grammar rules just don’t ‘stick’ as easily when you are an adult. So I developed tools for myself using advice I found in books. I share these tools with PhD students in my workshops and, over the years, their feedback has helped me improve them.

A couple of months ago my friend Margaret Kammel, who is a high school teacher and blogger, read my ebook and discovered some of my tools. She told me about the ‘blackline masters’ books that school teachers use. These are formatted A4 sheets with exercises and information for teachers to use in class. A lesson can be built around one or two of these A4 sheets. Margaret suggested I reformat some of my tools and put them online. I loved this idea and the Thesis Whisperer BLM series was born.

The first one I published was the Thesis Whisperer Verb Cheat Sheet (PDF). One of the major break throughs I had in my own academic writing was the realisation that verbs are judgy (which I know is not a word, but I like it – that 70′s attitude coming through I suppose). In your literature review a verb should describe what you think about the author, as well as what you think the author is doing. Why? I like to think it’s because academia is a passive aggressive, uptight, emotionally challenged culture. We rarely say what we think directly, we imply it in the way we use verbs.

For example, it’s more complimentary to say…

Inger argues that academia is a passive aggressive culture

… than to say…

Inger asserts that academia is a passive aggressive culture.

Look up the two definitions in the dictionary if you don’t believe me. An argument implies that there are reasons given to support a point of view, an assertion is a confident and forceful statement of opinion. Looking up verbs in the dictionary all the time is annoying, so the verb cheat sheet was born. I made it for myself a long time ago when I realised that my over reliance on a small set of verbs was making my writing boring. On the sheet I have classified my verbs in groups which, to me, express how I feel about the work I am referencing: “This work is awesome”, “I feel neutral”, “this work is poor”.

It’s important to emphasise that this is my personal/disciplinary verb taxonomy – it’s not automatically generalisable. Different disciplines have different conventions around verbs – science types tend to use many more neutral verbs for example. The idea of providing the BLM text as both a PDF and a webpage is that you can easily lift the text and alter it to suit yourself. I encourage you to make your own verb list tailored to your needs.

It would be wonderful, if you do this, if you would send me the revised list so I can add it as a variation. Share the love I say!

The verb list was inspired by the work of Barbara Kamler and Pat Thomson (of the ‘Patter’ blog – add it to your reading list right now people) who talk about the importance of creating a ‘credible persona’ in the text. They borrow and extend on the work of James Hyland, a linguist, who has published a set of resources for building ‘writerly stances’. Kamler and Thomson offer his classification scheme in five parts:

Hedges: words like possible, might, perhaps, believe etc
Emphatics: clearly, in fact, definitely, it is obvious.
Attitude markers: I agree, we prefer, unfortunately, hopefully etc, as well as puncuation: scare quotes, exclamation marks and so on.
Relational markers: where you address the audience directly, much like a narrative character in a Shakespeare play: “Where does this lead?”, “I you recall …”
Person markers: how you signal the author presence: I, we, our, my, mine etc.

Kamler and Thomson, and other writing teachers, show us that ‘authoritative writing’ can be produced by small, but strategic changes in the words you use to join up sentences (I’m sure there’s a technical term for this, but I’ve forgotten). I’m working through my store of writing text books to make more black line masters for you to use.

Students are sometimes told their text is not quite ‘right’ or ‘scholarly’ enough, but offered little concrete guidance to fix it. I suspect that’s because their supervisors are grammar challenged in the same way that I am. Many of us can write well, but can’t explain how we do it. I hope this BLM series will help if you have a supervisor like this.

Luckily many supervisors ARE skilled at grammar and helping students to write.  I’m finding my colleagues are a rich source of knowledge and inspiration for this BLM work. For example, I was inspired to make the Conjunctive Adverb conjurer by my friend Dr Scott Mayson. Of course, I had to look up what a conjunctive adverb was on wikipedia first!

So what about you? Do you have grammar problems like me? Or do you have resources to share – sites, worksheets or books which have helped? I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

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39 thoughts on “How to create ‘authoritative voice’ in your writing

      • We tend to use them to fill space or mimic the dull, neutral, academic voice. We are taught not to take sides. Make sure you pride both sides of the argument, blah blah blah, even though life isn’t really like that. If you know it, say it. I think the idea of forcing people to write 20 pages or books about subjects is silly if we can explain it in ten words or less. For example, does Hemingway represent the attitudes of modern culture? Answer: Yes. He was a self-centered windbag : quote, quote, quote, The End.

        I loved your post because it mentions the right of the figurative and the fun to stand just as proud on the stage of opinion and theory as any other form of writing. But academia is just as you say, “passive aggressive’ to a fault.

        Perhaps the reason education is falling apart all over the globe is because we don’t let it say what it wants to, what it needs to. We don’t let it use its own words. We force it to be accommodating, which forces students to graduate as doormats, and psuedo-diplomats; but inside they are screaming, “This is bullsh*t!”

        If it is crap, say it is crap. If it does something, just state it. It doesn’t need consequently-s. Clearly any event has a consequence. It’s implied, we don’t need to alert the reader that something is going to happen. Get rid of the howevers, and just run with the position you believe in. Beat down the other side with evidence. Be bold, be pushy, be right if you’re GD right. That is real life.

        Does compromise exist, of course. But that’s the reader’s problem. Read a position, then read another side. Why force writers into doing the reader’s work for him? Silly.

        And dammit, I like metaphor. It explains reality so much better than lists of dry facts. I can tell a blind guy the sky is blue, but it’s not gonna do him a bit of damn good, is it? But if I tell him its color is the minty freshness of his toothpaste, then we’re in business. Now, if I am writing about neurosurgery, perhaps a little less metaphor is appropriate, but still, how much more fun would it be to read about it?

        All these extra words we use to write boring theses are silly. Of course this or that applies, or asserts, that’s why it is referenced. It’s like we are taught to write for idiots that can’t figure out two opposite things differentiate from one another. Well no sh*t, Sherlock.

        End unprofessional rant. :)

  1. Thank you Inger. I always thought my grammar was crap because I wasn’t paying attention. I didn’t realise it was (also) a product of my era.
    And I would definitely add ‘suggests’ to the cheat sheet

  2. I think I was a product of the same era in Aussie education, my High School time was in the 70′s.

    I was saved by picking up good language via osmosis from reading constantly and a stint as an editor with two highly skilled copy editors who bashed a set of rules into me and could explain the reason for every edit they made.

    Perhaps Universities should have a “copy editing” department for thesis writers so that supervisors could concentrate on the content rather than grammar and style?

  3. I too am such a product. I was convinced that meaning was more important than the grammatical construction of a message. What an oxymoron. I also mistakenly believed that writing was hard and that thinking was easy. I now know the two are closely entwined. I suspect that my historical denial of the nuances of grammar are also what lead me to enjoy text language alot. It was in my second thesis I learned alots were a fiction: http://hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.co.nz/2010/04/alot-is-better-than-you-at-everything.html
    Sadly the ongoing damage of this liberal approach to English construction is i find writing and meaning making difficult and so the expectation of publishing in academia becomes something of a very long haul.

  4. Loved this post, and the verb cheat sheet got printed immediately so I have it for reference now. The connotations of some verbs are not what you would think either. The argues vs asserts case is a prime example. I know in my head, argues connects to two sides which connects to uncertainty whereas asserts connects to confidence which connects to certainty. Surprised me a bit it was the other way around, but when explained it made perfect sense.

  5. Reblogged this on I like stuff and commented:
    This post came at a really appropriate time for me: just when I was looking at improving my grammar. Posting it here for future reference (and really just to see what the reblog feature does)

  6. I’ve also just added another word list giving alternate words for similar, focus, comparison, time, conclusion, limitation, contrast, result and example.

    You can put the list up as part of your BLM series if you like.

  7. I recommend that cheat sheet to a student nearly every week!

    Other tips for developing authoritative voice I recommend:
    Write your rubbish first draft in the first person and use active verbs, this gives you strong, authoritative tone (‘I will argue…’).
    In later drafts, you may decide to edit this out (changing the sentence opener to ‘in this paper it will be argued’). However, the strong, active authority of the sentence as a whole seems to remain.
    If you write in the passive voice first, excluding yourself from the text, it seems to infect everything else you write.

  8. Thank you for this post, Thesis Whisperer. I am reminded of a blog I had written on the grammar in reviewing literatures (http://edchow.wordpress.com/2012/05/17/the-syntax-of-succinctness-in-reviewing-literatures/), and then I’ve come to realise — thanks to your reminder — that sounding “authoritative” is just another persona I need to create for myself just to be accepted into academia, even if it’s stifling. But given time and experience, my confidence in the subject area becomes my authority, and by that time, coining new words would give me the extra “authoritative” edge.

  9. It is interesting that when you group reporting verbs (e.g. states, shows, suggests) into semantic clusters, you find that verbs that literally relate to seeing, or helping others see (e.g. shows, demonstrates, clarifies, points out, reveals) are typically positive about the source, while verbs that literally relate to what’s going on in someone’s head (e.g. thinks, feels, believes) are quite disparaging about the source and generally avoided in academic writing. You can see the traces of soaked-in positivism in academic writing… ‘seeing is believing’.

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  11. While it is true that the lexis of disputation is often overused it is clearly helpful if you want to signal degrees or shades of difference in your interpretation. In that arts and social sciences judgements are not derived from logical positivism, and evidence and interpretation have shades of gray. All writers deploy a variety and range of connectives to link ideas and signpost the flow of thoughts. The trick is not to use them too much, or too little, beause you will end up sounding like a robot, rather than a sentient and sensitive human creature! Language is your tool, not your master.

  12. Coming from a ‘English-as-my-primary-language-but-as-a-non-’native’-speaker’ background, I feel your pain (and am surprised by it). I always thought that I am grammatically challenged because I never bothered to listen in class as I spoke better English than my some of my English teachers (that’s my idiotic teenage years speaking)! Always thought that everyone from English speaking countries know all the grammar rules by heart. So was really grateful for your verb cheat and the rest of your BLM series. Thanks again for sharing.

    • Is it worth pointing our that grammarians are divided between those that describe actual living usage, and those the try to enforce, regulate and prescribe? Our greatest writers, such as Shakespeare, were often ungrammatical by modern standards. Academic discourse is a specialist use of English which is still evolving. I suspect that it’s becoming less stiff and stylised nowadays. An example is the tedency to use the first person pronoun “I” instead of the neutral objectivity of the third person. Even abbreviations are now common, I’VE noticed. At its worst academic discourse serves as a defensive armour or shield; at its best it supports the elegant deployment of ncessary subtleties.

  13. I attended high school from the mid 80s to the early 90s and grammar simply was not on the syllabus. I wish it had been as I cannot identify the parts of a sentence and have no idea about the correct usage of a semi-colon. Or a colon for that matter.

  14. I am the privileged minority! Not only was I taught English grammar at primary school, I also studied Latin at secondary school and I since learned (and now teach) NT Greek. So, yes, I can parse a sentence. More importantly for the purpose of thesis-writing, I’m a good mimic. That is, I can copy other people’s writing styles pretty well. Something that any student can do is pay attention to the style of the things they are reading. And when you’re reading academic papers and even other theses, pay more attention. Watch how other people do it. How do they construct sentences to give weight to their argument? How do they refer to other scholars and what does that tell you? Then copy, copy, copy. Not their content or their argument, but their style.

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  16. Hi Inger,
    Thanks for this post. In my thesis (I now have a full draft, hurrah!) I have tended to signal that something is my own idea or argument by using the first person eg ‘I have concluded that…I would argue that’. Interestingly, I have some feedback that in places this can actually weaken what I’m saying. Do you have any thoughts, or suggestions as to where I might look, for signalling the author’s own argument/contribution/idea without using first person?

  17. I have now also built my own lists of alternative words from the trusty Oxford thesaurus, I have alternatives for says, notes, states, argues, argues for, explore, emphasise, further, however.

  18. I did most of my schooling in the sixties, and studied Latin, Italian and Greek (although the Greek was minimal). I am quite fussy about correct language use and punctuation. Unfortunately my supervisors are younger than I am and are less fussy, or want to write things that I consider to be incorrect. Recently we agreed that I would just get on with writing and let an editor sort out the finer details. I will have to find an editor whose standards match mine, or it will reduce my sense of ownership over the thesis.

  19. In my view, academic voice in the arts and the social sciences need not be the bleak accent of dry neutrality and emotionless abstraction. Surely there’s an error in losing the human pulse in this domain of work

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  21. I was that shy girl too. I have tears in my eyes as I write this because you have deiecsbrd it so well. I always felt different to all the other children. They made friends, they played and I just wanted to be at home where I could be me, be happy and play by myself. As I grew up I tried so hard to be like the others, tried to be popular, tried to be outgoing and desperately trying not to be shy. And it wore me out. But in the last few years I realise that I am shy, I am introvert but I am also kind, caring and authentic. That is who I am. I am now 42 and my daughter is 5 years old and she has just started school and she is that shy girl. I tell her I love her, that she is beautiful and I try to build her self esteem and confidence. But when I leave her at school she cries because she is shy and all the other children are confident and loud and she feels lost. And it breaks my heart.

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