Day 3: Positioning yourself as a researcher: Authorial voice

As we saw yesterday, performing the actions of a researcher is key to exhibiting the behaviours that help others see this emerging identity. Central to how you present yourself as a researcher is the persona you adopt in your writing, which includes positioning yourself in relation to the topic under investigation. This is what supervisors are talking about when they encourage HDRs to ‘find your own voice’ in research writing.

The idea of ‘authorial voice’, though, is one of those concepts that people often seem to mention without unpacking what it actually means. Well, that’s how it seemed to me for years, anyway! Everyone else seemed to understand what it referred to, but it remained a mystery to me. So, I want to spend a bit of time today demystifying what I now regard as a ‘threshold concept’ in doctoral education.

One way of thinking about ‘voice’ in writing is as a metaphor that ‘has to do with feeling‐hearing‐sensing a person behind the written words, even if that person is just a persona created for a particular text or a certain reading’ (Bowden 1999). For different situations, we take on different voices. For example, the voice used in the Three Minute Thesis competition is different from the voice used in a formal journal article.

Hirvela and Belcher (2001) take this idea of a ‘situational voice’ and explore how writers adopt difference voices for different texts and purposes – it’s a bit like putting on different outfits for different occasions. So, a researcher might wear fairly casual clothing – jeans and T-shirt – for an informal seminar in their own department, but choose a smart suit to present the keynote at an international conference. The levels of formality in clothing echo the levels of formality in the language that is used. By contrast, if I arrived at a workshop dressed in a ball gown, most participants would feel I had badly misread the situation – just as using entirely inappropriate language might also be read as not understanding the expected discourse of a particular writing situation.

But there’s a further catch – as scholars we are expected to use the language and authorial voices that others have used before us. We have to be original and ‘use our own words’, but we can’t be too original. In effect, doctoral writers must select their outfits from the second-hand rack (Ivanic and Camps, 2001), to recycle the language and voices that demonstrate they understand the expectations of the particular writing situation, to show they know how to fit in with the discourse, vocabulary and language of a particular discipline. There’s no point coming up with a new phrase for something when readers will wonder: ‘That’s weird. Why doesn’t she just use the usual term for that?’ Inouye and McAlpine (2017) show how feedback from supervisors and writing groups plays a key role in teaching research candidates how to produce a suitable authorial voice that expresses the right kind of confidence and positioning in the text.

(A longer discussion of this topic is available in Guerin & Picard (2012) Try it on: voice, concordancing and text-matching in doctoral writing. International Journal of Educational Integrity 8(2).)

Where do you see ‘voice’?

So, how and where do we see ‘voice’ in writing? The most useful explanations I’ve been able to find are from Helms‐Park & Stapleton (2003), Zhao & Llosa (2008) and Paltridge and Starfield (2007/2019). They identify the following voice markers in language.

Category Explanation Examples



hedging language (being tentative, withholding full commitment)



·  This is possibly caused by…

·  It might be that…

·  modal verbs (could, can, should, may)

intensifiers/boosters (emphasise the importance or the wr›iter’s certainty) ·  It is highly likely that…

·  This important outcome…

·  Obviously, we must consider…

·  Definitely

·  It is clear that…



pronoun use


I/we/our research group
active/passive voice and verbs ·  I interviewed 20 participants (active)

·  Participants were interviewed by the researcher (passive)

Attitude markers expresses how the author regards the idea an extraordinary result



I agree that…


Engagement markers explicitly refer to or build a relationship with the reader Notice that


Reiteration of central point frequency & explicitness of presentation of central ideas As outlined earlier

We argue that…


Authorial presence and autonomy of thought


presentation of alternative viewpoints;

‘reader’s impression of the overall authorial presence* in a particular piece of writing’.

Although the research by XXX presents….

We acknowledge that…


*This last bit about overall impression I still find somewhat unhelpful, I have to admit. I need specific examples to see the actual language choices that create this impression.

As you’ll notice, a lot of this evidence of voice is revealed in the use of adjectives, adverbs and reporting verbs.

Adjectives Adverbs Reporting verbs
most significant












For some more ideas about reporting verbs, have a look at Susan Carter’s blog on ‘Saying says’.

ACTIVITY: Take a piece of research writing that you like and highlight/underline examples of each of these categories. Even in the most straight forward, factual research writing, we see evidence of these categories as research writers demonstrate their critical thinking about the topic – even the choice NOT to use this vocabulary is part of authorial voice in that we observe its absence. Please record the examples you find via the Comments box below.

If you find it tricky to identify examples of these language features, send me a paragraph or two and I can show you where they appear.

Voice as a threshold concept?

In my opinion, the process of developing a greater sense of confidence and authority in the voice /persona created in the text is a threshold concept for doctoral candidates (Guerin & Green, 2012). That is, voice can be mysterious and act as a bit of a block until you get it, stalling your progress in the development of research writing. This can be quite unsettling while you are working it out. But once you do understand, you can’t turn back, you can always do it.

It’s not always easy at first to adopt the confident ‘hands on hips’ stance that Kamler and Thomson (2006) recommend, where you assertively tell the reader your version of the story, emphasising what is important to you, and pointing out what you think the reader should pay attention to; sometimes you need to practise acting this confidence in your own opinions at first. Sometimes it’s necessary to ‘fake it until you make it’ – act confident in asserting your own opinions.

But gradually this confidence does become a much more comfortable expression of your researcher identity as an authority on your topic. Eventually, you will believe that your own version is worthwhile and that others should listen to what you have to say – you are the expert on your research topic and have something useful to add to the conversations in your field. This is when you find yourself thinking like a biologist/anthropologist/linguist/geneticist and taking on that identity. It’s a great feeling when you realise that you have found your voice in research writing, and I promise, it does arrive by the end of the doctorate!

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