In academic writing, we draw on other scholars’ works to support our own claims, indicate our familiarity with disciplinary discourses and show how our work both challenges and builds on prior research. Sometimes, along the way, we also draw on another aspect of other people’s writing: their distinct authorial voice. The revision strategy in this entry will help you to avoid being so imitative that readers grow concerned that you are ‘parroting,’ that is to say, uttering things without knowing precisely what they mean.
The problem of imitating another authorial voice is most often experienced by writers in the humanities and some humanistic borderlands in the social sciences. More specifically, it usually stems from engaging with a certain kind of scholar: a famous theorist whose distinctive prose style is closely intermingled with the substantive ideas they’re communicating. While every authorial voice is comprised of a wide range of stylistic and lexical elements, we can begin to identify the problem by considering idiosyncratic turns of phrase that are closely linked to the conceptual vocabulary of certain scholars.
- “always already” (Derrida)
- “the rhizome is an acentered, nonhierarchical and nonsignifiying system” (Deleuze and Guttari)
- “can the subaltern speak?” (Spivak)
- “a political genealogy of gender ontologies” (Butler)
Engaging with these and other distinctively voiced theorists is especially tricky because key elements of their voice are also building blocks for the concepts you may want to deploy in your own work. As a result, there is a degree to which one will necessarily “sound like” certain theorists if you are making use of their theories. However, it is also possible—and sadly common—to sound like that theorist more than is necessary, to imitate their voice in a way that (1) clouds rather than clarifies your meaning and (2) renders your work derivative.
Try the following exercise to avoid these pitfalls and to create the space for developing your own authorial voice.
Step 1: Identify a specific writer who you may be imitating a bit too much. Generate a list of stylistic choices and turns of phrase that seem to be elements of their unique authorial voice. Try to think about as many dimensions of voice as possible (word and phrases, sentence structure, preferred rhetorical techniques, etc.)
Step 2: For each item on your list, do some thinking and writing to determine how intermingled that element is with the theorist’s key concepts.
Step 3: Now consider in turn each item that you deem to be closely linked to the nuanced thinking that your theorist is doing. Spend some time crafting one or more ways to capture that idea in different words.
Step 4: Finally, review a portion of your own writing that is potentially too imitative. Any element on your initial list that is easily separable from the content of that author’s ideas should be avoided in your own writing. Revise accordingly. When it comes to the more substantive components of your theorist’s distinctive voice, track your usage of those elements and strategically replace some of them with your differently worded ways of capturing those ideas. Alternating in this way shows your reader that you understand the substance enough to translate it into your own words, something a mere parrot cannot do.