My Voice in Academic Writing

by Annie Rosenblad, Class of 2012

One of the most daunting challenges I’ve faced in college is expressing my personal voice in academic writing. My high school teachers prepared me well to write strong arguments, which is a valuable skill to be certain, but they never encouraged us to put our own individual touches on our writing unless it was fictional.  Bland and dry writing was the way to go; man, did I get bored.  I, the future English major, thought I hated non-fiction writing.

Once I got to Wheaton and started taking classes with higher expectations, I started getting a lot of B’s. I was never a straight A student by any means, but I had skated through the monotony of high school with good enough grades, promising myself that I’d do better once I got to college.  But my grades didn’t initially change in college, and I didn’t know why.

Then one day I had a realization, and of all places, it came from teacher feedback on my papers. I didn’t receive just a grade accompanied by a one-size-fits-all comment like I did in high school. My papers had full paragraphs of hand-written notes, pointers scrawled in the margins, underlines and circles peppered throughout the pages of my essays.  So I read the notes and discovered that my writing was disingenuous, boring, and stuffy.  Those weren’t the words my lovely professors used, of course, but I could read between the lines.  My writing was totally generic, and I had no clue how to fix it.

I’ve always enjoyed writing recreationally and have frequently written little 500-word bits of fiction since I was in elementary school.  I never wanted anyone else to read them, and once they were finished I usually didn’t even read them myself.  I decided to peruse those pieces (not the ones from third grade) and realized those seemingly frivolous exercises had unwittingly helped me develop a writer’s voice that was far from stuffy.

I started letting that voice slowly trickle into my academic writing.  Soon I was getting comments that my essays were too casual in some places, which surprisingly came as a huge relief.  I was no longer the ancient, petrified fly in the punch bowl of my English 101 class.  Most importantly, I was actually enjoying writing for school, a feeling that was completely unfamiliar.  I eventually figured out how to strike a balance between my unique voice and the requirements of academia, and started getting the grades I had promised myself.

As a senior, I’ve taken a multitude of classes in a number of different disciplines and have learned, sometimes quite arduously, to adapt my voice to new kinds of writing (computer science reports and creative non-fiction, for example, are supposed to be different).  If I could give any advice to young writers, it’d be this: don’t restrain your personal voice.  In my experience, it’s way easier to reel back the personality of your writing than it is to try and draw it out from wherever it’s hiding.