Voice and thinkingwriting


Main_baldessari-02You have probably heard, or read, that writing is thinking.

But what does writing is thinking really mean? Anything? Nothing? Well, it doesn’t mean that you have to write in order to think, because of course you can think without writing. We think without writing all the time. So if it’s not that, what is it?

Thinking is writing is usually offered as a counter to the idea that writing is a mechanical skill. A technical and straightforward process. You’ve done your research. You’ve analysed the results. You don’t have to think any more. Now, you just write. You simply get the stuff down because you already know what it is.


Writing always involves further thought.  And putting our ideas into words can really help us to think deeply – to formulate argument, marshal supporting evidence in the right order and in a convincing way, and talk with and to the relevant literatures.

One way to see the inseparability of writing and thinking in academic work is to look at how authorial ‘voice’ is constructed in text. Now I’ve written a bit about voice before, but I”ll briefly recap.

  • Voice isn’t about whether you write in the first person. or not. You are in the text whether you write as an I, or you don’t. You’re in the text in your evaluative comments. One obvious marker of the author’s presence is their use of evaluative and interpretive language – this clearly shows, on balance, it seems that – phrases which indicate that critical and interpretive thinking has gone on. Note that these phrases also show the thinking process in and as the text, inseparable companions.
  • Voice is also produced through your word choice, your use of metaphor, simile, anecdote and syntax. Again thinking produces – and can be seen in – the text as ‘voice’. And
  • voice is also in the way that you use meta-commentary – this is where you explain your writing, and why it is the way it is, to the reader (this includes but is not confined to the signposting that you do)

But there are other ways for thinking-writing to produce an authorial voice.

One of the key ways in which academics insert their thinking into the written text is through the naming and framing they use. Look at eminent social scientists – for instance, ‘liquid modernity’ (Zygmunt Bauman) and ‘risk society’ (Ulrich Beck). While very few of us can invent a term that becomes as well-known as these, many of us do something not dissimilar –   that is, we apply a little imagination and creativity to the ways in which we write about our research results.

You probably know, in your field, some people that you like to read because they offer an interesting angle, an innovative analysis, a different approach to an issue – and they show this in a compelling turn of phrase or unusual categorisation which encapsulates their insight. They write with a distinctive voice produced in part through their analysis.

The title of books and journal articles is often a place to look for author voice. Sometimes titles are plodding affairs. But they can be imaginative, amusing, provocative. Academic imagination is made concrete through thinkingwriting, and the unified and creative process of thinkingwriting produces a distinctive presence in the text, usually called the author’s voice.

An example? Of course. One of the most cited papers in my own field of education is called “The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity” (Ball, 2003). Authorial voice appears in the description ‘the terrors of performativity’ and in an unusual angle, the teacher’s soul.  (Educational sociologists don’t usually write about teachers’ souls.) But this title wasn’t plucked out of thin air. It’s the result of a complex analysis; it encapsulates the argument that is made in the paper. It is also inventive and attention-getting in the context of what is a more common writing voice in my field – somewhat detached, a little duller, less memorable. Voice =thinkingwriting.

It’s important not to confuse a substantive instance of thinkingwriting with simply coming up with a new name for something that isn’t very interesting, or something that isn’t at all new or original. We can all probably think of academic sub-fields where the major scholarly task seems to be coming up with new names for the same old thing (yes, I’m thinking of you educational leadership). The problem here is that the thinking part of thinkingwriting  isn’t up to much.

Well yes. The reverse also holds. It’s quite possible to have inventive writing and dull thinking, and imaginative, original thinking and dull writing. Oh, and dull thinking and dull writing, but we don’t want to go there.

Combining interesting thinking with writing which has some flair is optimum. It’s that combination of thinkingwriting which produces a particularly recognisable and distinctive authorial voice – one which also speaks with authority. As well, it’s a voice that people want to read. One that people will seek out, refer to, and enjoy.

Think write. Thinkwrite – and imagine.