Revising Voice

Voice refers to each writer’s recognizable and unique style and tone. Your aim is to revise your voice so that it is consistent in tone and level of formality and conforms to the expectations of university. Generally, assume you are writing for an informed scholarly audience composed of your classmates and your instructor.

Make the attempt to meet the conventions of scholarly discourse. What are these conventions? They are constantly changing, making them hard to define, but some of them are  described below. 

Level of Formality

An essay needs a formal tone. You are writing as an adult to other adults. This means avoiding slang, clichés, and lazy language.  This does not mean you have to write in a fancy, ornamental, wordy way.  Strive to be clear and to the point. Also strive to be simple. Simple clarity is difficult but is the easiest prose to read. 

The Use of “I”

There is still no real consensus or agreement over the use of the first person singular or the "I" in essays. New disciplines have challenged many of the traditional academic conventions, so it may be perfectly fine to write an essay using “I” or even “me” and “my” in certain humanities disciplines. “I” identifies yourself as the driving force behind the organization and progression of your paper. Phrases modelled on the following are useful in reminding the reader that a human being is behind the words on the page:

“I argue X is mistaken because…”

“X’s view is....However, I will argue that ….”

Phrases like the above also help to convince the reader that you believe strongly in your argument. As well, it is natural and sensible to use the first person to make a transition from reporting someone else’s thought to asserting your own. First-person statements, statements that use “I,” should be used in moderation, of course. They are always preferable to formulations such as “the author of the present paper” or “the current writer.” At the same time, the whole essay is yours, which means you don’t have to start every sentence with “I think” or “I feel.” 

However, there still exist professors who dislike the use of the first person. They may come right out and tell you. If you are in doubt about if or when to use the pronoun “I,” check with your instructor first. If that isn’t possible, avoid it.

And avoid the use of "you."; "you" literally means the person one is addressing when one writes, the reader. It's rare in academic writing to address one's reader. Moreover, students sometimes use "you" when they are generalizing; in that case, use "one" instead. For example:

"It's rare in academic writing to address one's reader" rather than

"It's rare in academic writing to address your reader."

Gender-Neutral Language

Up until about thirty years ago, the pronoun “he” was considered to be generic, meaning that if a sentence was about an unnamed individual whose sex or gender was unknown, that individual would be described as a “he” with the understanding that the “he” had a fifty-fifty chance of being a “she.”  As well, the terms “man” and “mankind” were taken to refer to both men and women and to womankind as well as mankind. This practise is no longer considered acceptable.

Avoid the generic use of “he” and “man.” When writing about a person who may be a man or a woman, you can simply use “he or she” or “she or he.” However, repeating these combinations too frequently within a sentence or paragraph can sound awkward.This problem can often be solved by recasting the sentence into the plural. Since “they,” “them,” “their,” and “themselves” are not sex-specific, this type of revision allows for gender-neutral language.


Considered Sexist:

A writer must examine his heart to determine if his prose is honest.

Gender- Neutral but Awkward:

A writer must examine his or her heart to determine if his or her prose is honest.

Gender- Neutral by Recasting into the Plural:

Writers must examine their hearts to determine if their prose is honest.


A writer must examine their heart to determine if their prose is honest

(As "a writer" is singular and "their" is plural, this sentence is considered grammatically incorrect, although popular usage of this kind of solution to sexist language is making it more acceptable.)


Another way to solve the problem is to revise your sentences so that you use the impersonal pronoun ‘one.'


One must examine one’s heart to determine if one’s prose is honest.


Using “one” can make your writing seem overly formal and stuffy, however, so don’t overuse it.

Another option is to alternate masculine and feminine pronouns, using “she” occasionally and “he” at other times, maybe “she” in one paragraph and “he” in the next. Many baby handbooks your parents may have used to rear you use this strategy to avoid referring to a baby only as a “he.” The Academic Skills Centre also uses this technique when instructors, writing online resources, need to refer to “a student.”

Exercise One: Gender-Neutral Language 

Active/Passive Voice

Most instructors agree that students should maintain the active voice in their essays and labs except in circumstances where the passive is more effective. To understand this distinction, however, it is first necessary to know what is  meant by active and passive voice.

Look at the following examples.



The Allies won World War II.  


World War II was won by the Allies.


The two sides fought World War II in Europe, Africa, Asia, the Atlantic, the Pacific, and the Mediterranean.


World War II was fought in Europe, Africa, Asia, the Atlantic, the Pacific, and the Mediterranean.


In a sentence in which a verb has an active voice, the subject of the verb is acting, that is, the subject is the noun or pronoun doing the action of the verb: the Allies are winning and the two sides are fighting. In a sentence in which a verb has a passive voice, the subject of the verb is being acted upon or is passive. World War II  is not doing anything, it is  being won or being fought.


The usual advice is to use the active voice. The active voice is less wordy and indirect, but it also forces clearer thinking: the writer must name a subject and say what that subject is doing. The passive voice, on the other hand, allows the actor or doer in a sentence to remain invisible. The actor or doer does not even have to appear:


World War II was won.

World War II was fought in Europe, Africa, Asia, the Atlantic, the Pacific, and the Mediterranean.  

An error was made.

People were killed.


These passive sentences don't tell us, for example,  who made the error or who killed the people. Active sentences would. Even when the actor is present in a passive sentence, he, she or it may not seem particularly responsible for the action because they are distanced from it by being positioned after the verb:


An error was made by two Canadian pilots.

People were killed by the bombs.


Notice how changing these passive sentences into active sentences makes them both more direct and less wordy:


Two Canadian pilots made an error.

The bombs killed people.


Reasons for Choosing the Passive Voice:

1. Use the passive voice when the actor is unknown or irrelevant:


It may be that in a time of widening uncertainty and chronic stress, the historian's voice is the most needed.--

Barbara Tuchmann


Although this sentence doesn't tell us who needs the historian's voice, we assume that all people, humanity at large, have this need. Because we are able to make this assumption, the passive voice is useful here.

2. Use the passive voice when you want to focus on the person or thing affected by or receiving the action of the verb. So, if your focus is on the war rather than on who fought it, then the following is a good choice:


World War II was fought in Europe, Africa, Asia, the Atlantic, the Pacific, and the Mediterranean.


This is why in lab reports, passive voice is appropriate, especially in the methods and materials sections; the focus is on what was done, not who did it.


The seeds were dispersed.

The results were then analyzed.


Active and Passive Voice Exercise from Grammar Module Four

The Historical Present

Instructors generally agree that students should use the “historical present” when describing events in a work of literature (or a film) or when discussing what authors or scholars say about a topic or issue, even when the work of literature is from the past or uses the past tense itself, or the authors and scholars are dead.


Examples of historical present:

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bottom is a uniformly comedic figure.

Kyi argues that “democracy is the political system through which an empowerment of the people occurs.”


It is considered more accurate to use the present tense in these circumstances because the arguments put forward by scholars, and the characters presented and scenes depicted by novelists, poets, and dramatists continue to live in the present whenever anyone reads them. An added benefit is that many find the use of the  historical present tense makes for a more lively style and a stronger voice.

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