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Voice: Which person are you?

In academic writing, the general rule in most cases is to describe people, things, and ideas in action, not as objects of action. But this still leaves authors able to choose from a range of possible personal (or impersonal) voices, depending on their intended audiences and hoped-for reactions.

In some older forms of scholarly writing, contemporary readers will notice the use of "we", the first-person plural, when writers speak for themselves. The privileged "we" of the single author may thunder down at us - "We are not amused" -or the conspiring "we" of the author and reader together may share an experience together "We see a gradual evolution in sophistication".

More recently, however, the trend has shifted against these voices and styles, so that "we" is mostly reserved for the collective voice of multiple authors or researchers. Journals and editors often now insist on the use of "I", the first-person singular. This use was nearly forbidden only a generation ago, but is now often preferred to give voice to an individual author or express the experience of an individual researcher.

In spite of the the brevity and directness of the personal pronoun "I", other journals and academics prefer the more impartial voice of third-person terms like "the researchers" or "the author". They could even even say that "the authors chose to address research questions of interest to them" - referring to themselves using the third-person pronoun. These choices depend on the expectations of gatekeepers, such as editors and academic mentors. In this, as in so many matters of writing and editing, "know your audience" should be everyone's watchword.

For more on the topic of voice in academic writing, see Voice: Active vs passive and Voice: Make yourself heard.

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