Where Am I In This Paper?: Honing Your Academic Voice Through Journaling

I can’t remember a time in my life when I was without a trusty little journal. When I was five, it had a princess and castle on the front cover with pink, lined pages inside. It turned purple when I read Anne Mazer’s The Amazing Days of Abby Hayes in elementary school, as I adopted the book series’ purple pen-wielding, budding journalist of a protagonist, Abby Hayes, as my writing hero. A teacher gifted me a new hardcover journal with an embroidered, flowery cover when I entered middle school and, upon filling it, I switched to a sleek, black Moleskine on the first day of January 2020. That same Moleskine is currently tucked in my backpack as I sit here, three hours into my train ride home for spring break.

After packing last night, I picked up my journal and wrote for the first time in a while. It always feels familiar, as this was my routine almost every night before going to bed for around 14 years, until about halfway through my freshman fall semester, when, as is the case for most folks, schoolwork and life started to intervene. Even still, I’ve made it a point to journal after the big moments: the first day of classes, the last day of exams, birthdays, the major triumphs, the occasional emotional breakdown- you know. After I finished writing that night, I flipped through my older entries and found myself pleasantly surprised by what I had written over the course of the last two years. My pensive entries, as well as the short, hurried scribbles that divided them, effectively graphed my experiences and personal development since arriving at William & Mary. Like a sine function, my journal entries depicted peaks and troughs in how I’ve felt along the ride, but one thread running consistently through every entry, whether joyous, anxious, or any mood in between, was the sense that those scribbles all originated from, and were unique to, me.

Finding Ourselves in Academic Writing

With all this said, you may be wondering: What does journaling have to do with our role as academic writers? How can journaling be applied to our work here in the Writing Resources Center? Sure, journaling is undeniably a form of writing, but it’s often viewed as fundamentally different from the academic writing we do as students. However, I’ve found that journaling, even just once in blue moon, has benefitted my academic writing in terms of honing a personalized voice. We’ve all written something over the course of our academic careers that felt like pure word-vomit, completely disconnected from ourselves. In those academic situations, how can we make our writing our own every time? A unique academic writing voice isn’t something that one can be taught; it arises out of experience and lots of experimentation. This can be risky, however, especially in graded, academic situations. This is where journaling comes in handy. My English major advisor encouraged me during my freshman fall semester to return to my journal after submitting a paper for her class for precisely this reason. She posed a question that still sticks with me every time I sit down to write or revise: “Where are you in this paper?” Reading back over that first paper after receiving her feedback, I remember asking myself, “Yeah… where am I?” What I saw on the page were robotic-sounding, analytical sentences that contained my insight, but were lacking a definitive style that would distinguish them as belonging specifically to me. My professor urged me to uncover what makes my voice stand out amongst the crowd. So, I retrieved my journal from its shelf and wrote about anything and everything that came to mind for 30 minutes. It felt good; it was as though I was reeling in a piece of myself that takes off running in the other direction whenever my writing shifts into serious mode.

She posed a question that still sticks with me every time I sit down to write or revise: “Where are you in this paper?”

Try It Out

My journal serves as a place in which I can explore and trial-and-error my unique voice without pressure to sound eloquent or meet anyone’s standards but mine. I encourage you to try it out sometime: Grab a pen or pencil and a piece of paper. Set a timer for 15 minutes and just write. Need help getting started? Here are a few ideas to get the ball rolling:

You might find that snippets of your voice shine through when writing passionately, whether it be an analysis of whatever it is in that song that draws you to it or an expression of something that made you smile over the course of the day. You don’t have to do this every day but, making time for it every now and then can help in getting more in touch with your voice, which you can then extract and incorporate into your academic work. From here, you can experiment with personalization, such as anecdotal introductions if appropriate in the context of your assignment. Enjoy the experimentation and, through doing so, I hope you find something that you can identify as your own. It’s a skill that I certainly haven’t perfected but, nevertheless, am constantly seeking to improve. Ultimately, there’s no better feeling than asking yourself, “Where am I in this paper?” and being able to point to something, no matter how small it may be, and answering, “That’s me. I’m right there.”