Skip to main navigation menu Skip to main content Skip to site footer
University of the Arts London

Is the academic essay becoming a fossil through lack of authorial voice? The case for more stylish and exploratory writing


First year BA students writing their first academic essays are bombarded with advice about achieving academic tone: key features of this are the avoidance of personal pronouns and a preference for the passive over the active voice. These conventions can however become fossilised, turning essays into a ‘monolithic form’. While this advice helps to ground the student’s appreciation of rigour and works towards greater objectivity and research-based accuracy, this article asks whether killing the pronouns can also strangle the individual voice. The pronouns are one obvious feature among many that contribute to clarity of style. The standardised forms are easier to assess than the more exploratory and elliptical style of essay writing, which tends to be less valued and understood. Using the ideas of Sturm (2012) and Sword (2012), this piece explores contradictory evidence in sample authors and style guides, and aims to nuance advice by combining academic rigour with strengthening the students' authorial voice, while still remaining mindful of conventions.


academic essay style, expository, objectivity, pronouns, authorial voice, empowerment


Author Biography

Kieron Devlin

Academic Support Lecturer, London College of Fashion.


  1. Appleyard, D. (1997) ‘Education: the art of being dyslexic’, The Independent, 27 February. Available at: (Accessed: 21 September 2015).
  2. Benson Brown, A. (2014) Helen Sword on empowerment and academic writing: excerpts from an interview. Available at: (Accessed: 1 November 2015).
  3. D’Agata, J. (2003) Halls of fame. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press.
  4. DeSalvo, L. (2000) Writing as a way of healing: how telling our stories trans-forms our lives. New York: Beacon Press.
  5. Doctorow, C. (2015) ‘Doctoral dissertation in graphic novel form’, Things Cory Doctorow Saw, 4 October. Available at: (Accessed: 15 December 2015).
  6. Dyer, G. (1995) Out of sheer rage: in the shadow of D.H.Lawrence. London: Canongate Books.
  7. Flusser, V. (2002) ‘Essays’, in Ströhl. A. (ed.) Vilém Flusser: Writings. Minneapolis/London: Minneapolis University Press. pp. 192–196.
  8. Francis, P. (2009) Inspiring writing in art and design: taking a line for a write. Bristol: Intellect Books.
  9. Hall, S. (ed.) (1997) Representation: cultural representations and signifying practices. Open University: Open University Press.
  10. Heidegger, M. (1996) Being and time. Translated by J. Stambaugh. Albany: State University of New York Press.
  11. Kress, G. (2000) 'Multimodality', in Cope, B. and Kalantzis, M. (eds.) Multiliteracies: literacy learning and the design of social futures. London: Routledge. pp. 179–200.
  12. Lamott, A. (1994) Bird by bird: some instructions on writing and life. New York: Anchor Books.
  13. Marcus, B. (2003) On the lyric essay. Available at: (Accessed: 10 October 2015).
  14. Orwell, G. (1946) ‘Politics and the English language’, Horizon, 13(76), pp. 252–265.
  15. Pennebaker, J. (1990) Opening up: the healing power of expressing emotions. New York: Guidlford Press.
  16. Pinker, S. (2014) ‘Steven Pinker: the sense of style, talks at Google’. 16 October. Available at: (Accessed: 14 September 2015).
  17. Steele, V. (2012) 'Fashion', in Geczy, A. and Karaminas, V. (eds.) Fashion and art. London: Berg. pp. 13–27.
  18. Sturm, S. (2012) ‘Terra (in)cognita: mapping academic writing’, Text Journal, 16(2). Available at: (Accessed: 20 October 2014).
  19. Sword, H. (2009) 'Writing higher education differently: a manifesto on style', Studies in Higher Education, 34(3), pp. 319–336. Available at: (Accessed: 5 November 2015).
  20. Sword, H. (2012) Stylish academic writing, London: Harvard University Press.
  21. Taleb, N. N. (2007) The black swan: the impact of the highly improbable. New York: Random House.
  22. Writing PAD. Available at: (Accessed: 14 December 2015).