Good technical or academic writing is objective, yet many writers inadvertently insert their own opinions about, and responses to, the content. In this way, they damage their credibility and reduce the value of what they write.
Feelings, emotions, opinions, and beliefs are called, collectively, individual perspective. An individual perspective indicates the perspective of one person: the writer. In all forms of technical writing, your individual perspective is inappropriate.
Think about your reader. Your reader is seeking believable, credible information. Your opinions, etc. are not believable, credible information. They only apply to you; they do not apply to your reader.
The most obvious cases are sentence that contain such phrases as I feel that, I believe, and in my opinion. If you can express the idea as a fact, do so. If you cannot express the idea without those phrases, remove the sentence entirely.
Writers also interject their individual perspectives by using particular words and by making judgments, as explained below.
1. Word choice: Writers damage the objectivity of their writing (and its value) by using adjectives and adverbs that indicate an individual perspective. For example, these two sentences contain opinions:
Example C.1: “The marketing plan indicates exciting opportunities for the company.”
Example C.2: “The friendly sales associates will greet our valued customers by name.”
In these samples, the words indicating the individual perspective are exciting, friendly, and valued.
Some words indicate individual perspectives with greater subtlety through their connotative meanings. The connotation of a word implies more than the objective meaning of the word. This not only increases the likelihood for misunderstanding but also reflects the writer’s opinion. For example:
Example C.3: “Rescue crews sorted through the carnage from the plane crash.”
Here, carnage implies the writer’s impression of the scene. It evokes visions of war, of disaster, and of tragedy. A more objective word is wreckage.
2. Moral Judgments and Persuasion: A writer expresses an individual perspective by using such words as should, must, and ought to. (The technical term for this type of word is modal auxiliary.) In most cases, writers use these words to persuade the reader to act or think in a specific manner. This is a problem for several reasons.
First, these words will always create conflict with the reader. They communicate your belief that you have the right to tell the reader what to do. The reader is unlikely to share that belief. Second, they state an opinion as a moral judgment. Moral or otherwise, an opinion is still just that: an opinion. The reader will recognize that you are providing your opinion and can, therefore, reject your ideas. Third, they disrespect the reader. They communicate that you don’t trust the reader to decide what to do.
As a persuasion technique, this rarely works. In technical writing, it is inappropriate. A better approach is to state ideas as facts and to connect the facts to a desired outcome. A reader can argue against, or simply reject, your opinions easily. However, the reader cannot argue against objective facts. In the following examples, example C.4a communicates an opinion, and example C.4b communicates a fact.
Example C.4a: “The WHO should provide funding for sanitation projects in third-world countries. This will reduce the incidence of diarrhea in third world countries.”
Example C.4b: “The WHO will reduce the incidence of diarrhea in third world countries by providing funding for sanitation projects.”
Example C.4a makes a moral judgment. In the writer’s opinion, the WHO will do the “morally right” thing by providing funding. Example C.4b provides a fact. The reduction in incidences of diarrhea will occur if the WHO provides funding. Moral judgments create conflict. Facts persuade.
3. Personal Pronouns: Writing in an objective style does not mean avoiding I and we. These personal pronouns are acceptable if you are describing your actions or processes. You can write “We did this” or “I did that.” This approach is preferable to writing such artificial phrases as “the author of this report found….” The reader knows that you are the author. Use I.
When you write I or we, examine your sentence critically and ask what you are communicating. If you are communicating a fact, the personal pronoun is acceptable. If you are communicating an opinion, it is not.
4. Describing Opinions: At times, you may need to provide opinions, feelings, and beliefs. It is possible to do so in an objective manner. Although you don’t want to offer your own individual perspective, you can describe the individual perspective of others. For example, rather than stating
“I believe the president is doing a good job,”
you can state
“22% of survey respondents believed the president is doing a good job”
“The president believed he was doing a good job.”
In this way, you are simply providing the facts about others’ opinions. That other people believe, feel, etc. this way is a fact. Technical writing is not about you, but it can be about other people.
The content for this article is excerpted from Concise Guide to Technical and Academic Writing by David Bowman, now available as an ebook in several formats and in hard copy.