Writing Like a Doctor: Scientific but not Boring
By Sarah Matthey
I was recently at the Lansdowne residency and while talking to students, I found that we discussed the same daunting writing issue in seminars, advising sessions, and in the labyrinth halls of the National Conference Center. Our discussions centered around the use of the scholarly voice. Many students were frustrated by trying to attain what they viewed as unattainable: the graduate-level academic style of writing. We writing specialists (nerds, grammar-obsessed, otherwise unemployable English majors, you can pick) talk all the time about the importance of the scholarly voice. We use that catchy phrase in our presentations and when providing feedback to students (not when writing blogs—this is clearly in the informal voice). But, what does this phrase really mean? How does one describe the scholarly voice? Defining this concept was more difficult than I thought it was going to be. However, after much internal debate (and internal monologue), I think I came up with a quantifiable list of what it means to write in the scholarly voice.
The first component of writing in the scholarly voice concerns vocabulary usage and word choice. One way to help determine what kind of language you should use is to consider your audience. When writing in a graduate community, the writer is addressing a formal audience. This means that casual forms of speech like slang (dang), metaphors (my heart is a lonely hunter of articles and the library is an emptied forest), similes (the due date is looming like a storm cloud), or cliché phrases (those researcher’s findings were as clear as mud) should be avoided. These types of speech not only detract from your academic voice, but they may also be confusing to the reader. A metaphor or a cliché phrase may mean something different to everyone who reads it. Along those same lines, contractions (won’t, shouldn’t, can’t, etc) should also be avoided because they are casual forms of speech. Eliminating informal language from your paper will not only make you sound more professional, but it will also make your language more clear and concise.
In addition to removing casual language from your paper, you should also consider removing unnecessary pronouns. Some pronouns to avoid include the personal you (as in, you are reading this blog), the editorial we (we all know this or that to be true), and the over reliance on the personal I (I know how much you must enjoy reading what I wrote and I would appreciate you telling my boss). When a writer uses the personal you, they appear to be speaking directly to the reader (like I am doing now. See? It’s distracting), as if they are having a personal conversation with them. This is too personal for a scholarly paper.
APA 3.09 states that broad uses of the word we may leave readers confused about who the we encompasses (p. 69). For example, if a student wrote “We need to exercise greater self-control,” the reader is not sure whom the plural we might encompass. Does it apply to the reader or to some unseen other person? Try to use the proper noun whenever possible.
Finally, while some assignments require that the personal I be used (like reflection papers, assignments that require a personal example, or when the writer has conducted research himself or herself), academic papers require the third person voice to be used. Use of the third person is objective and will sound more scientific. Although personal feelings and experiences are valid, they can be difficult or even impossible to support with the literature and may not be understood by a reader. It is best to try to use nouns instead of pronouns in academic writing.
The final component of scholarly writing is the use of unbiased language. As a social scientist, everything you say must be objective and supported by evidence. APA 3.07 states that arguments should be presented “in a professional, noncombative manner” (p.66). Writing using unbiased and neutral/noncombative language can be tricky. Be on the lookout for making broad generalizations; avoid using over-sweeping adjectives (outstanding, obvious), adverbs (really, clearly), and qualifiers (some, many, a bit), in particular, always and never. Qualifiers lead to generalizations, which can be demonstrative of bias. Try to avoid using emotional (I am deeply moved by Sarah’s comments) or inflammatory (I am sick and tired of APA) language. Instead of saying that Smith’s findings were terrible, embarrassing, horrific, and so on, state that Smith’s findings were questionable.
Be sure that everything you say is supported by evidence. If you make an assertion, be sure that a citation is nearby. Try to think of a Writing Specialist sitting on your shoulder say, “Oh yeah? Can you prove it?” Using unbiased language and supporting your assertions will show that you are an effective, scientific researcher, and that you are serious about contributing to the scholarship in your field.
Writing as at the graduate level is different from writing at an undergraduate level. Mastering the unbiased voice and supporting everything with evidence is challenging. However, like everything else, it will get easier with practice. So as you sit down tonight (or whenever, this is an asynchronous program) to craft that literature review, remember to challenge yourself to be the best social scientist you can be and that graduate-level, scholarly writing is not unattainable.