Emotions and Academic Writing
At the Walden Writing Center, one of the primary issues that we focus on when reviewing student work is tone. In academic writing in APA style, there is an expectation that the tone will be objective, free of emotional statements and evaluations that could indicate bias.
I often find myself thinking about this expectation, as I believe that it presents a particular challenge in the work students do at Walden. I would argue that the strength that sets Walden students apart as a group is the genuine and deep connection they have with their research. In order to realize the university’s social change mission, students often conduct studies on topics and settings very close to them, addressing problems with which they have experience. These are problems that affect them in their personal and professional lives. As a result, they have an intimate understanding of the search for solutions.
The passion that students bring to such work is part of what makes it valuable and meaningful. As a reader, when I can sense a student’s investment in his or her topic, the writing feels more alive to me, and I am more inclined to join the student in caring about the search for an answer to the research problem.
However, when their writing is too directly emotional, students risk losing their academic credibility. An over-reliance on emotional statements can indicate an under-reliance on analysis and research.
When I am reviewing dissertations and doctoral studies, I suggest revisions when I see statements like this (fictional and slightly exaggerated) example:
Countless teachers lament that the implementation of standards-based accountability measures has led to a horrifying crisis of epic proportions that has caused many children to suffer.
This sentence, with its broad claims and passionate language (lament, horrifying crisis, epic, suffer), comes across as an unsupported statement of the writer’s opinion. It might be appropriate for an editorial or speech, but it is out of place in an academic study. How can the writer convey some of the same ideas while retaining credibility?
As noted above, one problem with this sentence is that the words the writer has selected are too emotional. Keeping in mind that direct quotes (and non-peer-reviewed sources) should be used sparingly, the writer might try letting an expert express this sentiment, in something like the following:
In a 2010 editorial in The New York Times, [Name] wrote, “The No Child Left Behind legislation has had disastrous and unintended consequences for our educational system” (p. xx).
Ideally, the writer would then go on to present the range of opinions on the issue in the course of making his or her argument. The writer’s own language throughout this discussion should remain objective.
Another strategy is to support the claims with evidence. In my example above, the phrase countless teachers lament is both too broad and too emotional. How many teachers does countless refer to, and how does the writer know this claim to be true? Furthermore, what does it mean in this context for children to “suffer”?
Whenever possible, students should limit the scope of their claims to what they can defend with specific evidence from the literature. Perhaps a survey of educators has shown that many teachers hold the view the writer is seeking to express. In that case, the writer might try something like this:
In a 2009 national survey conducted by [X Organization], 72% of elementary school teachers indicated that standards-based accountability measures had not improved achievement in their classrooms (Author, 2010).
Through the use of supportive evidence and an objective voice, the writer can convey the extent of the problem without resorting to sweeping claims or emotional rhetoric. When this is done effectively, the work becomes more persuasive and gains greater impact, ultimately furthering Walden’s goal of promoting social change.
In her role as a dissertation editor, Carey Little Brown "focuses on helping students master APA style, avoid common grammatical errors, and use concise language to develop compelling written work."