|Writing for an Academic Audience: “Objective Tone”
I. Introduction: Everyday Opinion vs. Academic Opinion
You have probably been told at some point in your academic career that when writing for an academic audience, you must use an impersonal, “objective tone.”
However, you might ask, how can academic writing still require you to express your opinion about ideas and issues? For example, in your academic writing you will often answer essay questions such as: What do you think? Do you agree? Evaluate… Argue in favor of or against… and so on.
These questions are, indeed, seeking what you think about a particular issue, event, or theory. When you make an academic argument, you are arguing for a particular position, which is, at the end of the day, an opinion.
However, as you know, the difference between the kind of opinion expressed in an academic argument and everyday opinions is that academic opinions must be supported by evidence that is considered authoritative in the academic community for which the argument is written.
II. From Opinion to Argument: Evidence and Rhetoric
Therefore, the justification for an academic argument is not a writer’s right to express him or herself, as it is in pure opinion, but the legitimacy and persuasiveness of the evidence that the writer uses in support of his or her argument. The evidence comes before the judgment. So, in academic writing, the ideal writer is seen as someone who, after careful and impartial examination of all available evidence, comes to a careful and impartial judgment.
However, as you will easily notice, impartial judgment is often not practiced in academic writing; even respected, published academic writers often have agendas, and they often carefully select evidence that bolsters their positions, omit evidence that does not, and interpret evidence in ways that supports their claims. However, if readers in the academic community recognize these tactics and disagree with them, the author runs the risk of being discredited. This is what rhetoric is all about, and all academic writing is rhetorical. Nevertheless, the “impartial judge” is the idealized model of how an academic writer goes about his or her intellectual pursuits. As a result, the convention is that arguments should imply impartial judgment through the use of rational, impersonal and unemotional language, however passionate the author is about the position heor she is arguing.
III. The Non-Objective Tone: Judgmental and Emotive
To achieve an impersonal, objective tone in your writing, it is essential to avoid:
Judgmental Language: This is language that reveals that the writer is making a personal judgment. Of course, the academic writer is always making a judgment, but using judgmental language makes it sound as if the writer is coming to his or her conclusions on his or her own, based on his or her previously-held beliefs and values, rather than letting the evidence guide the inquiry. Whether a word, phrase, or statement is judgmental sometimes depends on context. For example, a claim that would not be considered judgmental if accompanied by a justification based on evidence might be considered judgmental if the evidentiary justification is not provided or mentioned.
Examples: I believe, I feel, I conclude, it seems, I think, should, need to, it is good, it is bad, it is right, it is wrong.
Emotive Language: This is language that appeals to emotions or values to make an argument. While this type of language might be persuasive, it does not ask the reader to consider the evidence on its own merits, which is what academic writing is supposed to do. Rather, this emotive language loads the argument with emotion in an attempt to incite an emotional reaction in the reader. Emotive language reveals the writer’s feelings just as judgmental language does, but more subtly—the writer is not revealing his or her feelings in an direct statement, such as “I believe x” or “x is good.” Rather, the writer’s feelings are revealed in the connotation of the phrases used, as in “history has provided us with great heroes.” Whether a particular word or phrase is too emotive usually depends on its context. Basically, if the writer is using words or phrases with high emotional content that seem to be trying to persuade the reader, then he or she is probably using emotive language.
IV. Judgmental and Emotive vs. Impersonal and Objective
Below is an example of student writing that uses judgmental and emotive language, the instances of which are bolded. Look at the paragraph below it, which has been rewritten to give it an impersonal, objective tone that is more suited to an academic context. Think about the different effects that each paragraph has on you as a reader. Which is more persuasive?
Judgmental and Emotive
I strongly believe that a true hero never thinks of his/herself before others. I feel that Jessica Lynch definitely had to endure tough times but I also feel that her rescuers and the men and women who have died in Iraq are the ones who should be called heroes, not her. Her rescuers received little to no credit for her getting Pfc. Lynch home in one piece, but it is this everyday courage we can see here that makes our armed forces what they are today.
Impersonal and Objective
While Jessica Lynch has been portrayed by the news media as a hero, comparatively little media attention has been given to her rescuers and to others who have died in Iraq, many of whom have arguably endured more hardship and contributed more to American military efforts than Pfc. Lynch. If a “hero” is defined as one who endures hardship for the benefit of others, these soldiers might be more deserving of the title than Lynch.
V. Exercises: Revising for an Academic Audience
Rewrite the following paragraphs (taken from student papers) to eliminate the judgmental and emotive language.
People's opinions are so malleable and easily influenced by the media that misrepresentations of certain concepts or individuals are very dangerous and damaging. Unfortunately, many times the newspapers, films, and books people are exposed to are indoctrinating and therefore misrepresent concepts by depicting them in a prejudiced manner. The most blatant medium of biased writing is propaganda literature.
Dating all the way back to the Revolutionary War and continuing up to the present day, men and women in our armed forces have bravely fought against all odds and have at times proven themselves as heroes. These men and women either risked life and limb for fellow soldiers or bravely completed an objective against all odds. Not every soldier deserves to be called a hero, even though we ought to be thankful for their service.
"Fahrenheit 9/11," a film written, produced and directed by Michael Moore, uses distorted or entirely fabricated facts to propagate ill feelings against the Bush administration and, in turn, influence the 2004 presidential election. Moore strategically produced this movie, using specific techniques such as musical arrangement, altered interviews, and more, knowing the outcome would end up being an attempt of a political assassination for the re-election of President Bush.
The author states that textbook authors deliberately filter the information they put into their books so that they can achieve their desired results. The irony is that the author did the exact same thing. Out of the approximately four pages he spent talking about Wilson, there was a total of two sentences devoted toward his accomplishments. While Loewen complains about faulty texts, he writes one himself. He is correct that textbooks do portray our past leaders in a more noble way; however, it is not to the extent or with the direct intervention that he talks about.