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  • M. Christine Benner Dixon

I'm Thinking You Might Want to Consider the Possibility of Writing More Assertively

There are a lot of reasons you might be inclined to soften and qualify your assertions. But how many of them are good reasons? Too many writers back away from clear claims and assertions out of a distorted sense of modesty or habitual self-negation. I blame the patriarchy and/or white supremacy. Seriously. Let's work on regaining some agency as writers, shall we?


Here are two ways that writers weaken their assertions:


Opinionizing


(I get to make up words--it comes with the Ph.D.) On its face, declaring something to be your opinion is not self-defeating. But unless your reader would otherwise be left with legitimate uncertainty about where the fact/opinion line lies, cut the "opinionizing" language. Consider the following examples:

  • I am writing to a client about a grant proposal, and I see an opportunity for strengthening the narrative by reorganizing. I could say, "I think we could switch these two paragraphs so that we can set up the core values before we show them in action. That feels a little more logical to me." Well, I do think that, but the opinionated language ("I think," "feels," "to me") carries the flavor of supposition. I'm pretty confident that this is a logical improvement. The client knows that I'm offering my opinion (that's what they are paying me for), so I might as well just give it: "If we switch these two paragraphs, we set up the core values before showing them in action, which is more logical."

  • I am writing an academic paper on Mark Twain's portrayals of the domestic sphere. I have presented (and properly cited) all of my evidence, and now I offer my analysis: "I believe that Twain's shrewd but easily-flustered mother figures may reflect his own household management style more than his wife's." There's a discernible claim there, but it's couched unnecessarily in the language of unsettled opinion ("I believe" and "may"). Although a scholar will occasionally need to acknowledge that their assertion is more about likelihood than certainty (necessitating a "seems" or "may" here and there), in this case I can prove that Livy Clemens does not exhibit these characteristics while Sam Clemens does. As for the "I believe," this kind of language is almost never appropriate in scholarly writing. Since you are the author, the reader will naturally assume that your analysis represents your perspective. They are free to argue a counterpoint in their own paper. Including your opinion in your writing is great. Drawing additional attention to the fact that it is opinion unnecessarily--not so good. When you find yourself writing phrases like "as I see it" or "I think that," ask yourself whether--for the sake of clarity or integrity--you absolutely must identify what follows as your opinion. If not, cut it out.

Qualifiers


Again, it's not that assertions can't ever be qualified. Appropriate and precise qualifications demonstrate sophisticated thinking on the part of the writer. But that's not the kind of qualifying I'm talking about. I'm talking about a string of "rathers" and "maybes" that chip away at the authority of the claim.


To demonstrate:

  • "This may be a somewhat difficult goal to accomplish, at least within the given time frame." VS. "It's going to be difficult to accomplish this goal within the given time frame."

  • "You probably don't want quite so many different fonts on the poster because it might distract from the message." VS. "A lot of different fonts on one poster can be distracting--the message gets lost."

  • "Our new spa soundtrack is rather relaxing." VS. "Relax with our new spa soundtrack."

Now, you may say, "Some of those assertive rewrites are a bit terse. I do need to maintain good relationships with my customer/client/audience." It's a valid concern, but look beyond your assertions for places to focus on congeniality. Depending on the context, you can communicate your enthusiasm for the relationship and/or the project through tone (focus on your word choice), your greeting (be genuine and warm), your questions (show that you are flexible and responsive), and so on. Your assertions, however, are where you build your authority. Too much deference makes you sound uncertain of your own insights. Many of us have been socialized to be demure and self-effacing (ahem, patriarchy and white supremacy), taught that this is the only way to make other people comfortable. Well, that's not true. Your confidence in your own ideas will engender confidence in your audience.


Don't worry if you keep "opinionizing" and qualifying out of habit. I do it ALL. THE. TIME. And then I correct it--some of the time. Start training your eye to recognize a weakened assertion so that you can interrogate it and (when appropriate) fix it. You can do this--I believe in you. (See, now, that's an opinion I can stand behind.)


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