The best piece of advice about writing that I got as a graduate student came from my external Ph.D. committee member, a full professor in the English department. A poet and a romantic and undoubtedly a former or current pot smoker, he was much more up on his spiritual musings and pop culture references than were my anthro committee members, a rather dreary lot. His advice was always entertaining (when it wasn’t ill-informed and infuriating, but that’s a topic for another post).
I was in his office one day to show show him my latest conference paper. My professor began to read the first page, then paused, looked up with a bemused smile, and said, “Do or do not. There is no try.”
“Do or do not. There is no try.” The immortal words of Yoda to the young Skywalker.
But why Yoda? Why then?
Because I’d done that thing that young academics all too often do. I’d hedged my bets. The paper, a pretty standard effort, contained on its first page the sentence, “This paper will attempt to show that Japanese women are traveling abroad in increasing numbers in order to effect a quasi-feminist critique of unequal gender relations at home.”
How many of you reading this would even have thought twice about that sentence?
What is it about young academics (and not only young ones, I’d hasten to add) that compels them to frame their scholarly efforts as “attempts”? Are they really so insecure? Is the outcome really that much in doubt?
Think about how much academic writing depends on formulations like:
- In this research I hope to prove that…
- Through such an analysis I will try to show that….
- I believe that in making this argument I may be able to demonstrate that…
Hope? Try? Believe? Why are scholars embarking on their studies with so much doubt? And so little confidence?
Perhaps you will say that these turns of phrase are simply writing conventions, and have no literal meaning. But why use them at all? If you did the research, and reached your conclusions, then you stand by them, do you not? Efforts to modulate or soften them with hedging phrases merely cast doubt on the legitimacy of your research itself. If you couldn’t actually prove the thing, then really, you have no business saying that you did.
Release your mind to go all the way. Own your findings. Claim your ground. Take every sentence where you find these power-sucking words, and remove them. In their place, write:
- In this research I will prove that…
- Through such an analysis I will show that….
- In making this argument I will be able to demonstrate that…
If you are one of the multitudes of graduate students and young academics who have come to unconsciously depend on such phrases, and I’ll bet you are, stop. They do nothing for you. They are simply one more way that junior people, and women in particular, bend over backward to express deference and submission in their writing practices.
And if you’re aiming for a career in academia, those habits of deference and submission that you absorbed in graduate school need to go. Stat. In their place: Your power, expressed.
Listen to the words of Yoda:
“You must unlearn what you have learned…
Do! Or do not!
There is no try.”
And may The Force be with you.