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.
Daniel Spielmann (@spani3l) says
That was both thought provoking and fun to read. Thanks.
Or just get rid of the “I” altogether. Plunge in and argue: “By traveling abroad in increasing numbers, Japanese women offer a quasi-feminist critique of uneven gender relations at home.” Or if you’re against starting sentences with dependent clauses, “Japanese women provide a quasi-feminist critique of uneven gender relations at home by traveling abroad in increasing numbers.” Or any permutation thereof…
yes, good point!
The only problem with removing the “I” (or “we”) is that, in some contexts, it becomes difficult for the reader to discern the new contributions of the paper.
Surely this should read “In making this argument I will demonstrate that…” The argument itself is a demonstration of why such-and-such holds—hence why mathematical proofs end with Q.E.D.
Love this post. It reminds me of another quote I heard recently about writing – “ambiguity is a hedge against being wrong.”
I’ve tried to keep this in mind since then, but I’m pretty sure that ambiguity and insecurity still sneaks into a lot of what I write today. This will serve as another reminder!
In freshman English, that sentence would be non allowed for the “I” and the “attempt.” I don’t know why people at dissertation stage get encouraged to put that kind of thing back into their work but I notice they often do. For today I’ve decided it’s one of the attempts to derail people, disguised as advice on how to be professional. Ambiguity as hedge against being wrong, yes, although I’d say it’s ambivalence that is that and that ambivalence is what plagues bad writing.
So true. You are a great resource, thanks (again) for doing the blog..
I had an anthro professor in undergrad who would get very annoyed when female students would raise their hands to speak and when called upon, start out by saying “I think”. She always told us that men don’t start their claims off with “I think” so we shouldn’t either.
ha! exactly. the raising hand thing is a perennial irritation.
This post alone has me convinced that I need to keep a close eye on this blog. Thank you for the insightful and interesting read. It’s something I can, and will, take with me throughout my coming years of education.
Get the “will” out too. It’s not necessary.
“Here we show…”, “Here I prove…”.
Julian "Jay" Stienon says
However, one cannot do the “DO” without first “DOing” the TRY”. They go hand in hand, like the Walrus and the Carpenter. (Just forget about their weeping at the great “quantities of sand”.)