Most academic writing is “persuasive” in one way or another. We try, for example, to persuade our teacher that the research we have done backs up our claims or interpretations. At other times, we try to persuade others to change their minds about something, or we try to persuade others to do something differently.
For this section, we will compile a project using the kinds of patterns favored by the sciences and the social sciences. However, these patterns may be applied to any long research project.
What are “the Sciences”?
When we refer to sciences, we generally mean the life sciences (like physics, chemistry, biology, technology, and all the specialized areas in each) and the social sciences (like sociology, psychology, education, history, and specialized areas in each).
The aim in writing in the sciences is fundamentally different from writing in humanities and self-expression. In the humanities, we tend to analyze or interpret a work. In self-expression, we tend to re-present the self.
In the sciences, the aim is observing and synthesizing facts. What we observe, we situate in context. In reporting what we observe about an object of study and where we situate it, writing is structured as persuasion, using precise language, evidence, data, proofs, case studies, testimony, and logical reasoning to help the reader place an object in the same context we place it. Sometimes writing in the sciences involves solving a problem. Presenting the problem and its possible solution(s) also tends to use a persuasive structure.
Of course, analysis and expressive writing may use persuasion, and science writing may use analysis and an observer’s perspective; these kinds of writings are really a mix. For practice, however, we will use persuasive structures to accomplish most writing tasks in the sciences because these are the structures that tend to be most valued in the sciences.
“Situating in context” in the sciences usually means categorizing the object of study, the issue, the problem, the idea, and so on, according to its differences from other things in the same category. In Biology, organisms may be placed into such categories as genus, species, family, and so on. This categorization may be visualized as an upside-down “tree” diagram. In linguistics (the science of spoken language), similar “structures” have sometimes indicated how meaningful sounds relate to each other. This categorization results in a hierarchy, which is usually visualized as a diagram or chart that shows how things relate to each other.
Because the focus in the sciences is on understanding the place of new information in context, the way this information is reported demands a style format that emphasizes this way of ordering things. APA style format connects the stated observations with sources that support those statements, and reflects the hierarchical order and precise language that science values. This style is more exacting and structured than MLA, and fits the reporting of factual information (and where and how we got it) better.
Objectivity means taking as much of our own biases and preconceived notions out of the reporting we do in the sciences. APA style helps to structure and order the larger format to keep us objective in our reporting. There are a few language-oriented preferences to remember about your readers as well. These preferences help to keep the language in an objectively oriented tone and with an academic voice.
Third person preferred
Student-writers frequently ask, “Can I use ‘I’ in my papers?” The pronoun “I” is considered “first person” in grammar (along with “me,” “my,” and “mine”). If we want to remove our “self-oriented” views and biases from the language we use, one way is to avoid referring to ourselves indirectly by using these words. The use of first-person also closes the distance between our readers and us (the information passes from “I” – a person – to a reader). If we want to remain at a distance from our reader (the information passes from the language to the reader), then we avoid first person. Objective writing favors this distance.
Second person “you” is also a problem in writing because either it implies that the author is speaking directly to the reader, which closes the author/reader distance in the same way “I” does, or it means something like “people in general,” which is not as exact as science writing prefers. Avoid “you” in writing.
Instructors frequently scribble “passive” in the margins and helpfully underline the offending bits of sentences for you. I find this most un-helpful, though I understand the rationale. Passive constructions tend to be imprecise, because the subject can be implied rather than stated outright, and science writing prefers precision. Word processing programs also point out passive constructions and even offer suggestions to make them active constructions. Just be careful that the new word order says what you want it to say.
Probably the easiest way to recognize and fix the kind of passive voice that hinders precision (some passive constructions are more precise) is to identify the action in a sentence (the verb) and to ask, “Who or what is performing (or performed) this action?” If the subject is stated, the voice is “active.” If the actor or object is implied, or ignored completely, the voice is “passive.” For example:
I wrote the book.
What is the verb/action? (“wrote”)
Who or what “wrote”? (“I” wrote)
Since “I” – the actor – is stated, this is an active construction.
The book was written in 1972.
What is the verb/action? (“was written”)
Who or what “wrote”? (not identified)
Since the actor is implied, this is a type of passive construction.
Please note that this statement, “The book was written in 1972 by Harold Boone,” does identify, precisely, who wrote the book – but it is still a passive construction. This kind of passive is more precise, and more acceptable, than the example above. When in doubt, however, make it an active sentence, like “Harold Bloom wrote the book in 1972.”
Precise language is simple language. Precise language tends to be literal language as well. For this reason, avoid forms of figurative language. Clichés, metaphors, figurative comparisons, figures of speech, and other “poetic” or “literary” devices are subject to interpretation, and science writers tend to avoid them. Keep your language simple, direct, and literal.