How to avoid using personal language
1. Sometimes it is just a matter of eliminating the personal language1.
I think Ned Kelly relied on his Irish heritage to gain local sympathy.
Ned Kelly relied on his Irish heritage to gain local sympathy.
We use the passive voice to make our writing sound objective.
The passive voice makes writing sound objective.
2. DO NOT refer to what you think; refer instead to what the evidence suggests.
Beware: "In some disciplines it is acceptable (even preferable) to use personal language. Check these language conventions with your departments."
|AVOID using personal judgement words2||USE words referring to the evidence|
|I think||From examining the findings,|
|I feel||In light of the evidence,|
|I believe||From previous research,|
|I am convinced that||Considering the results,|
|I disliked||According to the figures,|
|I liked||As shown in the diagram,|
|I agree||It is evident from the data that|
|I disagree||The literature suggests|
|I am sure that||Given this information,|
|It is my belief that||Some theorists argue that|
The following example from a report expresses many opinions yet personal language is not used to do this. It instead refers to the literature and evidence in the form of survey results as well as using third person constructions - 'it' phrases, (see point 3 below) and so avoids having to use a personal judgement phrase such as "I think" in order to express an opinion.
It is widely accepted in academia that "You must be 'seen' to be heard" (Moles & Clarke, 1995, p85); this sentiment was supported by 84% of the surveyed academics who felt that it was important to publish on the Internet. Moreover, the evidence in the literature suggests academic publishing on the Internet is flourishing. For example, the Directory of Electronic Journals Newsletters and Academic Discussion Lists (5th ed.) lists 675 electronic journals and newsletters, along with 2500 scholarly discussion groups (King, 1995, pl-760).
According to the surveyed academics, 42% would rather publish in a print journal and 56% would prefer to read articles in print journals. From these survey results, it could be argued...
Want to practise this skill? You can go to a skill development exercise.
3. Use the 3rd person or 'It' constructions2.
|It could be arguedthat||It has been suggestedthat|
|It can be seen that||It appears that|
|It was found that||It is generally agreed that|
|It could be concluded that||It seems that|
|It tends to be||It is widely accepted that|
|It is doubtful that||It is evident from the data that|
Want to practise this skill? You can go to a skill development exercise.
4. Use the passive voice3.
The passive voice should be used in academic writing when the 'doer' of the action in a sentence is unknown or irrelevant to the discussion. Passive sentence construction emphasises the events and processes the sentence is describing.
|Personal pronouns are avoided when using the passive voice; focus moves off 'doer' and onto the action.||Active|
Wecut a segment of the apple and placed it in agar solution.
A segment of the apple was cut and placed in agar solution.
Our loggers transport the offcuts to the waste station.
The offcuts are transported to the waste station.
|The passive verb includes the past participle of the verb 'to be'.|
Would you like to review more detailed information on the use and construction of the passive voice?
Want to practise this skill? You can go to a skill development exercise based on point 4.
Do you know how to use Impersonal Language?
If so, go to the Summary Exercise that covers all the aspects of using Impersonal Language.
1 Adapted from: Aveline Perez (The Learning Skills Unit, University of Melbourne) Academic Language.
2 Jordon, R. R. (1992) Academic Writing Course. Edinburgh: Thomas Nelson and Sons.
3 Text adapted in part from: Learning Development, University of Wollongong Academic English: Self Directed learning Resource.
© Copyright 2000
Comments and questions should
be directed to Unilearning@uow.edu.au
Just recently, I sent out an email blast to the rising seniors with whom I work, urging them to begin working on college application essays NOW. If you are a rising senior (or a parent of one), I can imagine a few of you saying, "What! Aren't you being a little 'anal?' It's too early to do that."
"Au contraire," my friends. The reason to start working on essays now is that summer months are predictably less fraught with the academic, sports and other activities that fall semester usually brings. Summer, rather than later, is a good time to start because students have the time to:
- Carefully think through how to answer essay questions
- Brainstorm ideas
- Write first drafts
- And, do the all-important editing and re-editing
THE ROLE OF ESSAYS IN COLLEGE ADMISSIONS
To that point, I want to say a little bit about what role essays have in college admissions. While student grades and test scores are critical factors in admissions, application essays can be an even more important factor, especially for private, liberal arts colleges and the more selective universities. Like nothing else, essays give readers a sense for how students express themselves and especially how they are unique and different from other applicants. Essays help students stand out from the crowd.
And, much to the surprise of many applicants and even parents, writing good application essays takes time... a lot of time, and drafts and editing. This is because although writing can and often is fun, it is also challenging. As someone with five published books, and ongoing involvement with a number of blogs, I admit that sometimes I love writing and at other times I hate it.
Personally, I am always looking for that magic piece of advice another writer has that will get me through predictable writing blocks, and the students I work with have also repeatedly asked for advice on how to get started or continue. So, here is what different writers have shared with me about how to spend more time loving rather than hating writing. I hope you find this as useful as I have.
6 TERRIFIC PIECES OF ADVICE
1. Write as if you are talking to the reader.
I think that the best advice I have ever received about writing came as a result of attending a writing conference. A publishing executive said at the beginning of her talk, "To write easily and well, simply be yourself. Be natural; write as if you are talking to your reader on paper." As soon as I returned home from the conference, I started doing what she said and never looked back. You can do the same with your college application essays. Remember, the purpose of answering the application questions is to help the college admissions officers get to know you. What better way of doing that is there than to write as if you are talking to them?
2. Offer readers a story.
When I attend college admissions conferences, I almost always attend sessions on application essays, where college admissions officers talk about what they look for. Inevitably it is revealed that they love reading applicants' personal stories and anecdotes. Frankly, the stories can be about anything ranging from a conversation with a grandparent, to the best or worst day of your life, to a special talent or involvement or something that changed how you think. Stories help illustrate points that you may be trying to make to your readers and help show more about who you are as a person.
Every child in every family has stories about themselves. If you have trouble coming up with some, try having a brainstorming session with your parents at dinner some time.
3. Use the first person.
Many writers tell me that in order to write authentically, they had to unlearn a lot of what they were taught in school. Among their most important "unlearnings" was to limit using third person pronouns (he, she, they, it), and start using the first person, I. Because college admissions people want to hear about you, you need to write in your own, unique voice. And that means saying such things as, "I have loved numbers ever since I was a little kid. My mother tells me that at the grocery store, I would sit in the cart and add up the item prices she placed next to me to see if I could come up with the same amount as the cash register." This is a lot more personal and interesting than saying, "Some students have known that they were good with numbers since they were little kids."
4. Show, don't tell. Be specific, descriptive and offer plenty of details.
Skillful writers say that the key to alive, good writing is to "show, not tell." Rather than saying that you love animals, write something such as, "Whether a tiny, slithery salamander or a magnificent Arabian horse, I am simply nuts about animals. Since I was very young, I have spent a lot of my time rescuing, raising, caring for and loving them." Author Natalie Goldberg says, "...a writer's job is to make the ordinary come alive."
5. Avoid generalities, clichés and philosophical or psychological babble.
It is so easy to fall into writing something that ends up saying nothing or is trite. To not do that, keep in mind the following:
- Generalities: Rather than saying, "I'm very hardworking," describe a situation that demonstrates how diligent you are. For example, "When it comes to special academic projects, I am the kind of person who both starts way in advance and at the end sometimes stays up all night to make sure that an assignment is the best that it can be."
- Clichés: Rather than saying, "I like working with people and want to save the world," how about saying, "I joined the Diversity Club at school because I wanted to get to know students from different cultures, learn about their families, religion, traditions and even their food. I also wanted to find out how we are alike and unalike. I believe that when people really get to know one another, they have a better chance of getting along."
- Psychobabble: Rather than saying, "I get really ADD when it comes to studying," say something such as "When I do homework in the evenings, I often find it difficult to concentrate, get easily distracted and don't seem to be able to focus." By the way, in case you didn't notice, the quote in the first paragraph about "being anal," is another example of Psychobabble.
6. Make sure that your essay is free of spelling, grammatical mistakes and improper use of words.
There are few things that negatively stick out more on college applications than errors. I cannot stress this enough! Grammar and punctuation errors are like a huge red flag on your application. Make sure that the final person to read your essay is a great proofreader, and ask them specifically to look for errors. Careless mistakes are one of the quickest routes to negatively impress application readers and may result in you're getting a rejection letter from a college.
College essays can reveal a lot about how you think and who you are, things that college admissions officers want to know. Students who take the time to pen original, thoughtful, well-written essays truly enhance their college admissions possibilities.
Next week I will show you how to write a captivating, one-of-a-kind application essay.
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