Analytical Writing for Science and Technology
Copyright © 1996 by T. M. Georges.

Lesson 18

Should You Use a Personal Style in Scientific and Technical Writing?

colorbar

In this Lesson:

In this lesson, you will learn that if you put people into your writing, you will not only create a closer link with your readers, but you will also make your message easier for them to understand.

What is impersonal writing? It means simply that your writing has no people in it. Experiments are done. Results get interpreted. Decisions are made. No one makes them. In personal writing, people play an important role -- not just individuals, but any group, such as a company, a committee or institution.


HOW DID SCIENTIFIC AND TECHNICAL WRITING GET SO IMPERSONAL?

Impersonal writing has entered our culture as a way to create an image of objectivity. Some scientists and businessmen fear that if you read about people doing something, you might think that human biases and subjectivity might have influenced the outcome. The result might be questionable. By removing the people, you supposedly create an air of professionalism, credibility and authority. This belief is probably rooted in legal traditions.

Impersonal writing is also a way to obscure who's actually responsible for an act. Large corporations and governments use it to create an illusion of uniform efficiency and machinelike inflexibility.

To see how this works, check which of these executive pronouncements seems less flexible and makes you feel less like arguing with it:

The new administrative policy shall be to reimburse the use of private automobiles at a rate of 8 cents a mile.

I have decided that anyone who uses his private automobile on company business shall be reimbursed at a rate of 8 cents a mile.

Which one is easier to understand and remember?

Of course, you may sometimes want to issue orders that you want accepted without argument. Then which form would you use?


DOES IMPERSONAL MEAN OBJECTIVE?

The myth behind impersonal writing is that impersonal equals objective. Everyone knows that people are always involved in any business, scientific or engineering activity. Yet somehow they get left out of writing about those activities.

It has not always been so. Many of the most prominent scientists of earlier centuries wrote in a very personal style. Here's a well known paragraph from The chemical history of a candle, written by Michael Faraday:

You see, then .... that a beautiful cup is formed. As the air comes to the candle it moves upward by the force of the current which the heat of the candle produces, and it so cools all the sides of the wax, tallow, or fuel, as to keep the edge much cooler than the part within; the part within melts by the flame that runs down the wick as far as it can go before it is extinguished, but the part on the outside does not melt. If I made a current in one direction, my cup would be lop-sided, and the flud would consequently run over, -- for the same force of gravity which holds worlds together holds this fluid in a horizontal position, and if the cup be not horizontal, of course the fluid will run away in guttering .... You see now why you would have had such a bad time if you were to burn these beautiful candles that I have shown you, which are irregular, intermittent in their shape, and cannot therefore have that nicely formed edge to the cup which is the great beauty in a candle. I hope you will now see that the perfection of a process -- that is its utility -- is the better point of beauty about it.

Although written over a hundred years ago, this passage remains interesting and informative today, partly because it reveals the personal involvement Faraday felt in his work. Would you say that this passage lacks objectivity?

Somehow, as science and technology became institutionalized, and as governments, large institutions and corporations took control, the roles of individuals in science and technology has faded. This diminished visibility is reflected in the disappearance of personalities from technical literature today.


BUREAUCRACIES STIFLE PERSONAL EXPRESSION

Anyone who has filled out an income-tax return recognizes the bureaucratic language known as officialese or governmentese. It's a ubiquitous dialect that seems to be designed to intimidate the reader with an image of inflexible authority. Governments, military establishments, and large corporations believe that they have to use such language to make people conform to policies and rules without question. But the language itself often has the opposite effect. Incomprehensible rules, regulations, memos, e-mail, and reports simply frustrate their readers, who may waste their own and other people's time seeking clarification -- or they may just ignore them.

As a result, the very word bureaucracy is synonymous with impersonal inefficiency and inertia. Creative, expressive innovators and clear, no-nonsense writing often attract enough adverse attention to discourage such behavior. Ironically, a clearly written, common-sense rule or policy may have a harder time getting approved than an ambiguous one. The more people who are able to read and understand it, the more opposition is triggered.

Everyone has to make his or her own decisions about how to live with such inconsistencies in the workplace, and whether to be part of the problem or to contribute to its solution. If you're part of such a system, and occasionally feel a bit alienated, one way to do your part to keep "the system" from swallowing you up is to express yourself as a person, especially in your writing. Accept responsibility for your work and your results. Take your readers and your personal relationships with them into account when you write. Recognize that bureacracies are simply collections of people, and each person can be influenced by personal contact that takes his or her needs into account. Try it -- the results may surprise you!

Here are some specific signs of bureaucratic language that keep people at a distance. Ask yourself if your writing:

  • is excessively formal
  • is impersonal and convoluted
  • avoids responsibility and accountability
  • is anonymous
  • overuses acronyms and jargon
  • seems to be written from the writer's, not the readers' point of view

If your writing has these characteristics, you may be contributing to the problem rather than its solution.


WHO DUNNIT?

People who write regulations, especially those pertaining to compex technology, have to be more sensitive to the needs of those who have to comply with them. From the isolation and anonymity of a bureaucracy, it's easy to write regulations that are filled with legal jargon and gobbledygook that only a lawyer can decode. How many of the rules, standards, and regulations that you have to write would be approved by a committee of 12-year olds?

I once thought it would be a good idea for all government and corporate regulations to have their originator's name and phone number forever attached to them, so that anyone who wanted to question their wisdom could go immediately and directly to the source. How would you write rules differently, if this were so?.


WHY PUT PEOPLE INTO YOUR WRITING?

That's all fine, you may be saying; but impersonal writing is a symptom of our impersonal society, and it's probably here to stay. How can I improve the way I communicate by bucking that trend?

What if I could show you that putting people into your writing would make it clearer, easier to read and understand, and let your reader identify more easily with the point you want to make?

It's true. The reason is that people naturally belong in science and technology. They're just as involved there as in any other human activity. We leave them out when we write about them, simply because we've been trained to leave them out. When you read scientific and technical writing that has no people in it, you usually have trouble understanding it, because its author had to deliberately use an indirect and circumspect style, to leave the people out.

The most important reason for making your writing more personal is that it makes it more understandable. Impersonal writing is simply less informative.

Here's an excerpt from an instruction manual for assembling an electronic kit. There are three versions. One is totally impersonal. The second has some personal nouns in it, but uses the third person. The third version is very personal and uses the second person, which is often useful in instruction manuals. Read all three and decide which one you would rather use to put this kit together.

IMPERSONAL: Assembly of the final amplifier stage is not difficult if all the steps are followed. After mounting the tuning coil and capacitor on the board, the assembly is secured in the fixture so the remaining parts can be soldered to the board. Then the amplifier components are removed from their plastic bag and placed with their numbered sides up on the table next to the fixture. As each numbered part is called for, its leads are trimmed to the specified length and soldered to the bottom side of the board in the location indicated in the diagram.

PERSONAL (THIRD PERSON): Anyone can assemble the final amplifier stage, if he follows all the steps carefully. After mounting the tuning coil and capacitor on the board, he secures the assembly in the fixture so he can solder the remaining parts to the board. Then he removes the amplifier components from their plastic bag and places them with their numbered sides up on the table next to the fixture. As each numbered part is called for, he trims the leads to the specified length and solders them to the bottom side of the board in the location indicated in the diagram.

PERSONAL (SECOND PERSON): You won't have any trouble assembling the final amplifier stage, if you follow all the steps carefully. After you mount the tuning coil and capacitor on the board, secure the assembly in the fixture so you can solder the remaining parts to the board. Remove the amplifier components from their plastic bag and place them with their numbered sides up on the table next to the fixture. As each step asks you for a numbered part, trim its leads to the specified length and solder it to the bottom side of the board where the diagram shows you.

Don't you agree that the personal versions are much easier to understand, because you identify with the people mentioned. In the third version, the link with the reader is especially strong, because the personal words are you.

Which instructions would you prefer to follow?


HOW TO PUT PEOPLE INTO YOUR WRITING

Create human interest and a human focus in your writing by using personal nouns and pronouns. Not only I, you, we, he, she, them but also personal words like people, committee, engineers, businessmen, users, and, when appropriate, even names of individuals. Even semi-personal words like company, laboratory, team, Iranians, Congress are better then nothing. Direct and indirect quotes are also effective tools for personalizing your writing.

Here are some more examples of impersonal writing and some rewrites that show how to put people into your writing. Study these examples, and mark the personal subjects in the rewritten versions with your blue highlighter pen. Notice as you read them how the personal versions are easier to understand because people get into the act.

IMPERSONAL: Several tests were conducted on the new rifle.

PERSONAL: I conducted several tests on the new rifle.

IMPERSONAL: The possibility of an increase in orders for the new tanks was considered likely, according to the generals.

PERSONAL: Most of the generals interviewed said there would be more orders for the new tanks.

IMPERSONAL: In the research program, the effects of radiation on birth defects in mice were studied.

PERSONAL: In this project, researchers wanted to find out how radiation affects birth defects in mice.

IMPERSONAL: The situation in the case of the malfunctioning computer is expected to be resolved by Monday.

PERSONAL: Jackie says the computer will be fixed by Monday.

IMPERSONAL: If success is not achieved on the first attempt, it is recommended that similar procedures be instituted afterward.

PERSONAL: If at first you don't succeed, try again.

Did you mark I, generals, researchers, Jackie and you with your blue marker?

Here's an interesting exercise: Go back over the five examples above and mark also all the passive verbs (pink), the abstract nouns (green) and the prepositional phrases (yellow). Do you see how the impersonal versions also contain the most of these other undesirable elements? Notice how they all tend to attract each other, so that as you change one the others begin to go away, too. Making your writing more personal makes it easier to avoid all the other pitfalls of foggy sentence construction we have covered in earlier lessons.

Do this short exercise to practice expressing yourself in a more personal way. Replace each of the impersonal phrases below with a more personal version by adding some person or group of people to the action:

It was found that

It is concluded that

It was proposed and tentatively accepted that

It is believed that

It is widely held that

It can be seen that

Federal regulations prohibit

There was general agreement that

One can only hope that

A recommendation was made by the Standards Committee that

Look out for sentences that begin with it or there and also the use of the word one as a substitute for some person. These are reliable flags of impersonal construction.

Now -- here are some impersonal sentences for you to rewrite. They will give you practice removing the impersonal constructions and indicating clearly who is responsible for the actions. Try, at the same time, to remove as many of the passive verbs, abstract nouns and prepositional phrases as you can:

It is expected that many orders will be received for the new cubes in the course of the year.

An increase of 50 percent in range is anticipated as a result of the installation of the new transmitter.

Great care should be exercised in the selection of a radar operating frequency.

The factory is expected to be closed during the flood.

This memo is to announce the appointment of Dr. Anthrax to the position of director of the biological hazards branch.

To determine the effects of humidity on the speed of sound, a series of measurements was undertaken.

During television antenna installation, it is recommended that the lead-in be routed away from metal objects.

The results of the experiment were inconclusive.

Find a paragraph or so of your own scientific or technical writing and mark with your blue highlighter all the personal nouns you find. If you don't see any such references, your writing is too impersonal.

Rewrite your paragraph in the space below, just as you did the 8 sentences above. Replace each impersonal subject with the doer of the action. If you have trouble putting people into your writing, ask yourself who are the people behind the subject you're writing about.


SOME WARNINGS ABOUT PERSONAL STYLE

If you're not careful, you can create a lot of problems for yourself as you adopt a personal style.

One way is to get so carried away with personal style that your ego becomes all too visible. The way to keep that fine balance, of course, is to keep the interests of your readers paramount in your mind. No one is interested in scientific and technical writing whose sole purpose is to glorify the writer. Signs that you might be doing this are: large doses of your personal philosophy and opinions, frequent citations of your own work, avoiding citations of others' work, and overuse of I and we.

Another trap is a failure to distinguish between facts and your own personal feelings and opinions. Each has its place, but you have to make sure the reader knows the difference. Some words that really mean a personal opinion or value judgment are often read more objectively. Be alert for adjectives like these in your writing:

important valuable useless
useful beautiful accurate
efficient good bad
economical interesting easy
simple safe significant

When you use them, be sure you make it clear to your reader who is making that judgment, and be clear and quantitative about the measure of value. How significant? How accurate? Compared with what? The best way to clarify these value judgments is to give clear examples.


WHY FIGHT IT?

Impersonal writing style has become so deeply entrenched in American business, government and industry, that making any drastic changes now usually meets with fierce resistance. Managers often resent subordinates who write from a personal viewpoint; journals often reject papers written with personal pronouns (though this is changing). It makes sense to ask: Are there really any good reasons to change it? Why fight an uphill battle to change something that's just a matter of principle and doesn't matter anyway?

I've given you some arguments for personal writing based on improved understanding and more fully involving your reader. If these aren't enough, there are larger issues.

Is the alienation Americans feel from their jobs, their fellow workers, their employers and society in general just a principle? Are the dedication and involvement of Japanese workers just a cultural difference? I'm not claiming that impersonal writing is the cause and that fixing that will change everything. Impersonal writing is, of course, a symptom, not a cause. But what might happen if people started expressing themselves like people, instead of like cogs in the machinery? Seems to me it couldn't hurt.


HOW TO CONVINCE YOUR BOSS

Once you decide that the benefits of personal writing might be worth the resistance you might encounter, you may face the very real problem of convincing your immediate supervisors. What's a good strategy?

The best evidence you can present is some outstanding examples of writing in his field that is personal and effective, yet inoffensive. These may be hard to find, so constantly be alert for examples in your work. Save them for your own clear writing examples and to show others. Do you think the personal style of this course makes it more effective? If so, perhaps you could show it to others as evidence of effective personal writing.

Many people who resist a personal writing style harbor fears of repercussions if existing "standards" break down, or if writing style become excessively informal and disrespectful. It's easy to link personal with informal, and to perpetuate old-world taboos about being too personal, but does either of these arguments actually hold water? Slang is often inappropriate and unprofessional, but that's not the same as personal. Writing can certainly be personal without violating standards and protocols that govern any formal communications.


LESSON SUMMARY AND WHERE WE GO FROM HERE

Adopting a personal writing style will help your readers identify with your message and will help you say it more clearly, too. When people get into your writing, your reader does, too. Yet there are cultural barriers to being personal, and you have to decide whether the struggle justifies the rewards.

Next, we'll look briefly at ways to make the charts and drawings you put in your papers more informative.


"We can lick gravity, but sometimes the paperwork is overwhelming." - Werner Von Braun


-- End of Lesson 18 --

Beginning of Lesson 18 || Contents || Go on to Lesson 19