Thursday, November 21, 2013

Is There Really No I in Technical Writing?

Well okay, there are three I’s.  However, the principle holds true.  If you ask your Little Brown Handbook, it will tell you that scientists “rarely use I in their reports and evaluations.”  But if this particular authority does not satisfy or if you cannot locate it—check beneath the dirty clothes beneath the pizza boxes—then let us reason it out. Why do instructors require a tone of objectivity in technical assignments?

The beginning of an answer to this question lies is in the distinction between objectivity and subjectivity.  Wiping away the common suffixes, we get the words object and subject.  Going back to sentence basics, we remember that the subject “verbs” the object: the panther (subject) eats the redbird (object).  While writers in the humanities highlight the subject and its actions or perceptions, writers in the sciences try to keep the reader's focus on the object. Why?

In the applied sciences the scientific method reigns.  This means that only data, raw information, is allowed to speak the truth.  In the example below, we will see why it can be useful to use a passive construction that puts the focus on what happened, not who did it. 

Though you may be an Eastern Illinois Panther, you do not want to be accused of bias when reporting the consumption of the Illinois State Redbird.  So instead of the truthful claim “I ate the Redbird,”  you will state that "The Redbird was eaten by the Panther."  By this phrasing (technically a "passive" construction), you distance yourself from the intrastate mauling, reporting on it as an objective observer, and preserving your scientific integrity. You cannot be accused of tampering with the natural food chain.  The result presents itself as a fact.

Of course, when you snap back to the classroom, you remember why I was bugging you in the first place.  November wanes, and your research paper remains unwritten.  It remains unwritten because it is no fun to write a paper when you and your perspective have to stay outside.  And it is cold outside.

But there is hope!  You may have to avoid being subjective, but you can still write with style. 

For help with the objectivity blues, we will look to the journalists.  Journalistic writing is an unusual blend of scientific objectivity and creative storytelling.  Even the driest of research paper topics can, with a touch of journalistic flair, be composed in a compelling manner. 

The Migration Habits of Mealworms

The consensus remained uncontested until intrepid zoologist Timothy J. Vanderwinkle introduced his findings on the Tenebrio Molitor.  “This is big.  I mean really big,” stated Vanderwinkle.  While scholarship previously held that mealworms strictly navigate by consecutive bilateral scuttles, the new data suggests that motility is infrequently interrupted by oscillating mandible scampers.  The debate sparked by this new data is certain to divide Entomologists until further information is unearthed.

-do not ever use the above excerpt for any scientific, academic, or other purposes

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