Brianna Wu on Twitter:

The central problem with academic writing is the primary purpose is to fend off critique from other academics.

This is true of academic writing to a nauseating extent.

Science is a process of conjecture and refutation, and it requires that you make bold falsifiable statements. Most of academic writing done today desperately tries to do the opposite.1

The average sentence in the average paper is written to cover bases, hedge bets, and, like Brianna Wu said, to fend off and protect against criticism. Every sentence is soaked in “maybe”s, “likely”s, “this finding could lead us to believe”s, and “the data suggests”.

If anyone criticizes something you wrote, you can always say “well I said ‘likely’!”, “it wasn’t me! the regression said so!”.

Data doesn’t suggest anything. You interpret the results of the analysis you ran, based on the data you collected using an experiment of your design. Don’t shirk your responsibility as a scientist by making the data the subject of the sentence.

But I left academia (for many reasons beyond the hedging), and this isn’t just about academic writing.

This is about how we write and talk all day, in all contexts.

Try looking out for it and you’ll notice it right away, if you don’t already. Hedging language is everywhere, and it makes our communications a lot less useful.

Empty words and statements sprinkled in conversations, allowing people to get away with being vague, not thinking things through, not doing their due diligence in reasoning or research, and offloading work to the listener.

This is a list of terms that I have been actively avoiding in what I say and write, to be used only when absolutely unavoidable.2 The list is not exhaustive, but it gives a good idea of the kind of phrasing to avoid.

  • “something like”
  • “or something”
  • “kind of”, “kinda”
  • “maybe” and “might”
  • “mostly”, “more or less”
  • “likely”, “fairly likely”, “most likely”

Language is so much better when you avoid those filler ambiguities. It’s better because you have to think harder about what you’re saying, and you end up saying more substantial things. What you say will be more useful because you’re not offloading a lot of work to the reader or listener.

Imagine you’re having a conversation with a coworker, and you say this:

Can we figure out a way to plot this data with JavaScript?

vs.

Can we figure out a way to plot this data with JavaScript or something?

The set of things you’re asking your coworker to explore differs massively between the two statements. In the first one, you are specifically asking them if there is a way to do a thing in JavaScript. In the second, you are suggesting JavaScript as a starting point, but you said “or something”. So what you did is effortlessly suggest one thing as a possibility, not being certain that JavaScript is the way you want to do this, and are really leaving your coworker with the set of “or something” – which is huge – to look into. You didn’t help at all.

Thing is, there is no list of terms in the world that will prevent you from hedging. A mind that wants to be lazy and vague will find a way. Avoiding certain terms will help, but ultimately, you have to change how you think.

Be specific.

  1. At least that is my experience in the psychology, cognitive science, and neuroscience fields. 

  2. The flip side of this is: don’t express certainty if you’re not just so you can seem authoritative. I am advocating good reasoning, not fake competence. Use “maybe” when you should.