Good Writing Avoids Self-Consciousness, in My Opinion
Have you ever looked in the mirror and noticed that a tuft of hair is sticking straight up off your head, or a glob of spinach is caught in your teeth, or the price tag is still on your shirt, and you say to yourself, how long have I been walking around looking this ridiculous?
Admit it. Everyone is self-conscious. We think of everything in terms of how it affects us personally. Of all the people in the world, the one we think most highly of — or at least most often of — is me.
It’s no surprise, therefore, that self-consciousness is a problem for most writers. We tend to insert ourselves into whatever we write. There is a place for this, of course — in autobiographies, anecdotes, private journals, and personal correspondence for example. But in most formal writing, it’s best for the writer to hide behind his ideas.
In a first-person narrative, the narrator is a character in the story. Often, he is an important character who spends a lot of time describing his own thoughts and actions. More commonly, however, narrators are third-person. That means he is nothing but a voice from nowhere. The reader is never introduced to the speaker of the words on the page. He or she is anonymous, invisible.
That’s the way to write most expository and persuasive papers also. Keep yourself out of it. Just be an anonymous, disembodied voice. For example, don’t write:
I think hopscotch is an underrated pastime. I’ve played hopscotch most of my life, and I find it a physically, mentally, and emotionally challenging activity.
This passage is as much about the writer as it is about hopscotch. Here’s the same ideas with the focus shifted onto the subject:
Hopscotch is an under-rated pastime. It is a physically, mentally and emotionally challenging activity.
There are times, of course, when a paper is informal enough to insert yourself in appropriate places. Blog posts like this are an example of that. Formal academic papers and standardized test essays are usually better received when the writer stays off-stage.
In My Opinion
Here’s an easy to remember universal rule for persuasive papers: Never write “in my opinion.”
“But,” you might say, “Aren’t I supposed to be defending my opinion?”
Yes, but remember this — the reader will always assume that what you state is your opinion. If I write, “Hamlet is Shakespeare’s greatest tragic hero,” wouldn’t you assume that this is a statement of my opinion? If I write it, you can assume I think it.
Writing “in my opinion,” is not only needless, it also weakens what you say. It’s wimpy. Of the following, which comes across as more confident and persuasive?
- In my opinion, there is more to life than financial success.
- There is more to life than financial success.
Trust me on this one. Delete in my opinion every time, along with I think, I feel, the way I see it, and my view is.
Here’s a related principle: Don’t say what you are going to say—just say it!
Writing teachers get far too many opening sentences like this:
In this paper I will explore the development of America’s atomic weapons.
The self-consciousness is obvious here. Here is a revision of it, however, that isn’t much better:
This paper will explore the development of America’s atomic weapons.
The reference to the writer has been removed here, but there is a more subtle kind of self-consciousness still present. It’s as if the paper is talking about itself. You don’t need to remind the reader that he is reading something. Sentences like this distract from the subject — the development of atomic weapons — to merely inform the reader what he is going to read about.
Imagine watching a movie on the big screen when the main character stops, looks into the camera and says, “Hi. I’m the hero of this movie. My favorite scene coming up, so pay attention.” That would be weird, right? Actors in a movie don’t remind you you’re watching a movie. In fact, they want you to forget that you are watching a movie and believe for a moment that you are part of something real. Good writers do the same thing.
When I read sentences like the example above, my reaction is always the same: Get on with it! Don’t tell me what you’re going to tell me…just tell me!
Think about it. The paper is about atomic weapons. It’s not about a paper about atomic weapons. So get right to it:
America’s development of atomic weapons has launched the world into an era of unparalleled tension and moral uncertainty.
Much better, isn’t it? No unnecessary introductions, just a statement that leads you right into the topic. If you’ve done it really well, the reader stays focused on your ideas and not on you as the author or even the paper itself.
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