Defensive Writing

You’ve heard of defensive driving, right? It’s a way of approaching good driving that goes beyond simply following the road code. Defensive drivers anticipate that something bad could happen at any time, and they drive so as to be prepared: by keeping a safe distance from the car in front, by slowing down on rainy days, and so on.

In short, defensive driving is about hitting the road assuming that something dangerous is going to happen. Then on the off-chance that it does, you’ll be ready.

Sound familiar? It’s quite similar to how you have to write a thesis. With every sentence, you have to think: an examiner might question this. Someone might have crazy amounts of expertise in the topic I’m writing on, and they might try to poke all sorts of holes in my reasoning, my data analysis, my methodology, my claims.

Defensive writing, just like defensive driving, can help you to avoid danger.


It works like this: for every sentence, think about what could possibly go wrong when a reader reads it.

For instance, here’s a sentence:

Most lawyers begin a consultation with some chit-chat about sports or the weather, as they believe this will make their clients feel at ease.

Think about what a really nit-picky reader might say about it:

Most lawyers? Is there evidence that the relevant portion of lawyers who do this is at least 51%? Which kinds of appointments count as “consultations”? Is it exclusively sports- and weather-related conversations that are relevant here? How does the researcher know about the lawyer’s intentions for the chit-chat? What if the pleasantries are actually intended to kill time and pump up the billable hours? (And so on.)

In all likelihood, your readers won’t have that many thoughts about every sentence. But by predicting the worst possible reading, you can assess any potential dangers, and revise accordingly. In some cases, you might alter the sentence. In other cases, you might ensure that any key terms are defined elsewhere in your thesis. You might also add clarifying footnotes, if that’s the best way to insure your writing against danger.

Here’s what the revised sentence might look like:

Many lawyers begin their first appointments with new clients by exchanging pleasantries; this can help to make the clients feel at ease.

The revised sentence is much less declarative, but that makes it much more robust. “Most” is replaced by “many,” which doesn’t require evidence of a statistical majority. The effect of the chit-chat is still stated, but in a way that doesn’t imply any intentionality on the part of the lawyers (which would be difficult to prove). And the term “consultation” is clarified.

The new sentence will be much stronger against the unpredictable readers you might encounter on your academic road, honking their intellectual horns at you and swerving wildly into your cognitive lanes, wearing down the traction on your scholarly tyres, and…

OK, this metaphor has been beaten to death now, much like the proverbial horse that was sadly killed on the road of wisdom and is now being flogged by the wheels of…

Sorry. I’ll stop driving you up the wall now.

(Oops, I guess that was one for the road.)

About Graduate Research School (Auckland University of Technology)

The Auckland University of Technology Graduate Research School offers support and resources to all postgraduate students at AUT. Come and visit us on the 5th floor of the WU building.

6 thoughts on “Defensive Writing

  1. Well… the last sentence is still unsupported. In fact it has a changed meaning as the first one implies that the lawyers *think* it makes people feel at ease, but the last one says that it does makes clients feel at ease. I would say generally that sentences like this shouldn’t be there at all. Either its part of your research and you actually know somehow that this is common – surveys, interviews, illegal bugging , previous studies or even from personal experience – or its possibly just a filler and the thesis would be better without it. Rather than defensive writing, go for clarity and simplicity – if it doesn’t add anything , please be kind to the reader and make their burden less. Of course, avoid “best” , “clearly” and please “exponential” unless you can prove it.

    1. There are different standards for different disciplines, of course. Depending on the writer’s field, the last sentence might be appropriate or inappropriate; the point is that it is more defensible than the first. (I don’t believe it changes the meaning though – note it says that pleasantries “can” not “do” help clients to feel at ease.) But yes, clarity and simplicity above all.

  2. Clearly, most people should avoid lawyers inanely chit-chatting with them at the start of their consultation in order to avoid exponentially increased bills, even if they are the best in town.

  3. We should not receive this messages thinking it is so important in the middle of our writing…. found it useless.. waste of time!!

  4. Thanks for the post, I really enjoyed it. More than the details of the sentences, the concept of ‘defensive writing’ allows us to be reflective of our own writing. Thus, I understand it as in invitation to reflect on the meaning that I – as a writer – want to convey, and how it could be interpreted by others.
    However, as we cannot control other drivers on the road, we ultimately cannot control readers’ interpretation of our words. Still, the concept invites us to be reflective – and cautious – writers, and that is what I like about the analogy, so thanks for sharing 🙂

  5. Honestly I’m sick of this constant tradeoff in writing. Every time I revise a paragraph to make it more {unambiguous, pedantic and correct}, it gets {weaker, harder to read, and just plain boring for the audience}. This is why such a small percent of people read academic journals, meanwhile news stories reach millions of people while getting the facts wrong.

    I’ve come to realize that the problem is with the English language itself (and probably other languages too). It’s time we invent new grammar that allows for correctness without sacrificing impactfulness. The twirly brackets I used in the paragraph above are maybe a good start.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

 characters available