Being Confident (yet Cautious) in your Writing

The ideal academic writing ‘voice’ is very hard to pin down. It needs to be authoritative so as to garner readers’ respect, but also cautious to avoid making overblown claims. It needs to say: “I know what I’m doing, but I don’t know everything.”

Academic writers are a bit like stunt drivers in that way. We need to be confident enough to convincingly wow the crowd, but careful enough to not get ourselves into trouble.

Too confident <           > Too cautious

A lot of student writing – my own included – tends to be too cautious. In my case, that was because I had a Little Voice of Doubt in my head, questioning my every thought. I found that a lot of ‘hedging’ words would creep into my writing. I would write that it was possible that my point might be true, or that some believe it could perhaps be true, instead of just making my case.

I could be wrong, I was saying subtly. Don’t hold me to this.

Trouble is, I was doing no-one any favours by underselling my work. In his 1933 essay “The Triumph of Stupidity,” the philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote: “The problem with the world is that the intelligent people are full of doubts, while the stupid ones are full of confidence.” In a time when unqualified opinions can spread online like snake oil-fuelled wildfire, those of us who hold genuine expertise need to assert ourselves – even while we’re still learning.

Of course, there are times when it is right and good to express doubt. If, for instance, your data has thrown up an unexpected possibility that you can’t confirm, you’ll need to write about it cautiously so as not to oversell it.

You can use strategic word choices to achieve a balance between the confident, authoritative tone of an expert, and the cautious, prudent tone of a responsible researcher. You just have to decide when it is appropriate to use words that imply surety; and when it is better to use words that imply uncertainty.

Here are some words that can help to communicate your confidence level:

  Confident words
Cautious words
 Connotation: I got this! I’m not entirely sure.
Adjectives: Clear, definite, certain Possible, conceivable, probable
Verbs: Show, demonstrate, prove Suggest, appear, indicate
Modal verbs: Will, would, must Might, could, may

If you’re describing rock-solid, indisputable results, then go for the confidence words. If you’re describing something that is based on disputable data, or something that goes against conventional wisdom, cautious words could be the better bet. Here’s an example:

Confident phrasing: “My results show that healthcare workers have been historically underpaid.”

Cautious phrasing: “My results suggest that healthcare workers may have been historically underpaid.”

These are subtle differences, but they make a huge difference to the way readers interpret your work. They will also highlight to examiners which parts of your research you feel to be more (or less) robust.

Unfortunately, as with stunt driving, there’s no perfect recipe for mixing confidence and caution in thesis writing. To an extent, the appropriate balance for your writing will depend on the degree of intellectual risk in your research project. If, however, you find yourself always using confident words or always using cautious words, you may need to reevaluate your voice.

About Anaise Irvine

Dr Anaise Irvine is the Editor of Thesislink. She has a research background in science and narrative. Her PhD research analysed how contemporary films and novels represent genetic engineering as a social justice issue. She has previously researched fictional representations of evolution and quantum mechanics. She has taught such diverse texts as Blade Runner and Bridget Jones’s Diary, and her most obscure skill is being able to turn novels into phylogenetic trees!

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