Write with More Objectivity


You may have heard that verbs like is, are, was, and were add fluff to our writing. Because these verbs don't mean much themselves (What does it mean to "is"?), they prompt us to add other words, to increase meaning. Check it out:

Using is, are, was, were: "Marcos is in charge of new accounts." (7 words)

Using a more meaningful verb: "Marcos oversees new accounts." (4 words)

In this example, because "is" doesn't convey a sense of directing, managing, or being the boss of these accounts, we must add "in charge." By using a meaningful verb, however, we got all that done with one word. For this reason, we typically want to limit our use of is, are, was, were (and other verbs from the "to be" verb family).

Reason 1 to avoid verbs like is, are, was, were: They add fluff.

However, there's another reason to avoid these verbs: In addition to increasing word count, they also tend to increase subjectivity.

Usually, when we're writing for work, we want to write objective, evidence-based information. We're often writing to inform, not to persuade or say our opinion. However, verbs like is, are, was, were can make our writing sound opinionated when we don't want it to.

Reason 2 to avoid verbs like is, are, was, were: They may add opinion.

Imagine you've just received your annual performance review and you're reading sentences like "Gabi is friendly and empathetic towards others." Well, that's good, but how would Gabi know what specific behaviors to keep doing next year? What evidence do we have of her empathy? And how do we know the writer sees the situation objectively?

A more evidence-based, objective way to write this might be something like "Gabi asks others about their day and offers assistance when possible." The second sentence avoids sounding like an opinion because it inherently includes evidence.

The comparison becomes even more stark when we consider a negative example. Again, imagine you've just received your annual performance review, and you've scored somewhat low in one area. You receive this comment: "Gabi is not participatory in meetings."

We have a few reasons for frustration with this opinionated-sounding claim: (1) What does it mean to be participatory?, (2), What proof do we have that Gabi isn't?, and (3) What should Gabi do to improve next year? We also might wonder if this supervisor is simply being biased.

A more helpful, directional, evidence-based, objective comment might be something like:

"Gabi does not comment or ask questions during a session's Q&A period." Or, we could even provide helpful ideas for moving forward, saying something like, "To increase participation in meetings, Gabi can comment on data from her department and ask questions during the Q&A period."

Relying too much on is, are, was, were has been a hard habit to break for me. I originally started replacing phrases like "is a student of psychology" to "studies psychology" to reduce my fluff and word count. But there's a second, equally-useful side-effect: that reduction in subjectivity. I want my writing to sound clear and fair. Avoiding empty verbs provides us one way to move towards more evidence-based, objective writing.

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