Loaded Language: Writing and Editing Controversial Content for Professional or Scholarly Publication
It’s been a tough year. Civic and political unrest in the United States, Brexit, a worldwide pandemic, military rule in Myanmar, religious and political extremism, among others. While you may wish to express your opinion on such issues in personal social media accounts, examining both current and historical issues in a professional or scholarly context intended for publication requires a different approach.
How do you get your message across in a way that will convince your readers and not set them on edge? This question is particularly pertinent in academic and scholarly nonfiction, in which the writer is seen as the expert imparting important information to the audience. Your job as an authority is to present your research and draw conclusions in such a way that your readers follow along with you and then draw their own conclusions based on your evidence—without being told how to feel about it. That is something that should be left up to readers to discover for themselves, when faced with the evidence presented. Otherwise, a writer risks possibly alienating readers or making them feel manipulated by the text.
Here are some tips for approaching possibly controversial issues in your writing.
Omit Loaded, Emotional Words
Using such words can convey an implicit judgment rather than presenting objective information. The reader does not want to be “told” how to feel, and the use of loaded adjectives, adverbs, nouns, verbs, and expressions risks this scenario.
For example, a situation or act may be “heinous,” “monstrous,” or “reprehensible” in your mind, but if it truly is, your reader will reach the same conclusion based on the facts that you present without having to employ such adjectives. Is someone really “radical” in the true sense of the word, or does using that adjective simply reflect someone with a political view opposite to yours?
Likewise with adverbs, saying that something is “unequivocally true,” for example, is risky, implying that there is not another side to the issue that may be considered. If you must include a potentially loaded adjective, adding an adverbial qualifier like “seemingly” (e.g., “seemingly vindictive”) may help to imply that it is your opinion and not a generally accepted fact.
Unless you are discussing actual historical events and entities that have traditionally been denoted as such—such as the medieval Crusades and the British Empire—loaded nouns such as “crusade,” “empire,” “tyrant,” for example, applied to other events and people, could be seen as problematic and judgmental. Perhaps reword to “oppressive powers” or other appropriate phrasing that does not imply your personal opinion in such an obvious way. Are people who believe in a particular cause actually “activists,” or does using that word again reflect your opinion on those who do not share your views?
Consider the following statement recently sent in an email regarding a local school board: “I am disappointed that the Trustees have not bounced these militant … conquest demands right out the door.” As the reader, my eye immediately goes to the words “bounced,” “militant,” “conquest demands,” and “out the door.” Is the writer truly dealing with people bearing weapons (militant)? Are the people implicated in the statement attempting to overthrow the school board (conquest) and need to be escorted out (bounced … out the door)? Upon further research, it is clear that the writer is referring to people whose opinions and advocacy clash with the writer’s own beliefs—no armed attack is involved. However, by using this language, the attempt is to manipulate a reader to agree with this view; yet as the reader, I feel manipulated in the opposite direction, to the point that I no longer consider the writer as credible.
Even simply adding verb phrases such as “appears to be” or “seems” will go a long way in tempering the message when you are tempted to present what is actually your opinion as a statement of fact.
Document Your Argument with Valid Sources
Avoid Telling Your Readers What They Must Think
In general, addressing readers in the second-person you is best avoided in scholarly nonfiction and formal contexts. This is especially true when discussing potentially controversial subjects.
A statement such as “You would have to be blind not to see that the current regime and radical activists have hijacked the better policy off course,” for example, (1) tells the readers directly how they should view the situation by using the second person ("You would have …"); (2) declares the author’s stance in the situation, judgment, and which side is supported through the use of loaded words such as “blind,” “regime,” “radical activists,” “hijacked,” and “better”; and (3) uses a questionable metaphor by employing the word “blind” to denote a lack of understanding rather than an actual physical disability. (n.b. The example of referring to potential readers as “blind” has come from my actual experience as an editor, on more than one occasion.) This statement is not an impartial depiction, and your reader may not react favourably to this.
A revision may result in something like this: “A review of the available sources reveals that the current government and its supporters have veered the policy in a different direction, that is, <specifics about policy>.” Tame your emotions, present the facts, be specific, and allow the readers to draw their own conclusions from your meticulously documented content.
Retain Credibility. An Editor Can Help
It is not easy to write about contentious situations. It is important to remember your context, audience, retain credibility, and avoid sensationalism. If the facts of a situation are in fact egregious, your intelligent reader will understand this by the facts themselves that you have offered. If you are attempting to change people’s minds on an issue, the use of neutral language and facts can go a long way in achieving your goal.
Frequently, a professional editor can help to temper the language that authors--close to and passionate about their subject--may not be able to see as actually impeding their important message. It is an editor’s job to help bridge the gap between the author and the reader. A second set of eyes just might save your credibility.
If you write about controversial topics, what specific techniques do you use to present your arguments in a way that is accessible to your reader?
I am Carla DeSantis, and welcome to my blog! I love language and words and books, and have turned this love into a business, helping others to perfect their written message.