Writing with Hedges

Good authors hedge their bets. That’s what English professors Booth, Colomb, and Williams claim. But is this always the case? See if you can identify any hedges in this selection from their book The Craft of Research.

“Some researchers think their claims are most credible when they are stated most forcefully. But nothing damages your ethos more than arrogant certainty. As paradoxical as it seems, you make your argument stronger and more credible by modestly acknowledging its limits. You gain readers’ trust when you acknowledge and respond to their views, showing that you have not only understood but considered their position. But you can lose that trust if you then make claims that overreach their support. Limit your claims to what your argument can actually support by qualifying their scope and certainty. . . .

“Consider mentioning important limiting conditions even if you feel readers would not think of them. . . .

“Only rarely can we state in good conscience that we are 100 percent certain that our claims are unqualifiedly true. Careful writers qualify their certainty with words and phrases called hedges. For example, if anyone was entitled to be assertive, it was Crick and Watson, the discoverers of the helical structure of DNA. But when they announced their discovery, they hedged the certainty of their claims (hedges are boldfaced; the introduction is condensed):

‘We wish to suggest a [note: not state the] structure for the salt of deoxyribose nucleic acid (D.N.A.). . . . A structure for nucleic acid has already been proposed by Pauling and Corey. . . . In our opinion, this structure is unsatisfactory for two reasons: (1) We believe that the material which gives the X-ray diagrams is the salt, not the free acid. . . . (2) Some of the van der Waals distances appear to be too small. (J. D. Watson and F. H. C. Crick, “Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids.”)

“Without hedges, Crick and Watson would be more concise but more aggressive. . . .

“Of course, if you hedge too much, you will seem timid or uncertain. But in most fields, readers distrust flatfooted certainty expressed in words like all, no one, every, always, never, and so on. Some teachers say they object to all hedging, but what most of them really reject are hedges that qualify every trivial claim. And some fields do tend to use fewer hedges than others. It takes a deft touch. Hedge too much and you seem mealy-mouthed; too little and you seem smug. Unfortunately, the line between them is thin. So watch how those in your field manage uncertainty, then do likewise.”

The Craft of Research, 3rd ed.
Authors: Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams
Publisher: Chicago University Press
Copyright 2008
Pages: 127-129

Questions to Consider:

1. What do the authors mean by a “hedge”?

2. Why must authors hedge when making arguments, even when they are experts in their field?

3. Do the authors do any hedging of their own in this selection?

4. Can you give an example of something you’ve read that came across too smug? How about too timid?

5. It can be tough to tell whether a blog post is trustworthy, knowledgeable, or well-argued. Often, a blogger neglects to hedge responsibly. How would you apply the “hedge test” to the blogs you read?


How to Write a Lot—A Review

Cover of "How to Write a Lot: A Practical...

Cover via Amazon

Maybe you’d like to write a lot. Maybe you have to write a lot. Here’s a book you may like a lot.

The book is published by the American Psychological Association. Silvia, a relatively young scholar, teaches and writes about psychology. In this book, he applies his own eclectic method in  psychology to the ordeal of writing as an academic.

I say eclectic because Silvia expects his counsel to be congenial to psychologists of various stripes:

  • developmental psychologists
  • cognitive psychologists
  • clinical psychologists
  • emotion psychologists
  • psychologists with interdisciplinary interests

What he writes is for all academics who wish to be more productive writers. But he does advise his peers in psychology a little more directly on occasion. When he says, “Our academic journals radiate bad writing,” he means journals in his discipline. But scholars across the disciplines will recognize the sort.

Silvia pokes fun in good humor. He notes that “psychologists love bad words,” then points out that “they call them deficient or suboptimal instead of bad.” He means, of course, that words like “deficient” and “suboptimal” are often needlessly “erudite,” and therefore bad for good writing.

“Psychologists like writing about the existing literature. Is there a nonexistent literature that I should be reading and referencing?” It’s nice to hear a psychologist asking such a philosophical question. (I’m afraid that some philosophers, in response, will get caught up in analyzing “should” and explaining the scope of relevant research literature in terms of counterfactuals and alternative worlds.)

There are chapters here on:

  • Writing articles—”Your paper might be rejected once or twice before it finds a good home, but a good paper will always find a home.”
  • Writing books—”If you have something to say, write a book.”
  • Writing with style—”Your first drafts should sound like they were hastily translated from Icelandic by a nonnative speaker.”

But the crucial chapters are two, three, and four (pp. 11-57):

  • Chapter 2: “Specious Barriers to Writing a Lot”
  • Chapter 3: “Motivational Tools”
  • Chapter 4: “Starting Your Own Agraphia Group”

Silvia’s aim is to introduce the reader to “a practical system for becoming a productive academic writer.” He acknowledges the irony of writing such a short book on how to write a lot. But, he says, “there isn’t much to say. The system is simple.”

The “system” is indeed simple. It comes down to this. Create a manageable writing routine and stick to it. Specifics include:

  • Follow a schedule (a little writing every weekday, if possible).
  • Set long-term goals for completing writing projects.
  • Set concrete goals for each scheduled writing session.
  • Prioritize your writing.
  • Avoid binge writing.
  • Monitor your progress.
  • Permit yourself a measure of “windfall writing” when it comes naturally.
  • Always engage in some writing-related task during the scheduled writing session.
  • Settle for the simplest of writing implements to be sure you’re always able to write on schedule.
  • Be content with whatever writing environment you’re permitted by your circumstances.
  • Expect a flood of quality writing ideas as a result of regular writing.
  • Join an “agraphia” group.

All of this is excellent advice. Much of it is common sense, often repeated in “the literature” on writing. But such common sense is seldom practiced.

Here are three areas where Silvia’s book might have been stronger:

  1. His comments on writer’s block are slight and mildly dismissive. He’s onto something when he says that “scheduled writers don’t get writer’s block.” But even scheduled writers can be unproductive. This relates to my next point.
  2. He could say more about how to plan scheduled work so that it is completed on schedule. It isn’t enough to (a) decide on a project to be completed, (b) sit down to write regularly about that topic, and (c) set concrete goals for each writing session. Even if every concrete goal is mission critical, regular writing will not ensure project completion. A disciplined writer doesn’t just write daily (or whatever “regularly” means in his case). He writes towards completion of a project.
  3. He understates the value of style in academic writing. This is a bit surprising. Silvia himself writes with engaging style. And he devotes a chapter to style. But oddly, the chapter dedicated to the topic is preoccupied with aids to writing strong, clear sentences. This is a minimalist approach to style. It derives from the notion that “as academics, we’re not creating high literature” (p. 26). This outlook may enable the blocked academic writer. But I’m a strong advocate for writing that engages as it informs.

Most scholars, even the most-published ones I imagine, would like to be more productive writers. Paul Silvia presents a method that works. The book moves chapter by chapter through the standard barriers to productive, anxiety-free academic writing. It’s a quick read with much practical advice, some of it on points not mentioned here.

How to Get the Most Out of Your Kindle—Tip #3

Is it even possible to document references to works researched using your Kindle?

Sure. But the technique isn’t conventional. While there are no page numbers, there are location numbers for every line of text. These appear at the bottom of each Kindle page. And they remain constant regardless of the font size you adopt for reading.

So the only thing you have to do differently when documenting a quotation from the Kindle edition of a book is give the location number where you would indicate the page number of a standard book.

This issue has been thoroughly discussed at various sites, including Amazon’s own Kindle blog. Many who write about this seem to be ill-informed.

Some books exist only in e-book format; indeed, some exist only in Kindle format. E-books are legitimate sources of information. It ought to be possible to cite them and to do so accurately and clearly. Even an academic paper evaluating e-books and reporting research about their contents would have to include specific documentation, even if the researcher was arguing that they are not a legitimate form of information dissemination.

There are e-books aplenty, and scads of formats among them. The Kindle has a proprietary format. Amazon’s well-known presence and general reputation worldwide should ensure that this format comes to be widely accepted.

Kindle and the Purpose of Citations

Let’s remember why citations are required in the first place. First, and foremost, they give credit to whom credit is due. This is not merely a matter of paying respects. It is a matter of protecting someone else’s intellectual property.

A secondary reason for documentation is that it is an aid to readers who might wish to chase down the reference and study the larger context of what is cited.

Both of these objectives are easily accommodated by using location numbers for Kindle citations.

A Possible Liability and Its Remedy

One liability of referencing material as it appears in an e-book rather than a traditional book has directly to do with the variability of formats from one e-book publisher to another. Readers of material that cites an e-book will often have more difficulty finding the specific source.

A partial remedy is to be sure to indicate that the source you cite is the Kindle edition of a book. This will prevent confusion about which e-book is cited. But the Kindle is not yet ubiquitous. A majority of readers may not yet have access to one. So they’re a bit stuck until the Kindle becomes more widely used—as it surely will. They’re only a bit stuck, though, because they may not have much trouble following up on a citation within a traditional book version of the material.

What about Citing a Kindle Book for a Term Paper?

Some have advised students to take care to consult their teachers before citing a Kindle book in a research paper with footnotes and a bibliography. That’s not a bad idea.

I must say that if one of my students submitted a paper with Kindle book citations, and without first confirming my approval, I would be very reluctant to deprive her of that option. There’s nothing irresponsible about what she’s done. But the student should be certain that her teacher’s syllabus does not explicitly prohibit the citation of Kindle books.

What about Citing a Kindle Book in a Book or Article for Publication?

There should be no concern that an author risks being accused of plagiarism if he cites a Kindle book, as long as he provides all the information needed to confirm his source.

Publishers themselves often have special citation requirements, a standard way they handle each kind of citation for their books, journals, or magazines. It’s an author’s responsibility to provide all the necessary bibliographical details when submitting a manuscript for publication. It’s recommended that he use the publisher’s guidelines for formatting. If a publisher doesn’t address the question of formatting e-books, the author has two choices, enter the data in a format that can be understood and revised by the copy editor, or consult the publisher for guidelines about the matter.

If a publisher refuses to allow Kindle book citations, get another publisher. Alternatively, if there’s a good chance you’ll wish to cite a Kindle book in what you’ll be writing for a specific publisher, discuss it with the publisher before signing a contract. A publisher will most likely accommodate you, and even express their approval in the contract for publication.

A Future for Kindle Books Among Scholars

Every time I see my high school daughter leave for school with a book bag loaded with heavy textbooks I wonder how she manages. Wouldn’t it be great if she could get those same books on a Kindle and just carry that in a shoulder bag or something? All it would take would be for Amazon to perpare Kindle versions of those books.

I can assure you that Amazon is pursuing this avenue. As it is, they already have a growing list of textbooks available in Kindle version. I’ve been surprised to see many philosophical texts used at the university level available in this format. The day may come when a student can get every textbook on a Kindle . . . and get a substantial discount to boot.

Here’s an advantage that hits closer to home for me. If I wish to conduct sabbatical research at a remote location, it would be unrealistic if I had to ship all the books I think I might wish to consult. I have friends who have done this, but time and cost would be prohibitive for me.

What I might do, though, is browse the Kindle inventory at Amazon for books related to my research. I could download these before I leave on sabbatical, or on location while on sabbatical. The crucial thing for me would be to be able to quote accurately from a source of valuable material. A Kindle version would make that possible. After returning from sabbatical, I could, if I felt the need to, check my Kindle citations against traditional book editions and convert the documentation. (Or I could assign this to a research assistant.)

New to Kindle? Check it out here.

For a good resource on electronic documentation, see Diana Hacker’s book Research and Documentation in the Electronic Age

Related Posts:

Kindle Your Reading Habits

How to Get the Most Out of Your Kindle—Tip #1

How To Get the Most Out of Your Kindle—Tip #2

How to Get the Most Out of Your Kindle—Tip #4

Electronic Research Tools


This site simplifies the process of organizing citations for bibliographies and footnotes. eTurabian is a citation generator for printed resources and online and electronic resources based on Kate Turabian’s Manual for Writers. To generate the citation format for a particular source, go to eTurabian and select the link for the kind of source to be cited: book, journal article, magazine article, newspaper article, published music score, thesis or dissertation, website, or blog. The link will bring up a page with fields for entering the required bibliographical details. Fill in each field as appropirate and click on the “Submit” button. (There are two style options to choose from before clicking on “Submit”: Bibliography and Footnotes, and Reference List and Parentheticals.) eTurabian generates the correct format for your source, consistent with the standard Turabian style. For some types of sources (e.g., blogs), the click of another link on that page brings up other style options.

eTurabian has basic and advanced functions. Full performance requires an account. Throughout the eTurabian application there are links to information if a researcher has a question about a feature of the application or an aspect of proper citation. eTurabian also has a service called “Book Citation Express.” This service assists in formatting sources when data from an online library information for that source is cut and pasted into the deignated field in Book Citation Express

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