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What's the solution for "language being subjective" affecting readability? To write more concisely or what?

To me it seems like knowing how to make a "well understood" text seems like lottery.

What techniques can be used to make them more universally appealing?

Something related:

Why are research papers hard to read? https://scienceandword.com/why-are-research-papers-hard-to-read/

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    What is the context of this comment? Subjective language is totally fine in fiction, but unacceptable in academic writing, or at worst, unprofessional in non-fiction
    – veryverde
    Dec 18, 2021 at 20:32
  • The question here is unclear. What are you trying to write? Is it fiction, non-fiction or academic as per @MichalBurgunder’s comment? Dec 18, 2021 at 23:21
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – linksassin
    Dec 23, 2021 at 11:54

3 Answers 3

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Here are a few thoughts:

Math is rigorous, so use math.

The field of math has a very specific idea of what "rigorous" means. It's a technical term that describes a mathematical argument that is totally correct and logically sound. It should not come as a surprise that rigor is highly valued by mathematicians!

There are a couple upshots of this. One is that if you use well-understood mathematical techniques correctly, or if you are a skilled mathematician making a sound argument, you more or less get rigor baked in. And other another upshot is that when your writing relies heavily on mathematics - not just raw statistics but making the painstaking effort to thoroughly analyze those statistics with the most appropriate mathematical tools possible - your language becomes as maximally concrete and unambiguous as mathematics can make it.

Language is always a matter of interpretation to some degree. It's impossible to directly implant one of your thoughts into someone else's brain. But mathematical rigor strips away as much of that ambiguity as humanity has figured out how to thus far.

Facts are objective. Interpretation is subjective.

If your goal is to make an argument that something is true - which, ultimately, is the goal of every academic paper ever published - then at some point, you will have to interpret your results or research. This necessarily involves making subjective statements that can be argued against. This is to be expected and is fine.

The best way to handle this is by being utterly objective when describing the facts that form the foundation for your argument. I'm sure you've noticed by now that scientific papers are astonishingly specific and thorough about describing the processes they used to carry out their experiments and presenting the raw data results of those experiment. They are also consistently structured so that discussions of whether the results confirm the hypotheses and what they mean are very clearly separated from the sections on methodology and measured results.

It's not just enough for academic papers to report the results - the methodology sections also give the maximal context for the results. The methodology gives the facts for the implied subjective argument that the results of the experiment are trustworthy.

In the end, readers of papers know that the authors are highly motivated to paint their results in the best possible light. Cynically, this is the consequence of publish or perish culture. But there's a more optimistic - and more realistic - way to think about it. Which brings me to:

Trust your readers to interpret your writing in good faith.

When someone reads an academic paper, they are absolutely reading it with a critical eye. At the minimum, they are asking themselves whether the research is relevant to their own interests. But more often than not, they're also asking questions like: What are the next steps in the field? Where does the argument fall apart so we can consider ways to shore up the argument ourselves or more carefully carve out the precise understanding of our field? Do the results have political or ethical or philosophical implications or assumptions that we want to challenge or support? And in some infrequent cases, poorly-carried out experiments get published, and readers want to be able to sniff those papers out.

When an academic paper both confidently argues its interpretations of the data and carefully lays out the objective results of its experiment, the paper is being deeply respectful of the reader. The assumption is that the reader is smart enough to come to their own conclusions and decide for themselves what they think of the interpretation. Both aspects are important. A confident argument gives the reader something to consider and evaluate, but that is meaningless if the data is obscured or misrepresented, preventing the reader from having the context to form their own thoughts.

Don't feel bad about making subjective statements in your papers as long as you provide the facts to back them up. Your readers are smart enough to notice when you do so.

Jargon is your friend.

Jargon gets a bad rep because it's so opaque and awkward-sounding to people who do not already understand it. But if you're writing an academic paper, you're writing to people who already understand the field deeply - or at least are willing to take the time to teach themselves what they need to know. So write to your audience. And if you want your writing to be as objective as possible, jargon is an immensely powerful tool.

At the core, every jargon word ever coined refers to an exceedingly specific idea. Jargon really is clunky to read and say, so jargon only ever really establishes itself in a field when the same kind of idea shows up often enough that people truly need a way to refer to it quickly. So you have two options: Avoid using jargon and try to explain things in vague language that cannot possibly capture all the relevant nuance without derailing the entire paper, or use a single word that your readers understand completely and cannot possibly misinterpret.

My answer has a good example of this! "Rigor" is a piece of mathematical jargon. I defined the word once in case you haven't seen it used in that context before, and then I referred to it repeatedly in my discussion about how math can make your writing more objective. Without using the term "rigor," that section would have been considerably more verbose - and dramatically less concrete.


I don't really have a good summary. These four ideas don't cover every aspect of objectivity versus subjectivity in language. In the end, though, if you present the raw facts while being careful to be as honest and mathematically correct as possible, you can make your subjective arguments afterwards and your readers will be smart enough to know the difference and form their own reasonable opinions.

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Writing is always a tension between three competing needs:

  • Precision: saying what one means as exactly as possible
  • Accessibility: saying what one means in language that others can understand
  • Aesthetics: saying what one means in ways that other people want to engage with

Academic disciplines tend to over-value precision, in the sense that they create a shared jargon: terms and phrases that represent subtle, abstract principles and concepts. For instance, quantum physicists use the words 'charm' and 'strange' in discipline-specific ways that confuse most lay people, and modern critical philosophy introduces terms like 'deconstruction', 'facticity', and 'unpacking' that might take a few pages to explain properly to someone outside the field.

But at any rate, finding a balance between these three needs is what makes language subjective. There's no 'solution' to the problem in any absolute sense; we wrestle with it, time after time, and hopefully learn from both our failures and our successes. The most important thing is to listen to criticism dispassionately. We don't write for ourselves, we write for others, and others are more than willing to tell us wha they want.

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  • Yes, I think this grasps it, but there's still no clear answer to what the solution is.
    – mavavilj
    Dec 20, 2021 at 17:38
  • @mavavilj: There is no 'solution', any more than there's a 'solution' to the problem of walking on a balance beam. You just work it out. Dec 21, 2021 at 18:28
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This seems to be the core of your problem:

I've produced texts that some claimed hard to understand. I have no trouble understanding them.

Can you spot what is wrong with that statement?

When you read your own text, you already know what you wanted to say with it. You don't actually have to understand it at all. Understanding is a process by which a person comes into the posession of the meaning of something – they "grasp" the meaning –, which before that understanding they didn't have. You already know what your text is supposed to say, and of course that is the meaning you are reminded of when you "read" your own text, giving you an illusion of understanding.

What you lack – maybe not when you interact with people, but in your writing – is called theory of mind. Theory of mind means that you understand that other people have a mind distinct from your own, and that their minds don't contain the knowledge that is contained in your mind. Children commonly begin to gain theory of mind at around four to five years of age and fully master it at around the beginning of puberty. Before that age, children often expect you to know what they mean, and they get angry when you fail to understand them. People with autism often do not acquire theory of mind completely.

What follows from theory of mind is the understanding that you have to communicate your thoughts, if you want others to know them. And communication – in the sense of a transference of meaning from one mind to another – requires:

  • words used with an agreed upon meaning (in science, this is called "definition")
  • language that follows common conventions (e.g. of grammar and style)
  • an argument that is structured in a comprehensible manner (in science arguments typically follow a logical structure)

I recommend to you that you read Writing the Empirical Journal Article by Daryl Bem, available online at https://psychology.yale.edu/sites/default/files/bemempirical.pdf

It is directed as psychologists, buts its principles apply to all scholarly fields. Here is a quote:

For Whom Should You Write?

Scientific journals are published for specialized audiences who share a common background of substantive knowledge and methodological expertise. If you wish to write well, you should ignore this fact. Psychology encompasses a broader range of topics and methodologies than do most other disciplines, and its findings are frequently of interest to a wider public. The social psychologist should be able to read a Psychometrika article on logistic analysis; the personality theorist, a biopsychology article on hypothalamic function; and the congressional aide with a BA in history, a Journal of Personality and Social Psychology article on causal attribution.

Accordingly, good writing is good teaching. Direct your writing to the student in Psychology 101, your colleague in the Art History Department, and your grandmother. No matter how technical or abstruse your article is in its particulars, intelligent nonpsychologists with no expertise in statistics or experimental design should be able to comprehend the broad outlines of what you did and why. They should understand in general terms what was learned. And above all, they should appreciate why someone – anyone – should give a damn. The introduction and discussion sections in particular should be accessible to this wider audience.

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  • Yes but I also read other people's texts and find that, well these are hard to understand. The question is not so naive. Further I've read texts from people with 30 years or something experience while knowing the professional language and still finding that "these could have been structured so, so much better". Such texts also utilized undefined language, which I consider much more naive problem than being too creative with sentences or something. Again suggesting that I'm not sure what is meant by "good structure".
    – mavavilj
    Dec 20, 2021 at 17:25

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