Say What You Really Mean and Avoid Value Judgements

Photo by: Patrick Tomasso

The most common feedback I give my students with their writing is: Be specific! That is always our goal, isn’t it? To compose with the 3 C’s: Clarity, Conciseness, and Coherence. So often, general statements muddy a composition, making it difficult to understand what claims are actually being made, and therefore impossible to distinguish the purpose of the writing. Part of the problem here is that when we hear the term opinion, we think evaluation: “good” or “bad.” But these are value judgements, and ironically, do nothing to add value to your writing. Omitting value judgements from your writing can improve the 3C’s and allow you to communicate more effectively.

By definition, a value judgement is: a judgment of the rightness or wrongness of something or someone, or of the usefulness of something or someone, based on a comparison or other relativity. As a generalization, a value judgment can refer to a judgment based upon a particular set of values or on a particular value system.

Some examples of value judgements include: good, bad, better, best, wrong, right, worst, best, etc. Basically, you are assigning value to something in a subjective, ambiguous manner.

Value judgements are problematic for a myriad of reasons. Firstly, think about the word judgement and its negative connotation–it is one thing to have an opinion, it’s another to use that opinion as weapon. Secondly, value is totally subjective. What value system are you making your judgements by?

Step outside of your writing for a moment and understand the context. Who are your readers? Who are you to your readers? Assigning value to a topic, subject or argument is not inclusive and can offend, alienate, or disregard entire audience groups. This is where empathy and narrative-based learning can help provide insight to others’ experiences and why it is so important to consider different perspectives. “Good” weather to a surfer in Southern California, for example, is not “good” weather to an ice-fisher in Michigan. As Morticia Addams famously said: “Normal is an illusion. What is normal for the spider is chaos for the fly.” Value judgements then open up your writing for misinterpretation, giving your readers the opportunity to misconstrue your overall point.

Aside from lacking empathy and possible alienating audience groups, value judgements simply do not say much. They are often used as fillers that provide a shallow opinion of a general topic. Value judgements usually spark more questions! Good, how? Good, to whom? Good, why? These generic, shallow statements are not claims at all, but shadows of opinion that dim your writing and obscure what you are trying to communicate.

Ask yourself or your students: What do you mean by ‘good’? ‘Bad’ to whom? Think of precise adjectives that illustrate exactly what you are trying to say in the context of your writing. Instead of “good” think: effective, positive, encouraging, convincing, secure etc. Instead of “bad” think: harmful, destructive, dangerous, ineffective, etc. Choose a different descriptor that actually adds value to your overall point and the argument or statement you are trying to make.

This also applies to creative writing practice when it comes to using value judgements in the form of generic descriptors. When you describe something as “beautiful,” you are creating more questions as to how? To whom? Why?

When we think of writing as communication, the need for saying what you mean is easier to practice.

This practice goes beyond writing in an academic setting. As parents, we should say what we mean to our children too, and teach them to communicate effectively. Rather than tell them good job–mean what you say! When you ask your child how their day was, and they respond with good… ask them to explain how and why. Teaching literacy in this moment, including vocabulary, deep thinking, and communication skills will help them transfer the concept to their writing and academics. Encouraging literacy practice off the page will help to deepen learning capacity and improve the link between meaningful communication and writing.

Even in our personal relationships, we know how important it is to say what we mean—in our families, workplaces, friendships, partnerships—we know we should always communicate our needs and opinions precisely. It is no different with writing.

I encourage you to spend the entire day avoiding value judgements: start with removing “good” and “bad” from your vocabulary and say what you really mean.

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