Avoiding Personal Bias in Educational Nonfiction
by Melissa Abramovitz
Most of my work involves writing educational nonfiction books and magazine articles for children and teenagers, and over the years I’ve learned that one of the most difficult aspects of this type of writing is keeping my personal opinions out of these books.
Whether the topic is controversial – as in a book about whether or not digital devices are turning people into antisocial monsters – or seemingly uncontroversial – as in a magazine article about weird sleeping habits in birds – it is amazingly easy for a writer to allow little bits of his or her personal values or beliefs to sneak into a manuscript.
After specializing in educational nonfiction for 30 years, I have learned to banish my biases from my work – most of the time.
If I fail to see an opinionated fragment in a first draft, I usually catch it while revising, but sometimes these little nuggets of personal bias are so subtle that I am unaware of them until an editor points them out.
The Evidence May Be Hiding
Why is evidence of bias so difficult to detect?
One reason is that sometimes the only evidence of a personal opinion lies in what an author leaves out, rather than what he or she includes.
For example, if I am writing a book about healthy eating and happen to personally believe the healthiest type of diet includes no animal products, I could allow this opinion to sneak into the book by neglecting to include information about the health benefits of meat and dairy products.
Or, I could include convincing quotes about the healthfulness of a vegan diet from prominent doctors, while including quotes about the virtues of eating beef from lay people or from practitioners who call them themselves holistic nutritionists, but have no medical license.
Naturally, most readers will respect the opinion of a prominent physician over that of an unlicensed quack, and in that way my bias could end up conveying misinformation or unfairly bolstering a particular argument.
I was unaware that I was guilty of this no-no in the first draft of a book I wrote for teenagers about the controversies surrounding stem cells.
Then, my editor pointed out that all the quotes to support arguments in favor of using embryonic stem cells in research were from respected scientists, while the quotes against this practice were from uneducated zealots.
My first reaction was that the only quotes I could find in the literature that represented the anti-stem-cell viewpoint were from religious fanatics.
When I pointed this out to the editor, she told me to dig deeper for some authoritative quotes and/or to find some scientists who opposed stem cell research and to interview them.
Sure enough, it took some digging, but I found some worthy scientists who opposed embryonic stem cell research and incorporated their ideas into the manuscript.
I then realized that my own bias had led me to wrongly assume that everyone opposed to stem cell research was a religious zealot, while those in favor were actual scientists.
I learned a good lesson, and was pleased when the editor told me that the final draft of the book gave her no clues about what my personal opinions were.
Dumbing Down Material
Another way in which some authors inadvertently convey their personal opinion is by trying to “dumb down” complicated material for children.
If I write “People have a little clock in their head that tells them when to sleep or wake up,” this dumbed-down concept tells kids that I, the author, think that they are incapable of understanding basic biology.
Can you sense the contempt in that sentence?
Of course, authors do not seek to tell children that they are not intelligent.
But that is what comes across when an author dumbs things down.
While it is true that children do not have the background knowledge or abstract-thinking capabilities that adults have, they are certainly not stupid, and if a particular subject is appropriate for a child of a particular age, a writer can certainly simplify difficult concepts so the child can understand them, without conveying the attitude that kids are stupid.
In the example above, I would use correct terms, along with a pronunciation guide and definitions to achieve this.
Something like, “A group of nerve cells in your brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus [SOO-prah-kie-az-matt-ick NOO-clee-us] works like a master clock and tells your body when to sleep and wake up.”
Naturally, this topic would not be appropriate for a five-year-old, but there is no reason why a nine or ten year-old cannot understand it if it is presented correctly and the child feels that the author respects his or her capabilities.
One Biased Word
Sometimes a single, seemingly-innocuous word can reveal an author’s bias, so it’s important to look for this type of faux pas as well.
For example, if I write, “Even with fifteen task forces trying to address the problem of global warming, the federal government has made little progress toward solutions,” the word problem injects bias into the sentence because it reveals that I consider global warming to be a problem.
Even if 100 percent of the people in this country view global warming as a problem, I as an author should still not reveal my opinion.
The correct way of stating this in an unbiased way would be to use the word issue instead of problem.
Unless a nonfiction author is an expert on the topic being discussed, it is important for him or her to beware of letting personal opinions intrude in any way on an objective presentation.
Being aware of the many ways in which personal bias can sneak into a manuscript is the best defense against letting this happen.
About Melissa Abramovitz
Melissa Abramovitz is an award-winning freelance writer/author who specializes in writing educational nonfiction books and magazine articles for all age groups, from preschoolers through adults.
She also writes short stories, poems, and picture books, and is the author of the book for writers, A Treasure Trove of Opportunity: How to Write and Sell Articles for Children’s Magazines.
Melissa graduated from the University of California, San Diego with a degree in psychology and is also a graduate of The Institute of Children’s Literature.
She is a member of SCBWI and The Working Writer’s Club.
Visit her website at www.melissaabramovitz.com.