Ask yourself: Why is the author telling me this? Why
is he selecting the specific facts and drawing the specific conclusions that he is? What is the author's agenda?
It may not be to overthrow
the world, but there's always some reason the author wrote the
passage. Often, passages will have a policy idea or a suggestion
to fix a problem described in the text. Sometimes, the author might simply want
to educate people about a subject or clear up a misconception. And
other times, there will be a more political/ideological motive for the
claims being made.
Academic camouflage — confusing, assertive, or jargon-intensive writing — will often disguise the main idea. Writers try to sound objective, but don't let that fool you. The author always wants to convince you of something, or at least get you to learn something from the passage.
Be careful to distinguish fact from opinion.
Though they look like facts, some statements in the passage may be false
claims or unsupported opinions loaded with bias. Academics are “idea
salesmen” and very tactful ones at that. They will write their
persuasive and heavily biased essays in a manner that makes them seem factual.
Pay close attention to the language used — in each sentence, and in the passage overall — in order to distinguish fact from
opinion. The author's purpose in writing the essay and his or her
convictions are found in these subtle statements of opinion.
For example take these excerpts from a passage on water management. Some of the author's statements are fact, but many are
|"One of the most persistently troubling aspects of national domestic policy is the development and use of water resources."
most troubling" indicates feeling, not fact. The author's
opinion is that the development of water resources is one
of the most troubling aspects of national domestic policy.
This is not necessarily the ultimate truth. Some people may
not think that development of water resources is problematic.
|"In the arid parts of the land, it has recently become clear that climate varies over time, with irregular periods of serious drought followed by wet periods marked by occasional floods."
||FACT: This statement is a review of recent scientific findings about climate. No opinion here. However, the author is using data regarding drought periods to back up later claims about water being mismanaged. (Note: the phrase "it has recently become clear" indicates a generally accepted finding; it's clear to everyone, not just to the author. )
|"Again and again these shortcomings have proved to be the consequences of inadequate study of water flow: of soil, of factors other than construction technology and of faulty organization."
statement, though written in a professional and almost aggressive
manner, is loaded with bias. "Again and again" indicates
frustration on the author's part, as does the word "inadequate."
The author is sure that administrative failure has caused
"inadequate study” of water flow. (Note: while the word "proved" might
seem to indicate a factual scientific finding, as used here
the phrase "have proved" actually means something
like "appear to be.")
"In 1959, the Senate Select Committee on National Water Resources found that twenty different national commissions or committees charged with examining these problems and seeking solutions had emphasized with remarkable consistency the need for coordination among agencies dealing with water."
|FACT: The author is citing specific research conducted by a Senate committee. He or she is using these findings to back up the claim that water is mismanaged due to administrative failure. However, this statement, alone, contains no opinion. (Hint: names, dates and times - such as "in 1959" or "when John Smith..." or "in 19th century Russia" - almost always indicate statements of fact, unless specifically noted otherwise.)
Every author has a purpose. The author's purpose
may be found in subtle statements of opinion. Pay close attention
to language that indicates conviction, so that you can distinguish statements
of opinion from statements of fact.