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Hedging Our Bets: Using Politeness in Editorial Comments to Get Results

By Myles Cryer | Student Member

Thanks to the efficiency and ubiquitous nature of the Internet, online editing has become a common way for technical editors to converse and collaborate with writers. No longer is it necessary to deliver printed copies of documents with editorial marks, or even to meet with writers in person. But because common modes of virtual communication can obscure the subtleties of body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice, they can increase the likelihood that an author might misunderstand our suggestions. Therefore, technical editors need to understand how online editorial comments function rhetorically: we have to balance the need to convey our suggestions accurately and persuasively with the need to respect an author’s personal stake in the writing process and end product.

In this article, I illustrate how Advisors on the product-review website Epinions.com use politeness in their editorial comments. I discuss the ways that technical editors can look to Advisors’ hedged suggestions for help in creating rhetorically effective suggestions in their own interactions with writers. An example of a hedged Advisor comment is below:

You have a great start to your review, but it may be even more helpful if you could include some additional product information and personal experience.

Further, this article supports prior research on politeness strategies and hedges, and contributes to technical editors’ diverse toolbox.

Epinions.com and Advisors

Epinions is a popular review site that offers member reviews of products and services. The site enlists the help of Advisors—specialists in specific categories such as Electronics and Home and Garden. Epinions grants the “recognition” of the Advisor status to members who have proven their ability to give advice about achieving maximally helpful reviews. Like technical editors, Advisors give suggestions related to audience expectations for content, organization, grammar and sentence structure, formatting, and mechanical issues such as capitalization and spelling. Advisors provide their advice in comments that they attach to reviews. Reviewers then have the option to revise and update their reviews to address the suggestions. Thus, Advisors contribute to the discourse community’s goal of providing information that allows for better purchasing decisions, acting as reader advocates.

A Study of Advisors’ Comments

Recently, I analyzed politeness in 72 Advisor comments that were attached to 59 product reviews. I counted the politeness strategies that Advisors used as they tried to persuade reviewers to revise and update their reviews (see Table 1).

Language Strategy Definition Example
Hedging Uses ambiguous or noncommittal language. “You have a great start to your review but it may be even more helpful if you could include some additional product information and personal experience.”
Praise Compliments writer on a particular aspect of his/her review. “You brought up a very good point about the material used for construction. Thanks for sharing what you found out about this mixer.”
Welcome Welcomes reviewer to the site. “Welcome to Epinions! It’s nice to have you here, and I’m looking forward to more of your reviews.”
Connection Extends an invitation for further communication or assistance. “If I can be of any assistance, please contact me at my email address found at my profile.”

Table 1. The Language Strategies Analyzed in the 72 Advisor Comments

Out of the 59 reviews in the study, 26 had been updated by reviewers, and 33 had not. My goal was to see which strategies co-occurred with revised and updated reviews.

I analyzed both positive and negative politeness strategies. Positive politeness strategies such as compliments generate a sense of rapport or solidarity. I found that in their comments, Advisors used the positive politeness strategies of creating personal connections (e.g., “Should you have any questions, feel free to email me”), welcoming the reviewer to the site (e.g., “Just wanted to say welcome to the site”), and praising reviewers for some aspect of their writing (e.g., “Good job. You’ve covered the bases and provided good info for the prospective buyer”). In contrast, negative politeness strategies soften the “threat” of the suggestion. Hedges such as perhaps and kind of are examples of negative politeness strategies.

Both positive and negative politeness strategies help maintain goodwill and are important even in conversations such as editing sessions where suggestions are necessary and expected. Such strategies help writers maintain a positive view of their writing and of themselves as writers, and consequently help motivate writers to revise and improve their writing.

Advisors’ Use of Hedges

Advisors used the negative politeness strategy of hedges more in updated reviews than in nonupdated reviews. Out of 32 Advisor comments on updated reviews, 20 (66%) contained hedges; in contrast, out of 40 Advisor comments on nonupdated reviews, only 13 (33%) contained hedges. More importantly, taking into account only reviews that contained an editorial suggestion, 22 updated reviews contained a hedged comment, while only 11 nonupdated reviews contained a hedged comment.

The positive politeness strategies of connection, welcome, and praise did not seem to be associated with updating. Even so, prior research attests to the usefulness of positive politeness. Such strategies aid in the endeavor of building and maintaining goodwill.

What These Findings Mean for Technical Editors

Just as Advisors used hedges in their comments attached to reviews, technical editors can employ hedges in the marginal comments that they provide to authors. For example, in the following comment, the Advisor uses the lexical hedges perhaps and could to persuade the reviewer to add extra information to the review, while avoiding the implication that the reviewer’s writing is wrong:

Perhaps you could add a few details to help the reader get a better idea of how this fridge operates.

Advisors also used phrasal hedges to make their advice more palatable. Here, the Advisor uses the phrasal hedge I think to indicate that the suggestion is simply an opinion for the reviewer to consider as opposed to a command that the reviewer is obliged to follow:

I think our Epinion [sic] readers would benefit from a little more information on the product.

Conclusion

Why do Epinions Advisors care that reviews are revised and updated? After all, Advisors do not hold paid positions; they perform their duties in their spare time. Why do they dedicate hours of their time trying to convince reviewers to edit for accuracy, completeness, and correctness? Like technical editors, they do it out of concern for the reader’s needs. In the Epinions discourse community, members consider review writing to be a knowledge-building action that contributes to the overall repository of collected knowledge. Like editors in their work, Advisors participate in building a more informative and more usable web of knowledge.

That is why technical editors can learn some valuable lessons from Advisors. The comments of these online peer editors reveal that effective use of politeness strategies—particularly lexical, phrasal, and syntactic hedges—correlates with motivating writers to act on editorial advice.

Hedges signal that the writer maintains control over the document and, thus, they can help keep writers invested in the editorial process. Since hedges come in many forms, technical editors can choose the hedge that fits the situation.

Myles Cryer (mylescryer@att.net) is a graduate teaching assistant in the Master of Technical and Professional Communication (MTPC) program at Auburn University. The above study was performed while working as a research assistant for Dr. Jo Mackiewicz in her studies on Advisor language in review comments on Epinions.com. Special thanks to Dr. Mackiewicz for her constant advice and editorial persistence, without whom this study and article could not have been possible.

Suggested Reading

Brown, P., and S. C. Levinson. Politeness: Some Universals in Language Use. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 1987.

Mackiewicz, J. Epinions Advisors as Technical Editors: Using Politeness to Motivate Comprehensive Editing. Journal of Business and Technical Communication 25.2 (2011): 421–228.

Mackiewicz, J., and K. Riley. The Technical Editor as Diplomat: Linguistic Strategies for Balancing Clarity and Politeness. Technical Communication 50.1 (2003): 83–94.

Markkanen, R., and H. Schröder. Hedging and Discourse: Approaches to the Analysis of a Pragmatic Phenomenon in Academic Texts. New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1997.

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