Blogging about writing this past week, I’ve become more self-conscious of my own writing. As apparently have my current grad students, one of whom wrote this week and said: “Each of us in the lab thinks that we alone must have inspired your comments.” So yes, each of my current students have broken some of the guidelines I’ve discussed, but so have all of my former students, my colleagues, and every student whose paper I have ever graded.
And so have I. Despite my increased self-consciousness, I emailed a manuscript draft to a current student just as I was publishing blog posts about writing. The student, a co-author on the manuscript, sent it back with many comments, including many inconsistencies in my construct terminology. I had definitely checked my own work, though clearly not enough times. Although we all want to send our very best work out every time we hit “send,” better for a co-author to find problems than a reviewer. So, please read these posts while keeping a little song in the back of your head – one I always sing to my kids in times of frustration over lack of perfection.
Working on my own work while writing about intentional writing also has made me aware of exceptions to some of my guidelines. So do recognize that I’m not saying you have to follow each of these guidelines in every single sentence – sometimes there are stylistic, argument-relevant, parsimony, or wording reasons to deviate from these rules. But do so intentionally.
Today I want to discuss vague writing. I caught a couple of instances in my own writing this week, for instance, something like:
“College students who drink alcohol more tend to engage in more sexual behavior.”
Huh? “Drink alcohol more” isn’t ideal, because it’s not totally clear what I mean. More frequently, or more servings of alcohol? However, I could argue that if I meant more servings, I would write “drink more alcohol” so maybe I can let it slide. However, “engage in more sexual behavior” is quite vague. What kind of sexual behavior? Vaginal? Oral? Kissing? What does “more” mean? More frequently? More partners? More frequently with the same partner or more frequently with different partners? No way to know.
When you write with intention, you should be certain that your sentences convey exactly what you mean. If you write something vague, the reader may interpret it differently from your intention, leading to confusion.
Here are some examples of the types of vague statements I frequently encounter, and how to improve them:
- Researchers have studied parent-adolescent communication in a number of different ways.
- What ways?
- Better: Researchers have studied parent-adolescent communication using adolescent self-report, parent self-report, and, less frequently, naturalistic or lab-based observations of parents and adolescents.
- Time spent with deviant peers is associated with a number of different outcomes.
- Even if you’re about to describe those outcomes, try to be more specific in your intro sentence – negative outcomes (still pretty vague)? Psychological or behavioral outcomes? Both? More description in the sentence that leads the paragraph will frame the rest of the paragraph, making it easier to read, because the reader knows what to expect.
- Better: Time spent with deviant peers is associated with negative psychological, behavioral, and social outcomes during adolescence.
- Research suggests that romantic relationships have important implications for adolescents.
- What aspects of romantic relationships? What implications?
- Better: Research suggests that romantic relationship quality during adolescence has implications for mental health, attachment orientation, and romantic relationship quality in adulthood.
- Our sample included only college students from one university. Future research should address this issue.
- Okay. But why? How?
- Better: Future studies should consider asking similar questions among students at universities in different geographic regions, 2-year colleges, private universities, online universities, non-residential students, as well as among individuals who are not attending college. For instance, perceived alcohol-sex links may be less positive and more negative among students at campuses with more conservative attitudes toward alcohol use and/or sex, such as religiously sponsored universities.
- This work will make an important contribution to the literature.
- Everyone thinks their work will make an important contribution to the literature. Tell us why.
- Better: This paper makes an important contribution to the literature, by examining HIV testing in a high risk but understudied population, and by including longitudinal data to predict HIV testing from attitudes and behaviors in earlier adolescence.
By using more specific language, readers will know exactly what you plan to do, how, and why. Once again, making it easier to follow your paper, and ending with an overall sense of what you did, how, and why.
“The post Intentional writing part 3: Vanquish the vague first appeared on Eva Lefkowitz’s blog on November 12, 2013.”