That works if you’re writing an essay about the theme of lightness and dark in Romeo and Juliet. But it does not work for (social) scientific writing.
Okay, there are exceptions. Even in scientific writing, you should not start every sentence with “however” or use “the authors examined” in every other sentence. But, you should not vary between the terms “girl” and “young woman” and “female child” if you are writing about the same person or category of persons.
Think about writing in the biological or medical sciences. Let’s say you’re writing a paper about the properties of human papillomavirus (HPV). You would not want to vary the terms you use in place of HPV, or else you would get a paragraph like this:
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the United States (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2012). The virus that causes cervical cancer is highest among women aged 20 to 24 years (Dunne et al., 2007), an age range when many young Americans attend college. The most common sexually transmitted disease is spread through genital skin-to-skin contact during sexual activity (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2012).
Instead, you would want to use “HPV” each and every time you were referring to HPV, to avoid confusion:
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the United States (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2012). HPV infection is highest among women aged 20 to 24 years (Dunne et al., 2007), an age range when many young Americans attend college. HPV is spread through genital skin-to-skin contact during sexual activity (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2012).
Is the second one amazingly eloquent? No. Is it clear? Yes.
Similarly, when you vary the term you use for a group of people or for a construct, you confuse the reader. If you write about “girls” in one sentence and “young women” in the next, the reader might wonder if you’re describing two different age groups. If you write about peer relationships in one sentence and peer interactions in the next, readers might think you are trying to distinguish these constructs.
Whenever I edit my own work, I read through thinking about what terminology I’m using to describe groups and constructs. I make sure to pick a specific term for each group/construct, and then I do a search for all uses of the terms I didn’t pick. That doesn’t mean that I can never use the other terms, but I want to make sure I’m using my terminology with intention. It’s obviously better to make these choices before writing, and I do try to do that, but sometimes other terms slip in, or there’s a reason to change the terms I use.
Here are a few examples of groupings of terms that I have recently seen used interchangeably, in my own writing or in others’, which has led to confusion or lack of clarity:
· Well being/mental health/psychological well being
· Sexual behavior/sexual behaviors/sexual experiences/penetrative sex/vaginal sex/sexual activity/sexual encounters
· Young adults/emerging adults/ late adolescents/young people/youth
· Wave 2/2nd Wave/Time 2
It’s confusing because as a reader, it’s not clear if the writer conceptualizes young adulthood as a separate phase from emerging adulthood. It’s not clear if the author considers mental health and well being to be interchangeable or distinct constructs. By the way, writing this sentence, I first wrote “distinct” twice, thought it was too repetitive, and changed one to separate. There, repetition is unnecessary.
A good way to improve your ability to be consistent in terminology is to edit other people’s work. We tend to notice inconsistency in others’ work more than in our own, because in our own writing, our intentions are clear to ourselves. When we read someone else’s work, difficulty with following terminology becomes more apparent.
“The post Intentional writing part 1: Use consistent terms first appeared on Eva Lefkowitz’s Blog on November 6, 2013.”