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Your writing needs to be as accurate and unambiguous as possible, to allow your reader to follow and evaluate your arguments. In a supervision, you may have the opportunity to clarify any areas which were not initially clear for your reader, and it might be a useful strategy to note where in your essay your supervisor asks for clarification, so that you can identify any stylistic areas for improvement. Ultimately, however, your writing will need to stand alone. In academic writing, it is the writer's responsibility to ensure that their meaning is interpreted; in this sense, academic texts are very different from the literary texts you are studying, in which the reader's role is much greater.

Using terminology

One feature which is frequently associated with academic writing is its use of terminology and very detailed definition of terms. Academic writers make frequent use of words which are not commonly used in everyday language, or words which have a specialist meaning other than the everyday sense. This can appear very off-putting to non-academic readers, and academic terminology is often seen as 'jargon', deliberately obscuring meaning and excluding the reader. Used inappropriately, this can indeed be the case, when a writer is not clear what a term means, or what they themselves mean by it, and it can make a text needlessly unreadable and obscure. It is not in itself a way of making your writing sound more formal or impressive; it is simply a way of communicating directly and succinctly to others in your field. Terminology is useful because academic writers need to be able to refer concisely and with great precision to specialist concepts. You may well need to look up and learn new terms, but once you know them, you can use them fluently as shorthand. However, if terminology is used to obscure meaning to make the writer seem more sophisticated, then it has not achieved its purpose.

Terminology can include both words which are not part of everyday usage (for example, 'hermaneutic', 'iamb', 'discourse'), or those which have additional, very specific meanings on top of their general one (for example, 'Gothic', 'meter', 'tragedy'. However, used appropriately, the correct terminology is a way to convey to your reader with great precision exactly what you mean; terminology refers to a very specialised concept within your subject and is a language shared with others in that discipline. It is only obscure to those outside your subject. It is important to demonstrate that you do share the meaning of the term, by using it accurately and defining it where appropriate (especially in critical terminology where different theorists may have slightly different understandings).

Avoiding generalisations

If you bear in mind the need to be precise and clear, to be cautious about the conclusions you draw and to use hedging language appropriately when expressing them, then this will help you to avoid making "sweeping" generalisations - statements which are so broad that they are either unsupportable or meaningless. Such generalisations are particularly common in essay introductions, where the writer is attempting to establish the literary or historical context for the texts under discussion, whereas in reality, the context is far more complex and cannot be so neatly summed up. 

 

Activity

Read the following text and identify the sweeping generalisations made:

The Renaissance was an age of great turmoil and change in terms of politics, religion and attitudes to learning. At the heart of most conflicts of the time was the desire of each side to exert their will over the other, whether it be running the country or changing their religious views (and quite often both together). The struggle for power over others and also over the self was a strong element of the consciousness of the age and was much explored through drama, particularly in the plays of Christopher Marlowe. His protagonists consistently strive to to be more than they are and more than anyone around them, and in the cases of Dr Faustus and Tamburlaine ostensibly succeed in their quest for dominance. However, Marlowe shows there to be a wide gap between ambition of power and truly holding it, exploring its sources and nature through his character's attempts to attain it.

 

Feedback:

  • There are few historical periods of which it could not be said that they are 'an age of great turmoil and change', and thus it is meaningless to characterise the Renaissance in this way. Moreover, any historical period may be used to describe the context over a number of decades or in a number of countries or societies, and what is true of some decades or countries may not apply to all.
  • 'the desire of each side to exert their will over the other' is arguably at the heart of any conflict, and as such it is a somewhat meaningless statement.
  • Discussion of a 'consciousness of the age' shared by all at the time is a very problematic assertion to make.
  • The statement that this struggle for power was 'much explored through drama' is also too broad without a survey of Renaissance drama, and it may indeed not be necessary for the purposes of this essay to compare Marlowe in terms of the themes treated by other dramatists, or to prove that he is typical.

To avoid or amend generalisations in your work, you might try interrogating your writing with the following questions:

  • what exactly do I mean by that?
  • How would I know or measure that?
  • is that statement true of all, or even of a majority of cases?

Read the text above again, and see if you can answer these questions. Do you need to quantify or define the generalisations further, or do they need to be left out?