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  • Writer's pictureCatie Phares

Three shortcuts to clearer writing: Shortcut #1—Define terms at first use

Clarity reigns supreme in academic writing. Engagement and resonance are tied for close seconds (in my editing framework, anyway), but above all, a reader must understand what they’re reading in order to be convinced of anything.

That’s why my next three blog posts are going to share three user-friendly shortcuts to dramatically improve the clarity of any research-based document. Each of these steps should take less than 15 minutes to implement in your draft—with outsized results for clarity and readability.

Let’s start with the first editorial step I take in about 90% of the papers I edit. 

Shortcut #1: Define terms the first time they appear

One of the most useful hacks for increased clarity is to ensure that you define or explain every important new term on its first use. Note that at least a few of your key terms will actually need this treatment twice: once in the abstract (which is considered its own standalone “thing”) and once in the paper itself. 

I’ve done this to at least a few terms in virtually every document I’ve edited over the last 14 years. I’ll read through the introduction, flag terms that are clearly important but not defined or explained when they first appear, and go find their explanations somewhere else in the paper; they’re usually somewhere in the theory/literature review section. Then I’ll move those definitions or explanations up to the first mention of the term in question—being sure to delete the original spot so there’s no duplicated text (nothing worse than inadvertently repeating yourself!). 

Here’s a made-up example of what this looks like in action, from the introduction of a nonexistent paper theorizing about why homes with cats experience greater destruction of personal property:

To answer these questions, we integrate two opposing perspectives: the “untrained cats” perspective and the “mischievous cats” perspective. Integrating these theories allows us to develop a third theory, referred to as the “combo-kitty” perspective. By using this lens, we can predict the destruction of personal property according to the presence (or absence) of feline occupants in the home. 

As you can see, in just three sentences, I’ve already lost my reader, right? And it’s not just because I’ve had to create a nonsensical research topic involving destructive kitties to avoid sharing real work that I’ve edited. It’s because I’ve decided to assume that you, the reader, know just as much as I do about a variety of terms and theories in my “field” of feline destruction. Rather than taking you by the hand so you can follow my train of thought in a new direction, this short passage leaves you with a frustrating list of questions instead:

  • What’s the “untrained cats” perspective? 

  • What’s the “mischievous cats” perspective? 

  • What do I mean by the “combo-kitty” perspective? 

You might argue that an intelligent reader could probably work out the answers to those questions themselves, especially if they keep reading. But why would they? They’re almost certainly overwhelmed and exhausted (most readers are these days—but especially journal editors and reviewers). Don’t give them the work of figuring out what you mean; make it obvious by clarifying every new and even-slightly-important term up front.

So let’s do that. Imagine I’ve gone hunting through my kitty-themed draft and found all the necessary definitions. I work them in where they’re needed (at first mention of the terms) and the result is as follows:

To answer these questions, we integrate two opposing perspectives: the “untrained cats” perspective, which holds that it is difficult if not impossible for humans to train cats, and the “mischievous cats” perspective, which contends that cats are inherently mischievous and biologically prone to causing chaos. Integrating these theories allows us to develop a third theory: that cats may destroy personal property because they are both difficult to train and inherently mischievous. By using this lens, which we refer to as the “combo-kitty” perspective, we can predict the destruction of personal property according to the presence (or absence) of feline occupants in the home. 

Much better! This is now a passage that the average educated person could understand. Like all three clarity shortcuts that I’ll share in this series of blog posts, this one ensures two things: 

  1. You don’t confuse and irritate your readers so that they give up, and your document fails to reach its intended goal.

  2. You keep the audience for this document as wide as you possibly can—because a wider audience = bigger impact for your research (and overall career!). 

Final tip: For maximum clarity, use an editor when you can

I’d be remiss not to mention here that all academics are experts. And the downside of being an expert is that you can’t “unknow” what you already know, making it incredibly hard to catch those spots where your own writing is unclear or needs more explanation. This represents one of the biggest benefits of bringing in someone else to edit your most important work

However, for those times when budget or scheduling constraints mean that you need to do it yourself, use this shortcut—and don’t be afraid to err on the side of over-explaining. You can always cut definitions of terms if they end up being overkill, but they rarely are, in my experience. Most academics are so knowledgeable about their areas of research that what they think “everyone” knows is almost certainly not what everyone knows!

-Catie Phares


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