On Being Vague
I really struggled with the title of this post, because I don’t want students who already feel insecure about their writing to feel worse. But as I’ll discuss in a later blog post, there is a difference in the type of writing expected of most high school students, and the type of writing expected in college. Those expectations are often left unspoken, which means that students are often left wondering what went wrong.
For this series of posts, I’m going to focus on words, phrases, and other writing habits that students should avoid. I asked other college teachers, online, for things they commonly see in college papers that drive them crazy, make them worry about their students’ skills, and just in general signal that the student doesn’t yet have a good handle on how to write well in a college setting. Fifty-seven college teachers across multiple disciplines responded, and when I wrote up the original blog post as a Word doc, I had five pages of material.
But wait! Don’t freak out. The reason I have five pages is because in addition to telling you what students often get wrong, I’m also going to tell you why those things aren’t appropriate, and how to do better. My goal is to help you develop a writing style that conveys “young professional” and not “high school holdover.”
This post is installment one out of five, and focuses on the various ways that student writing often comes across as vague and grandiose.
(None of these posts are intended to be all-inclusive.)
Using vague, meaningless phrases to open a paper
One contributor calls these “movie trailer beginnings;” grandiose phrases that mean . . . nothing. I know – we all know – that you have been taught to use these phrases at some point. Some of us have even used them. But now is the time to stop. Avoid:
- “Throughout human history . . .”
- “From the beginning of time . . .”
- “Since the dawn of time . . .”
Likewise, avoid beginning your paper with a definition (more on definitions in Cringeworthy: Bad Writing Habits that Hurt your College Writing (Part 2)).
What should you do? I’ll cover introductions in more detail in a few weeks, but one good strategy is write your introduction last, instead of first. Bad introductions are often the result of a desperate need to have something–anything–on that otherwise blank page. If you write your introduction last, you give your better energy to the more important parts of your paper: the body paragraphs. Put more bluntly, don’t spend a lot of time staring at the blank screen, waiting for the perfect, brilliant opening. You can waste hours doing that. Instead, write the paper, and then you will hopefully be able to pull something interesting from the paper itself to craft your introduction. If that doesn’t work, write a little story, give a specific example, or something along those lines. Make your introduction mean something.
Vague references to time or magnitude
Like vague introductory openings, students often use vague phrases to start paragraphs or ease into a topic, or use words and phrases that are imprecise. Some examples include:
- “Back in the day . . .” (Instead, specify a time period)
- “Nowadays . . .” (ok, let’s be honest . . . you sound like an aged movie character complaining about how society has broken down. “Nowadays you can’t get a decent meal for five dollars. Why, back in MY day . . .” This is also incredibly informal usage, and even for an informal paper, it’s just too lax.)
- “Huge” (terribly informal and vague. How big is “huge”?)
- Saying that something is important without explaining why (always make connections explicit)
Absolute statements that claim universal truths and erase the perspective of others
One of the important lessons of college is exposure to new ideas, perspectives, and life experiences. When a student writes in a way that assumes that everyone has had the same experience or agrees with their perspective, this is problematic for two reasons. First, the student may simply be wrong. Second, making the claim may be invalidating the very real, legitimate experiences of others. I suspect that it is often the case that the student is just unaware of these other perspectives, but I’ve heard from many professors that spend time trying to figure out if a student is clueless or malicious. It’s best just to avoid this habit. The more specific your paper (see the first example), the better.
- Referring to “people” or “the people” instead of which people (Not “people say . . .” but “doctors say” or “the students at X university have complained that . . .” The more precise your paper, the better.)
- “As we all know,” “Everyone knows,” “Everyone understands,” “Reasonable/knowledgeable people agree”
- “History shows,” “Studies show,” “It has been argued,” “As is well known”
Vague, Formulaic Conclusions
Conclusions, like introductions, are hard to write. We all get that. And sometimes, you just can’t avoid a phrase that a professor would rather not see, like any of the ones listed below:
- “In conclusion . . .” (or “To sum up,” etc)
- “Overall . . .”
- “As you can see . . .”
- “In this paper, I have argued . . .”
I will write about conclusions in a later blog post, but for now, think of your introduction and conclusion like bookends. Whatever you use to introduce your paper, use to close your paper. If you use an example, return to that example in your conclusion. If you lay out a reason for why you wrote the paper, then return to that reason. Over time, you will develop “tricks” of your own that don’t sound like everyone else’s, and introductions and conclusions will get easier.
Not easy, mind you, but easier.
Next: Cringeworthy: Bad Writing Habits that Hurt your College Writing (Part 2)
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