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Writing a Paper: Addressing Assumptions

Addressing Assumptions

One of the first decisions writers have to make is to decide on the reader’s knowledge base. Will the reader know what I mean by X, or do I need to define it? Will the reader have a different definition of X than I do? Will the reader agree that X is important, or do I need to justify my study of X?

These kinds of decisions will vary by case, but there are some general guidelines. When deciding what you can assume about the knowledge you might share with your reader, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do the journals in my field share a common definition of this concept? For instance, if you plan to discuss a certain trend in your field, can you assume that your colleagues will be familiar with that trend and the language you are using to describe it? A quick review of current journals in your field should help you determine the common practice.
  • Could this term or topic be understood differently by different readers? For instance, buzzwords like at-risk and burnout appear in many Walden papers, often with very different implications and contexts. If you plan to use a term that may have different interpretations, be sure to define it clearly for the purposes of your paper.
  • Is this an idea that is particularly present in my own environment? Sometimes, writers assume that a reader will be familiar with an idea because it is so prevalent in their own setting. The problem, of course, is that every workplace or region is different, and what may be a pressing issue in one place isn’t even on the radar somewhere else.
  • Am I assuming that the reader already believes in the importance of this issue? When writers have a passion for solving a certain problem, they often forget to clarify why it is a problem. Remember that while your reader may share some of your knowledge base, he or she might not share your perspective. Any time you find yourself beginning a sentence with “We all know that ___ is a problem,” you’ll want to stop and examine that assumption.
  • Is the term or idea part of current debate and practice? A notion can occupy many people’s minds for a while and then fall out of fashion in favor of a newer idea. When writing, make sure that your vocabulary is current, reflecting changes in thinking that may have occurred very recently.