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WriteCast Episode 24: Why Word Choice Matters

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WriteCast Episode 24: Why Word Choice Matters

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© Walden University Writing Center 2015


[Introduction music]


BETH: Welcome to WriteCast: A Casual Conversation for Serious Writers. Today we're talking about word choice--words and phrases to avoid in your academic writing, and why we try to avoid those types of words and phrases.


BRITTANY: We realize that over the last couple of episodes, we've dealt with tone, we've dealt with style, but we really wanted to narrow it down in this episode to talk specifically about examples of ways that you can make your scholarly writing more specific. So, when somebody asks, "Well, how do I improve tone?," that's kind of a vague question. But, really the way to do it is to change what words you're using. So we want to get really specific in this episode about words that you can use to improve your scholarly tone and sound more academic.


BETH: And I think one thing we're going to try to talk about too is not just the words and phrases to avoid and to use but also some of the larger issues that those present. So, hopefully, that will help you get a sense of what academic writing is trying to achieve as a whole as well. So, we're going to be specific, as Brittany said, but we can't help but also bring it to a broader context as well. As I'm sure you've noticed with our podcast, we like to do that, too. So, we'll do a little of that today as well.


BRITTANY: Right. And one quick disclaimer, everyone--I don't know what I'm allergic to here in Minneapolis, Minnesota, but my head feels like it's about to explode and I know that I sound a little bit stuffed up, so I apologize for my wonky voice today. Hopefully that won't distract from the excellent information we're going to be providing you with during this episode [laughs].


BETH: And we are glad that you're able to join us today.


BRITTANY: Thanks. Okay, well, let's jump right in, I suppose, to specific words to avoid. We're going to just name some words that we see often in student writing and talk a little bit about why they're problematic and maybe give some alternative options that work a little bit better.

So the first one is one of my biggest pet peeves. I know it doesn't bother Beth as much as it bothers me--


BETH: It's doesn't! I just don't notice it.


BRITTANY: It's "utilize"! Utilize. I see this a lot in student writing, and I think the tendency is to assume that utilize sounds more scholarly than "use," but really it's just kind of--in my opinion, anyway--a fluffed up version of "use." And it kind of conveys to me as a reader that the author is trying a little bit too hard to sound academic. I would rather have the writer strive for clarity over scholarly language. And I recognize that's a really difficult balance, right? So we want, obviously, to sound scholarly and have a formal tone, and we don't want to be too casual or use slang or anything like that. But to me, this one just gets a little bit too...


BETH: It's, like, unnecessary.


BRITTANY: Yes, it's unnecessary, exactly. You could just say "use" and it means the same thing. So that's one that I'm going to throw out there as a starting point.


BETH: And there's also other phrases and words that are similar in that they mean the same thing as something simpler. So, you could use a more simple or straightforward word or phrase to replace that and I think that you're exactly right, Brittany--sometimes you see those phrases that just, they stand out from the rest of the writing because they look like they were thrown in to make it sound more scholarly. You want your writing to sound more scholarly because you're using evidence, you're using a clear approach, all these other things that we often talk about in the podcast. You don't want to sound scholarly by throwing a word in there, here or there. I think that's really where it kind of stands out. And one way you might watch out for that is even try reading your writing out loud and seeing if it sounds like your own voice. Because sometimes we're reading through research or we're looking at the dictionary or the thesaurus and find a really cool word we want to throw in there, but it just doesn't really fit your own voice, and that's really where the issue kind of comes in, where we often see things like "utilize" being used.


BRITTANY: [laughs]


BETH: Did you like that pun?


BRITTANY: That was so good.


BETH: I didn't plan that out. It just kind of happened naturally. Ba-dum-ch.


BRITTANY: Yeah, one other thing I wanted to say about "utilize" and other words like it is that it tends to be a little bit distracting from the actual meaning. So, I often say to students, you want your words to act like a transparent window to your ideas. You don't want the window to be fogged up with extra letters, extra language, extra stuff. Instead, you want the reader to sort of instantaneously be able to envision your idea in their head rather than getting mucked up the words that you're using to try and convey the idea, and I think--


BETH: That's a fantastic way to put it; I hadn't thought about that before. I think you're exactly right, and that's a great way to explain why "utilize" isn't the best choice.

So the next that I want to talk about a little bit are words or phrases that are a little bit too casual. And two examples was the words "things" and "nowadays." "Things" is interesting because it's something we use a lot in regular, everyday language when we're not really, you know, trying to be very specific or precise. We just talk about "the things," or "I need to bring the things over there," or something like that. And "things" just has sort of a general informal connotation, I think. And part of it, I think, is because it's not very precise. So, if I were to say something about "the researcher conducted a survey about the things"--that makes no sense, right? What are "the things"? We want to know. And it's really important in academic writing to be precise and clear. And, like you were just talking about, Brittany, really having your words be that window into your ideas, and "things" is just not very useful for that.

It's similar with "nowadays." "Nowadays" is a little bit--it's just more colloquial, I would say. I often imagine someone using that word when they're trying to say "Well, nowadays, the kids are all using their texting and their phones" or things like that. You know, when you're, like, talking about in a more sort of informal way about how things are going on now, and then I imagine following up with "Back in my day..." You know, it's sort of this more conversational, narrative, storytelling approach to things that doesn't have a place in academic writing where we want to be more specific and take less of a conversational tone.


BRITTANY: Yeah, "nowadays" is one that I see a lot, and a lot of times I find myself just asking the writer, what exactly is the time frame that you're talking about, right? Like, is "nowadays" today? Is "nowadays" the last 10 years? Is "nowadays" the 21st century? I mean, there are a lot of different ways that you could interpret what that measurement means, and again, in the interest of precision and clarity, we want to make sure that we're using words that communicate something more exact to the reader.


BETH: Definitely. Agreed.


BRITTANY: So, we talked a little bit about how the use of the phrase "nowadays" or the word "nowadays" is both too casual and too imprecise for scholarly writing, and I wanted to talk a bit more about a couple of generalizations--ones that are really a little bit too imprecise, a little bit too general, that I see fairly often in student writing. One is "in today's society." And that's one that--I think it's pretty similar, actually, to what I was just saying about "nowadays," because the reader just doesn't know exactly what "today" means. And they also don't know exactly what "society" the writer is talking about, right? So, "in today's society," I think in general when somebody writes that, they mean--you know, it's kind of like the same attitude as "kids today with their texting and their phones"--you know, we're talking about now, in America, it's different from before. But again, that's pretty unspecific, and you're really writing at Walden for a global audience, so it's best not to make assumptions about people--or, it's best not to assume that you reader is going to infer that you're talking about the United States, for instance. So, I think--


BETH: Right. Yeah, I mean, your reader isn't always going to have the same context or perspective or world view as you. So, you have to make sure you're not alienating the reader and assuming too much of them, just like you were talking about. And I think I see this when students are sort of new to writing introductions. I often see this at the start of an introductory paragraph. It's sort of an entry point for students, and I can understand why, because you're trying to say, there's this general thing that's going on, and then you're getting more specific as you bring the reader to your specific focus and your thesis statement, so it's sort of understandable. And I think sometimes introductions are hard! I have a horrible time with introductory paragraphs, because how do you start something out?--You have all these different ideas, and you want to get to them. And so I think students use this as sort of an in to that introductory paragraph. And that might be a great first draft. Any of these words might be a great first draft. But it's just really important to be cognizant of what sort of tendencies you have in using these kinds of generalizations or phrases or whatever, and going back and trying to make them more specific.


BRITTANY: Absolutely, and I think that's such a good point, too, that the impulse behind this phrase is good. So, we talk to students about writing like an upside-down triangle introductory paragraph where you start general and move down, and create information that gets more and more specific until you get to your very specific thesis statement. But I think, like you said, it's really challenging to know exactly how broad you want to go at the top of that paragraph, and "in today's society" is a little bit too broad. So, you want to get more specific than that. For instance, you might say, "Over the last 10 years in Georgia, X has been happening." Right? Rather than "in today's society, X is happening." That gives the reader a really clear idea of both the time frame and the sort of geographical location or the specific society.


BETH: Yeah, and if your time frame is broad, then just specify that. And if your geographical location is broad, that's okay, too, potentially--just make sure you specify that as well. You have to remember your reader is coming to your paper with no information, so you have to make sure to give all that extra information that you know implicitly because you're writing the paper.

The next one that's fairly common for students is the phrase "we can all agree." And again, I can understand the impulse behind this, because you're trying to persuade your reader. Most of the writing we do at Walden is argumentative, and we want the reader to understand your perspective, your point of view, your idea that you're presenting. But, it's just really too general for academic writing because, to be honest, not everyone will agree with any statement. And what I always like to say when I'm talking with students about this is, imagine someone sitting next to you and trying to disagree with what you're saying. Can you find someone who would disagree with that statement? If so, then we need to avoid these generalized statements because you have to acknowledge that someone, potentially a reader, may not agree with you.


BRITTANY: Yeah, I think that's really true, Beth. And I also think it's sort of like an easy out for you as the writer for having to do the work of convincing your reader that something is true, which is really your goal as the writer, is to sort of set up a premise and then lay out evidence that supports that premise. If at the beginning of the paper you just say, well, everybody agrees this is true, what's the point of writing the paper, right? So, yeah, I think both for accuracy and for preserving the purpose of the paper itself, it's best to avoid that generalized statement.


BETH: So the next one that we're going to talk about, or the next couple ones were ones that I think I mentioned when we were brainstorming for this podcast, I like to call these "amplifiers." I don't think that's a technical term, so don't go to your high school English teacher and her what an amplifier is. But these are words like "very" and "really," and I like to call them "amplifiers" because they're not necessary to the meaning of the sentence, usually, but they try to amplify or up the ante; they're trying to say, this is very important, or this is really important, instead of just saying, you know, exactly what you mean. And the issue with these is that it tends to also sort of try to convince the reader that something is important without always backing that up with actual evidence or facts or explanations. So, if I say that dark chocolate is really the best kind of chocolate out there, I'm using this word "really" and it doesn't add anything to the sentence--it just tries to amplify the idea that I'm trying to say. Instead, what I want to do is really emphasize or explain that idea with more explanation and evidence and things like that.


BRITTANY: Yeah, I think, too, it kind of gets back to the issue of precision. Like, what is "very"?--it's not really measurable, right? It's not---hah, I just used "really" in that sentence I just said! Um, but it's sort of--like you said, a vague way of adding a certain feeling to a statement without getting down to the nitty-gritty of, you know, measurability.

So, this is a good point to jump in and remind our listeners that we're talking within the context of academic writing specifically and the type of scholarly and academic writing that we expect to see from students here at Walden. And that's not to say that if you read a phenomenal novel and they use "really" or "very" that that writer is bad. I mean, there are important places to use all of these words that we're throwing out there--it's just, we want to talk about why they're problematic for academic and scholarly writing.


BETH: Yeah, and I think what you were talking about with your example I think really gets to the heart of the amplifier in that it emphasizes emotion or tries to emphasize emotion rather than facts.


BRITTANY: Yeah. Okay, so the next group of words that we want to talk about is the use of the second person--so, the use of "you" when referring to a reader, or even the use of "we" when referring to a group or talking about a group, including the author. This is something that I see quite often as well, and I think the real challenge here is that a lot of times in Walden coursework, because Walden students are coming to Walden as practitioners and are sort of grouped together with other people in their same field, like for instance in a nursing program--you and many other nurses are in this course together and you're all learning things that you can apply to your nursing practice. So, it's easy to say "we" meaning you and all the other nurses in the world, or you and all the other nurses at Walden, or something like that, and expect the reader to understand that. But it's still something that you want to kind of dial back, I think, to avoid making generalizations or assumptions about your reader.


BETH: And Brittany, I think it goes back to that idea of precision that you were talking about before, as well. Because when we talk about a statement where we say "we need to adjust our nursing practice," as the reader, and even as the listener, you're not sure who I mean by "we." We haven't set up that context yet. And so, as the writer, you need to avoid using "we" for those reasons as well, and you could say something like "We, as nurses,..." or just "nurses need to adjust their nursing practice." Either way. But, "we" and "our"--you have to be really careful when you use them and making sure that context is clear and that your reader can follow along with what you're saying.


BRITTANY: Right, yeah, I tend to say--and I don't know if this is a hard and fast rule across Walden or just really my preferences as a reader, but--unless you're writing with a coauthor, it's probably best to avoid "we" altogether. Even saying "we, as nurses, blah blah blah"--just because even though that makes it clearer, it still is making an assumption about all the other nurses and what they think and believe, which might not be true. So, I don't know--I think that's kind of a gray area, maybe, but something to consider. And maybe it's something that you, as a student, might bring up with your individual course instructor.


BETH: Yeah, but I think, like you were talking about Brittany, that's one where a lot of what we're talking about is, if you're going to use this phrasing, you should have a very specific reason for doing so and have thought it through. Because we've talked about the ways that they can kind of go wrong or be distracting or not helpful to you or to your reader. And so I think, particularly with "we," you just want to make sure that you have a particular reason why you're using that, what sort of effect you're trying to make, or, you know, create for your reader.


BRITTANY: Right, yep, intentionality.


BETH: Often when we talk about "we," we'll also talk about "you." And we mean in sentences where you say, "You need to adjust your nursing practice." And we see that a little bit less than the use of "we," I think, in academic writing, cause students use it--it's less common, but still is something that we want to avoid because addressing your reader specifically is almost--I almost like to think that it's rude. You're calling out the reader in your writing and saying "you need to do this," and that might be something, you know, that you would use if you were writing something in a different genre other than academic writing. In academic writing, we let our reader have a little bit more distance, and we don't assume things about our reader; we don't address our readers directly. It's just--that's a convention of academic writing; it's creating that distance so you don't call out the reader.


BRITTANY: Okay, so the next one is kind of an oldie but a goodie--I feel like we review this a lot and it might be review for our listeners, too, but I think it really bears repeating--that again, in the particular kind of academic writing that we're talking about in these podcasts, we should not say "in my opinion," or "I believe," or "I think," or "I feel." And it's--I always try and be really sensitive when I'm talking about this issue with a writer because I never want a writer to feel like I'm devaluing their opinion, their belief, or their thought, right? Obviously, everybody has a personal perspective that they're bringing to their writing, and that's important. And that's going to affect what you're writing, no matter what. But, again because our goal as academic writers who are writing sort of thesis-based academic papers, is to present an argument and then sort of back that argument up with unbiased research and sources, our own personal opinions--which are by definition not really able to be backed up by sources--don't really have a place in that kind of writing. The challenge is to realize that even though you might be so impassioned about a particular topic--and many Walden students bring passion for a particular topic to their writing--that communicating that passion in this kind of way can actually take away from the persuasiveness of your writing because it goes against what the reader expects, right? The reader expects, again, for you to tell them something and then show why that something is true, and so they might be a little taken aback by the writer suddenly spewing a bunch of their beliefs or thoughts or feelings, and it might actually backfire on you as a writer a little bit and make it seem like you're so overcome with emotion about this topic that you can't actually think objectively about it and be an unbiased researcher on that topic.


BETH: And when I see students use this kind of phrasing, one of two things is happening. As Brittany was talking about, they're focusing on their opinions without supporting those ideas with evidence, right, so they have opinions instead of evidence-based ideas. So, in that case, you as the writer would want to go back and delete that phrasing, have your statement of your idea, and then add more research. In other cases, students are just sort of writing out a first draft, and they're talking about their ideas, and "I think, I believe," those sorts of phrases slip in. They still have their evidence; they've just got that extra phrasing. And it sort of emphasizes, or it could lead the reader to think that these are opinions or just ideas that they have. And so in those cases, I say again to just delete those phrases and you still have your statement and you have your evidence. So, one of those two places--don't assume that you have the evidence there; double-check that you have it there. But in some cases all it takes is just deleting the "I think" in front of the statement and you're good to go.

The last phrasing that we want to talk about is when writers refer to themselves in the third person. And often, this is in the form of saying "the writer" or "the researcher" or something like that. And, I think this is sometimes a holdover of more traditional academic writing--academic writing has sort of become a bit more focused on using "I" and the first person when writers are talking about themselves. So, if you do something, an action--in those cases, you want to use "I" instead of referring to yourself in the third person. And sometimes students use the third person because they think it sounds a little bit more formal. And it does sound a little bit more formal, but too formal--this is where you sort of have to have that balancing act because you don't want to sound too informal but you also don't want to sound too formal. And so in general, the best guideline is to avoid third person. So, if you're talking about something that you do--so, "the researcher sent out the survey"--you just want to replace that with "I," because you are the one who actually did that action. And it also helps with clarity as well, because as a reader, if I see "the researcher sent out the survey," I might assume it's the author, but it could also be someone else. And so using really precise actors in your sentences like that is really helpful, too.


BRITTANY: Yeah, absolutely. And I think, too, one of the reasons why it was sort of the default in the past before this shift to a little bit more direct language in academic writing, why it was the practice to use the third person and for authors to refer to themselves as "the author" or "the researcher," is because I think in general the assumption was that that would help the writer avoid bringing their own personal ideas or their own--like the things we were just talking about in the previous point, right, where it would help if the reader wasn't able to say "I," how could they ever say "I believe" or "I think" or "I feel," right? But I think that does a disservice to us as writers. It assumes that we aren't able to negotiate between when we're talking about ourselves and our actions and when we're conveying our own ideas. And again, as Beth mentioned, in the interest of precision, it's better to say "I" did something than "the researcher" did something because it's clearer. But, you're smart, you writers--you're all smart, and you can figure out when you're saying "I" did something and when you're saying "I" feel something or it is my opinion or something like that, so it's really kind of a moment of empowerment, too, I think, for the writer to be able to negotiate between those two reasons to use "I" and understand when it's appropriate and when it's not appropriate.


BETH: Yeah, and we're not trying to sit here and say that these phrases and words should never be used, ever. We don't want to make a generalization about that. But it is important to keep in mind that intentionality that we talked about and this nuance of ways you can look at how these phrases can be used in your own writing.


[Music transition]


BRITTANY: So we just love all the comments that we get about the podcast and on social media, but this month we want to give a particular shout-out to Hilda and Cynthia for participating in our Weekly Writing Challenges and for being such great advocates for the Writing Center. We also want to give a shout-out to Zaida--and I hope I'm pronouncing your name right; please let me know if I'm not--who shared with us on the blog that she has been working really hard on her grammar.


BETH: We also want to thank everyone who shared their writing success or challenge with us this Sunday on Facebook. We love to hear what you've been working on and how it's going, so thank you for sharing that with us.


BRITTANY: That's all we've got for you today, so thanks for listening, everyone, and we'll talk with you again next month.


BETH: Thanks!


BRITTANY: WriteCast is a production of the Walden University Writing Center. This episode was produced by me, Brittany Kallman Arneson; my co-host, Beth Nastachowski; and our colleague, Anne Shiell.