Years ago when I was an undergraduate, another student greeted me as I entered class with, “Hey, Stacia! Did you bring the stuff for the thing?”
“Yeah,” I said. “It’s in the you know.”
And the frightening part is we were both native speakers of English and were discussing a class presentation we were preparing. (Fortunately, our professor didn’t hear this exchange.) Of course, this was not how we talked during the presentation but rather in a more informal situation where both of us understood each other’s cues perfectly: my classmate did indeed know where I meant by “the you know” and went there to fetch “the stuff for the thing.” So communication was indeed taking place, but this was with someone I had known for many years and in a context we were both very familiar with. Would such language, however, succeed with an unfamiliar audience and in a more formal, written communication? Of course not—someone not deeply familiar with the immediate situation would be left scratching his head.
However, it seems with some writers this kind of vague and empty communication that leaves a lot for the audience to fill in occurs although perhaps at a more academic level. Instead of “stuff,” and “thing,” for example, writers use equally vague although more academic-sounding “elements” and “items.”Instead of “a bunch,” writers will use the more academic-seeming “several,” which I always took to mean three or four, but for many writers today seems to mean somewhere in between three and a thousand. And instead of using “you know,” directly, writers will proceed as if the audience does indeed know what they are thinking.
So what’s a teacher to do? How do we teach more specific and academic vocabulary?
Raise Awareness: Circle all of the Vague Language
Addressing almost any problem begins with becoming aware of it. Students don’t know they are being vague unless you tell them they are. Circling problem areas in student writing with “this is unclear to me” begins to raise awareness on the issue.
Change the Perspective
Sometimes student writing stays on this vague, noncommittal plane because students believe that specific writing is somehow more elementary and less formal. They should be disabused of this notion and shown, through example, that specific writing is best. Pull out examples of writing by Joan Didion, E.B. White, and Martin Luther King and show these great writers are almost unfailingly specific. King, for example, does not make vague references to “some guys” suffering “a lot of different abuse” in a “certain place and time” but rather writes compellingly of the suffering of African Americans in 1963 Alabama –and it is only compelling because he writes specifically. The reader doesn’t care so much about unspecified “people” but might care deeply about specific fellow countrymen and women. King’s work is no less academic and great because it is specific but rather is great only because it’s specific.
Contrast Specific and Vague
Telling students to “Be Specific” isn’t very…specific. Often they have no idea what you mean. Take a paragraph of a great and well-known piece of writing, like the Gettysburg Address and add as much vagueness to it as possible: Instead of the familiar and fairly specific Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, read aloud “Sometime ago some people brought forth in some place some nation conceived in something and dedicated to some set of principles.” Don’t be surprised if students start giggling as they recognize the Gettysburg Address and realize how bad the revision is. This is a good sign: they are beginning to understand good writing.
Query the Writer
When asked specific questions, the writer is forced into giving specific answers. So when the vague, pseudo-academic vocabulary pops up in writing, pencil a question: “How many, exactly, is ‘several’?” or “What, exactly, are ‘elements’ here?” Then take the students’ responses and show how they can be stated in an academic manner.
Suggest Academic Words
Students often fall back on vague, nonspecific language because they simply don’t know the specific terms. Suggest language they may use instead: “By ‘water’ here do you mean a lake? Or a lagoon?” Is ‘machine’ here a tractor?” “By ‘nice,’ do you mean friendly? Compassionate?”
Explain the words as necessary.
Declare Vague Words Taboo
Create and give out a list of “taboo” words that usually add nothing to writing and can be replaced with better words: “thing,” “nice,” and “cool” are likely suspects. Have students brainstorm similar words that to add to the list: this creates further buy-in and makes students more likely to search for better words as they helped create the list.
Writers Query Themselves
Often students’ vague writing is symptomatic of vague thinking. There is no one “treatment” for vague thinking, of course, but one way to address it is to train students to, on coming upon vague language like the taboo words or the vague language they have circled, is to query themselves, “Who, exactly, do I mean by ‘some folks’?” and “Where, precisely, is ‘this weird forest place?” Students can do this after getting used to your queries, and this creates a habit of thinking in specifics, which leads to better thinking and better writing.
Work on Audience Awareness
Another aspect of the problem of vague student writing is students not having a real sense of writing to anyone in particular, so they are not concerned about whether or not this unspecified audience understands them. Having students work in peer review groups, reading and commenting on each other’s work, creates this sense of audience. Students will then stop and ask themselves, “Will the group understand ‘stuff’?” Once the groups have worked together for awhile, it might help to mix them up and have students do peer review with a relative stranger in class, who isn’t used to their writing and who doesn’t know what they mean. See how well their writing communicates with a fresh audience.
By using these methods, students will get into the habit of thinking and writing in specifics.
They may still talk about “stuff for the thing” with their friends, but these phrases will turn up in their writing less and less often as student thinking and writing skills improve.
Do your students talk and write in excessively vague terms? How do you address this?