Having taught writing college writing for many years, I’ve really come to abhor certain words: “society.” “Issue.” “The media.” “The government.”
Most of these, to me, are synonymous with “nothing.” “The media is responsible for the rise in eating disorders” is like saying “Nothing is responsible.”
Abstractions can be “mental throat-clearing”: the kind of thinking and writing that occurs before the actual communication is addressed, which is why the entire first paragraph of a paper is often “air,” saying nothing as the writer warms up. Sometimes this entire first paragraph is wasted, composed of sentences and words that take up space, do no work and confuse the reader.
Remember Causes and Effects of Abstractions and Vagueness in Student Writing
Fuzzy Thinking: Both a Cause and Effect
Often the use of vague abstractions reveals that the student has not thought clearly on the issue enough to clearly define terms. The writer may have some idea that crime is a societal problem, but may not have considered the problem long enough or seriously enough to get to which crimes, specifically, she means and which parts of society are most affected.
Lack of Language Control
Students may not have acquired the language to speak of “the media” and “society” in more specific terms as they have not yet been introduced to words or concepts such as “the nuclear family” or “low socioeconomic neighborhoods,” “the free press,” and so forth.
Misuse of Academic Language
Students are just being introduced to academic language, and they may actually think of words like “society” and “the media” as better, more academic alternatives to “my neighborhood and family” and “TV.” This is really not the case: although no one would claim “TV” is an academic word, it is more specific and will not create confusion in the reader as “the media” might.
Perceived Lack of Experience
Students often have nothing to say on a topic or think they have no relevant ideas or experience. Therefore, they fill their essays with “air” and empty words and hope that teachers won’t notice. The perception that they have nothing to say is almost certainly wrong, however, and students can be taught to discover the ideas they have on a topic.
Some students are reticent by nature as well as socialization and simply don’t want to comment on topics such as gun control, legalizing marijuana, immigration policy and cross-cultural heritage because they’ve been taught that raising such issues is divisive and in bad taste. Therefore, because students have avoided discussing these societal problems and have no practice in it, they have little to say when it comes time to write the paper.
A number of effects result from vague, abstract language, most involving unnecessary effort on the part of the reader as she tries to supply meaning for the writer: what exactly is meant by an “issue,” for example. This effort may ultimately cause the reader to eventually put down the paper and not return to it, not the desired effect outside of school, where teachers are obligated to read student papers. Fortunately, there are methods to address the problem of overly abstract student writing.
Apply Strategies for Dealing with Vague Language
Question students both on their paper and face-to-face about their meaning when they use such words as “society” or “issue.” Ask for specific examples or offer specific examples. Ask students to visualize what they are talking about: what do they see when they say “society,” for example? Individual student conferences can help for more individualized and lengthy discussions about meaning.
Explicitly teach academic language. Offer alternative language to class when vague words are used. Draw on student papers for examples for instruction in replacing vague, overused words. Words such as “issue” can be replaced with more specific terms, such as “the controversy surrounding capital punishment.” Show students how writing actually becomes more academic, not less so, with more specific word choice. Instead of “One solution to this issue is for society to get involved,” the much more clear and ultimately more academic “One solution to the controversy surrounding immigration is to review our laws and policies.”
Assign Reading of Academic Essays
By reading, students get models of effective writing and also begin to build their vocabulary, both of which will help eliminate vagueness. By reading, they are also taken out of their own immediate experience into a larger world and therefore have more ideas to draw from and are able to develop their writing more.
Have students discuss the reading with each other in small groups. In this way, students will invariably bring in their own experience and relate it to the reading. This further takes the students out of their own immediate context and gives them more material to write about as they listen to their peers’ experiences: “the media,” for example, can mean anything from The New York Times to a reality TV show, two very different entities. Through academic reading and discussion, students can begin to learn these distinctions.
Pull out select words from the reading and discuss synonyms. This not only builds vocabulary but also introduces students to the concept of connotation, the various underlying meanings one word can have. Returning to the previous example, “The New York Times” and a reality TV show are both parts of what we call “The Media” and have the own underlying connotations and associations.
Vague abstractions in student writing can be a difficult problem to address as first the teacher has to guide student away from the notion that these empty terms are a strong, academic writing and then has to help students build the language and background knowledge to replace them.
However, work on vague language has a number of rewards: not only better writing but more academic language and broader understanding of specific topics.