Sometimes when reading the essays of beginning composition students, I’ll read an entire page and then realize I didn’t really process any of it because it’s filled with vague, abstract language like “issue” and “society.”
In a way this is not bad; this shows students have recognized there is something called the academic register; that the language in their textbooks is different from what they use in the student union, and this is their attempt to emulate it. However, good writing, besides having a lot of academic words, also communicates to the reader and is direct and specific, not vague and abstract.
So the challenge becomes getting more specificity out of student writing while still encouraging students in their attempts to write more academic prose. There are some different methods to meet this challenge.
10 Methods for Getting Specificity Out of Student Writing
Give Models of Specific Writing
Many years ago, in one of my college classes, the instructor complained about something she called “distance” in my writing, a term I still am puzzled by because she never did really offer an example of what she meant by this or what she wanted instead. Predictably, I wasn’t able to produce what she wanted. It is not enough to tell a student “Don’t be distant” or “Be specific” because these terms are relative—what is “specific” to the student may not be to the instructor.
Showing examples of writing with the degree of specificity you would like to see in student writing would help the most.
Assign Specific Topics
You know the saying borrowed from the computer industry: “garbage in—garbage out.” If you don’t want to read a bunch of essays on our “issues” in “society,” don’t assign topics with that language in them. Students will faithfully lift it from the topic and scatter it all over their papers. Instead ask students to write what they think about capital punishment, or the Occupy Movement, or the so-called obesity epidemic. When writing about these specific “issues,” students are themselves in their writing forced into specifics: it’s very hard to write in generalities about capital punishment because the topic itself demands examples and details of specific cases in specific locations.
Query the Student
Sometimes just asking students “So tell me what you mean here by ‘issue’?” forces them to think about what they mean. Sometimes students haven’t really considered that essays are meant to communicate meaning and not just fill up the paper with words. Asking students to articulate their thoughts starts the process of thinking about, then saying, and ultimately writing what they mean.
Teach Specific Vocabulary
Another reason ESL students in particular use vague language is they simply haven’t developed the appropriate specific language yet. Teaching some of academic language related to the topic is very helpful: e.g., “criminalize,” “constitutional,” and “legality,” for example, are words that students will need in their academic careers as well as help them develop the specific topic.
Teach Use of the Dictionary/Thesaurus
Used properly, these are great tools for expanding one’s vocabulary. Show students how they can pull up an online thesaurus and find alternatives to “society” and other vague, over-used language.
Another reason students can ramble on at length in their papers without really saying anything is they don’t know what to say or are afraid that what they say will somehow be “wrong.” Having small group discussions on topics like the ethics and legality of same sex marriage makes students realize they do have things to say on these topics, and it’s all right to say them—in a courteous manner. Ask that the students use their new vocabulary learned on the topic a set number of times: at least 3 new words per discussion, for example. The ideas shared in discussion can then transfer to writing.
Suggest Details and Examples
Sometimes when students seem truly stuck on writing on a topic like legalizing marijuana, I’ll suggest that the student might consider an example, such as what happened under Prohibition, when the criminalizing of alcohol created a black market and increased organized crime, and if there might be parallels with marijuana. I offer this as something for the student to consider and form his or her own opinion on, if he hasn’t considered it yet. Sometimes the student will reject my analysis of this part of the topic, stating that in this case marijuana and alcohol aren’t comparable, and that’s fine as long as the student is now writing and using details and analysis.
Reading and Journal Writing
A related reading should almost always be given prior to assigning a formal composition, with an informal journal response, in which students express their thoughts about the reading. Again, having them use the new words from the reading in their journals will develop academic vocabulary and ability to speak on this topic and will give students ideas to write about in their formal essays, as well, both of which should help eliminate the vagueness.
Hold Individual Conferences
Meeting with each student individually sometime during the term can also be of help in getting students to vocalize concerns about their writing and ask questions. In turn, the instructor can ask questions about unclear portions of the student’s writing. This is particularly effective with the quiet student, who may be too shy to speak up in class or a small group.
I’ve forbidden use of certain words in composition, telling students they have to think of something different and more specific: “thing,” “nice,” “bad,” “issue,” and “society” are big offenders and probably we can mostly do without these words, in any case. There’s almost always a better choice.
Vague, pseudo-academic writing is usually fairly easy to produce—students can usually scrawl off pages of it without much reflection.
But it can be painful to read and communicates very little. With some practice, teachers can get students into the habit of really thinking about what they mean and how to say it most effectively.