Helping Writers Be Specific, or Why “What Do You Mean Here” is an Important Question

Daniel Conrad, Consultant

DanielAs a writing center consultant, I regularly hear students attempting to explain why they feel the need to come to the writing center. When asked why they have scheduled a visit, regularly students explain that they are simply “not good at writing.” Obviously, it is almost never the case that a student is simply born without the innate inability to write well. These students, who seem to be under the impression that writing is either “good” or “bad” and it is produced by writers who are either “good” or “bad” at their craft, most often benefit from exercises in specificity. As it turns out, in most of these cases, the work needed to make difference between what students perceive as “good” or “bad” is as simple as asking “What do you mean here?”

Whenever a student is struggling with clarity, either on a structural or sentence level, it almost always seems helpful to begin by asking them to explain. “What do you mean?” offers the student a chance to explain themselves beyond the confines of the paper. It allows them to make several passes at what might be a difficult-to-articulate concept or thought, and often results in a much more satisfying explanation which can be worked into the piece. By examining a statement more intensely, a writer is able to see the multiplicity of a statement, and recognizing the presence of undesired meanings is the first step to eliminating them.

Frequently, problems of clarity can be solved by fixing specific language. One common temptation when writing papers is to beef up language by dipping into thesauruses. Occasionally, clients will have used thesaurus and synonym tools throughout their paper in an attempt to spruce up a paper, but don’t consider the weight of that particular word which results in an undesired connotative meaning or a confusing construction. This is easily avoided by carefully checking the denotation of a word before using it, and heavily considering the connotation relative to the thought being expressed in the sentence. Even easier to fix, a writer only needs to ask, “What do I mean by this word?” Only in certain specific situations should a writer need to go out of their way to define a term or phrase for a reader. If it seems that a better word might better carry the weight of your message, use it! Not all synonyms are created equal. In the same way that a painter would not use just any shade of a color to set a mood in a painting, a writer should be deliberate in their word choice so as to best convey the message they wish to convey.

Once in a while the question “What do you mean?” heralds shocking results. “I don’t know.” “I’m not sure.” “Uhhh…” This happens to the best writers, and while it is certainly acceptable to not know everything, it is encouraged that writers limit the contents of their papers to things they can explain. If a concept seems insurmountable to explain, or seems wholly irrelevant, it is sometimes best to just omit it. Like pruning away dead leaves from a plant, removing confusing, extraneous, or downright nonsensical sections of a paper will only emphasize the well-crafted and developed facets of the work.

Ultimately, students who fear “bad” writing should be more concerned about nonspecific writing. While the two things are not inherently related, students seem to very often conflate the two. Fears of being a poor writer regularly seem to be dispersed after arguments are filled out, language becomes more developed and specific, and the structures of arguments are more directly linked, all of which can emerge from simply asking one’s self and answering, “What do I mean here?”

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