Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Finals Week Hint: The Power of Plain Language, Or: Avoiding the Tower of Babel

Certainly one of the reasons you go to college is to expand your mind. That expansion involves learning new concepts, and new concepts are often delivered through new vocabulary, and new vocabulary can be a challenge to master.

The degree to which you will be expected to use new vocabulary varies from class to class and instructor to instructor. Because we are the Writing Center, though, and because we are trying to help you write during finals week, we will just say this: Don't bluff with those fancy words.

A common difficulty students face in writing for college courses is feeling that they need to use vocabulary and lingo in the same way their instructors use it. If you are in a course where an instructor mentions the ontological issues surrounding notions of the subjective self in our postmodern society, you might feel that when you write a paper for that instructor, you better use the terms "ontological," "subjective," and "postmodern." You might feel this even if you don't quite totally understand what each of those things means.

This can result in two dangerous moments in writing. The first is that you feel you need to write a sentence about ontology, but don't totally know what that is, and so you stare at your computer screen, stuck.

The second dangerous moment is the same as the first, except that you decide to just throw the word ontology into a few sentences anyway, and hope it sounds right. In other words: you bluff.

This never works. Staring at a blank screen doesn't get a paper written. Randomly tossing out some big words incorrectly never impresses an instructor.

So today our suggestion is this: if you're stuck in your paper because you want to use some fancy words but don't know how, just don't use them. If you understand the words and are comfortable using them, then cool, go ahead. But if you don't understand them and don't know how to use them, then just writing in plain language is a much better choice. Using plain language helps you continue writing your paper. Using plain language helps your writing remain clear to your instructor.

Here is The Writing Center bluffing as it composes: The sheer plasticity of postmodern narrative strategies occasions a kind of willy-nilly buffoonery of cross-cultural referencing that can't help but lead one to the recognition that multiple ontologies serve up multiple ideologies in a multiplicity of post-colonial structures, as noted by Foucault and Derrida when they met at the Potsdam Conference at Flushing Meadows.

That doesn't mean anything. Or it only barely means something, and that something is incorrect.

Here is the Writing Center just trying to write something in plain language: Using plain language helps your writing remain clear to your instructor. It doesn't guarantee you will get an A. It guarantees your instructor will understand what you are trying to say, though. And your instructor will appreciate that.