RS__Key Terms__Not sure if your meaning is clear? Check that your key terms are consistent.

Because early stages of the writing process are a time when you are developing your thoughts, it is often the case that the ways you are thinking about your ideas will grow and change over time. As a result, many writers reach a point in the revision process where they have to wonder if some of their different parts of their draft are meaning slightly different things when mentioning the same term. This revision strategy focuses on making sure you are using key terms in a clear and consistent manner.

Consider which concepts are most important to your argument, how you discuss them, and whether you define them. Your working definition is probably clear to you, but this does not necessarily mean it is clear to the reader. This is especially true if your argument depends on concepts whose definitions are contested. How to define a concept you’re using may be an express subject of controversy in the existing literature. Alternatively, different authors may simply use the same term to do different theoretical work, without providing express definitions. In the sciences, both physical and social, the same term may be used to denote variables that are operationalized differently. In any of these cases, you are in conversation with authors using the same term to mean different things.

Accordingly, it is helpful to be clear about how you’re defining a key term, as opposed to how others in your discipline have defined it.  If there are multiple key terms you want to ensure the clarity and consistency of, you might run through this exercise for each of them in turn.

  1. Select one key term to focus on. Prioritize terms that are essential to your argument.
  2. List in a separate document each of the existing definitions you have encountered in the literature. You may want to organize these according to which author has proposed each definition, or according to your own appraisal of them.
  3. Identify which definition you are using, and whether you are deferring to another author’s definition or supplying your own. The important thing is to be explicit how you’re defining the key term and why.
  4. Read through your draft, looking for instances of the key term. Does it clearly correspond to your selected meaning each time? Is it conceivable that the reader might confuse the sense in which you use the key term for another on your list?
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