Don’t Know Your Key Terms? Try a Word Cloud

The first step in managing your key terms is knowing that certain words and phrases are key terms for you. Whereas it is usually fairly easy to know when terms in other people’s scholarship are being used to convey technically precise meanings, it is usually less clear when you yourself put enough weight on a particular word or phrase that it is no longer being used to convey a common-sense, shared meaning to your reader. The below revision strategy uses word cloud applications as a tool to help you identify words you rely on a lot, some of which may benefit from being treated as key terms.

Word clouds can be useful for refocusing and clarifying your key words, and, by extension, refocusing and clarifying your overall argument. Word clouds are a form of data visualization that takes a piece of writing and identifies the most commonly used words in it, and then shows you a diagram where the words used with the greatest frequency are the largest. This can also be useful for finding key words you have not yet identified in a paper, because it can show you the frequency with which terms and concepts appear in your paper and therefore how much they are emphasized within your argument.

If you are working digitally, you can use various kinds of software that can generate word clouds with descriptive terms (i.e., leaving out “stop words:” prepositions, articles, etc.). Some free options are:

  • MonkeyLearn: a research cloud generator that allows you to upload the text of your document directly.
  • WordItOut: a highly customizable option with a variety of fonts and formats.

Step 1: Plug in your paper to whichever piece of software you’ve chosen.

Step 2: Once you have generated your most frequently used words, consider whether they align with what you consider to be the key aspects of your argument to be. If not, what can you change to better include those aspects? Consider the utility of your key words to your overall argument. If there are multiple synonyms coming up in your word cloud, for example, is there a unifying term that you can use to better summarize these concepts and avoid overwhelming your reader with multiple terms?

Step 3: Ask yourself, is it clear what these terms mean, or do you struggle to define them? Do they clearly connect to your overall argument? If the answer is no, defining your key words more precisely in the text of your essay could help make their relevance clearer. If defining your terms further does not help clarify their relevance to your argument, those words may be filler—not really necessary for your argument, and therefore something you can remove to focus your argument further.

Step 4: Finally, can you identify two or more words in the word cloud that are close in meaning? Sometimes, the presence of multiple words that are closely related in meaning can be an indication of an under-defined Key Term. Consider whether a cluster of synonyms would be better revised into a precisely defined term.

For an analog solution, try writing out the key words you think are most relevant, then reordering them based on how important you think the descriptors are to understanding your project. Then read through your work again, noting how often each of the words you identified appears. If they are less present in your project than you assumed, consider reframing your paper in order to further communicate the importance of those aspects to your overall argument.

Consider these related revision strategies: “Fractured Logic and Unconnected Claims: Argument as a Matter of Hierarchy,” “Will my reader know what’s important? Mapping and signposting as tools to navigate between claims,” “Disorganized first draft? Color-coding as a tool to reorganize and restructure” and “Lost Your Work’s Narrative: Reverse Outlining and Storyboarding as a Method of Reordering Your Work’s Structure.”

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