Key Terms: Introduction

In academic writing, there are times when certain words or phrases are made to carry precise technical meaning. In other words, there are times when certain words or phrases in academic writing get elevated to the status of Key Terms. This happens in every academic discipline for a number of interrelated reasons:

  1. because an analysis that seeks to “prove” a given claim must by necessity function as a kind of calculation, and while language will never be as rigid and precise as math or symbolic logic, defining key terms carefully makes it possible to conduct an analysis with a meaningful degree of logical rigor.
  2. because terms that name a complex concept or phenomenon can serve as a short-hand for that thing once it has been defined.
  3. because one way to contribute scholarly knowledge is to coin a term for a currently un-named concept or phenomenon in order to do the difficult work of identifying that thing’s defining attributes.
  4. because scholars need to know when they are and are not talking about the same thing.

As this list makes clear, the work of managing Key Terms is essential to academic writing. Put simply, it is not possible to participate in the project of collective knowledge-building without establishing precise meanings for the concepts and phenomena being discussed and analyzed. At times, managing Key Terms involves coining a new term and imbuing it with a precise meaning. At other times, it involves defining existing terms for your reader, commenting on the differences between competing Key Terms used by different scholars in your field, or noticing when you or someone else is relying on a word or phrase that should be treated with technical precision but is currently being used in a way that vaguely invokes a range of common-sense meanings.

Often, the work of managing Key Terms only becomes a priority in the revision process. In large part, this is because first drafts are a time when writing is used as an opportunity for thinking and figuring things out. Our ideas might grow and change as we proceed, and while that growth is a good thing in the long run, it means that early drafts rarely display rigorous consistency of meaning. Entries in this category offer ways to approach revision with a focus on managing your Key Terms.

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