Is Your Prose Murky and Full of Jargon? Try This Writing Exercise: “What I Really Mean Is…”

As we write, it is easy to get caught up in the world of our ideas. Writing is itself a form of thinking—on the space of the page, we often find ourselves making new connections, recalibrating our Argument, and adding new paragraphs and bits of analysis. Often, these new ideas are not as developed as the older ones and consequently our prose becomes murky, too abstract, or repetitive. In turn, this negatively impacts the Style, Tone, and Voice of our prose. When we write our first drafts, the lines blur between accepted terminology and Key Terms that are either niche within the field or coined by us ourselves. This entry proposes informality as a revision strategy. In other words, it considers the value of articulating your ideas in a context that frees you from the obligation to “sound academic” and helps you say what you mean in a less formal way, helping you think, and write, more clearly.

To articulate what you “really mean,” try the following exercise.

Step 1: Choose a section or a handful of paragraphs. As you review the text, highlight any passages that are particularly vague, abstract, or unclear. Indicators of a lack of clarity include a high concentration of jargon, a very long paragraph (i.e., longer than one double-spaced page), and frequent use of filler phrases like “the fact that”.  Awkward and unclear wording tends to occur when you are explaining a complicated theory/concept/bit of analysis — either yours or someone else’s.

Step 2: Read the awkward or unclear passage aloud, then put down your essay, and without looking at it say, “What I really mean is…” Finish the thought out loud. Say what you mean without worrying about how it sounds. Don’t try to use “academic language” unless it comes easily to you. Speaking aloud can clarify seemingly complex points in your mind and allow you to write about them more effectively. You might even consider recording yourself talking, and write what you are saying.

Step 3: Alternatively, if you don’t like talking things out, try Step 2 as a writing exercise. Instead of saying “what I really mean is,” write down “what I really mean is,” and then write down what you meant to say as simply as possible.

At the end of this exercise, you should have a simplified restatement of your complex explanation. Repeat for any other awkward sections.

See Unsure of Reader Objections to Your Work? Strengthen your Argument by Playing Devil’s Advocate for more on the act of becoming your own audience.