The vagueness problem in academic writing

Dear Readers. Shaun Lehmann, Katherine Firth (of the Research Voodoo blog) and I are currently in the process of writing a new book for Open University Press called ‘Writing Trouble’.

The proposed book evolved out of our work on the Thesis Bootcamp program, a writing intervention originally designed by Peta Freestone and Liam Connell. Over the years all of us have been running our own bootcamps we have met hundreds of students struggling to put their final thesis draft together. These students have supervisors who are clearly great researchers, but cannot give good feedback on writing. The book works backwards from the confusing feedback students have showed us. ‘Writing Trouble’ will help you diagnose and treat your thesis writing problems.

Part of our process with this new book is to test out some of our text on our audience – you. If you’d like to know more about the book before it’s published, you can sign up for our writing trouble mailing list. Here is the first post on ‘vagueness’ by Shaun – he’s interested to see if it’s too… vague. Take it away Shaun!

Research students often receive comments like these:

  • I’m not sure what you are trying to say here
  • Do you mean x, or y?
  • What is ‘it’?
  • Be more specific

Reading this feedback can be an incredibly frustrating experience. You thought had been crystal clear – why can’t your supervisor understand? Did they read it in the dark?

Unfortunately, it’s far more likely that your writing was suffering from ‘vagueness’ – a constant problem in English. English-speaking readers (especially in an academic context) will only do a very small amount of work to figure out what you mean before they respond with confusion. I’ve spent a lot of time with research students for whom English is a second/other language. Vagueness is an especially common for this group of PhD students, but it also plagues less experienced writers. Why does it happen?

When you level up to a research degree, there is increased scrutiny of your work. A big part of communicating successfully in academic English depends on your ability to identify and eliminate multiple meanings from your text. Surprisingly, once you learn how to do it, dealing with vagueness in your text can actually be very enjoyable, in addition to making you a better writer and editor.

Before I go on to explain some techniques to deal with vagueness, it is important to understand why the English language behaves the way it does when there is ambiguity. For this, I will turn to the work of the late anthropologist Edward T. Hall and his concept of high- and low-context cultures.

In essence, a high-context culture is one in which a listener/reader is comfortable making use of contextual information and applying their common sense in order to understand messages. These languages developed in tight knit communities who shared a lot of experiences in common. You can think about a high context language as being full of ‘insider speak’.

For instance, it’s likely that you understand cultural references and memes that completely mystify your parents. In a high context language you can take a lot for granted and don’t have to explain yourself. You may also see cultural communication styles like this referred to as listener/reader responsible. As it happens, some of the most common first languages of students writing in English are derived from high-context environments: Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Indonesian, Thai, Arabic, and to some extent Spanish and French.

On the other hand, a low-context culture relies much more so on the content of the message. Low context languages developed in situations where people living next to each other were different – such as in trading ports and countries that have been repeatedly colonised – such as England was for thousands of years. Waves of invaders: Romans, Vikings, the Normans disrupted the close bonds of society and this meant people had to work hard to understand each other.

In a low context language the recipient of the communication brings very little to the table in terms of securing understanding. The onous is on you to make yourself understood. These cultures are also therefore referred to as speaker/writer responsible. This communication style is especially common to the Germanic cultures of Northern Europe, and therefore to English as well.

Let me give you a small example of how this difference in context-reliance plays out in everyday speech, taking Japanese (high-context) and English (low-context) as our languages of comparison. Let us imagine two people stepping outside on a cold day. In Japanese, you can express that you feel cold by simply saying ‘cold’ – the listener will look at the situation at hand, understand that the weather is cold, and then guess that what you mean is that you feel cold.

In English, you need to do much more work. If you just say ‘cold’, your listener will probably respond with ‘what’s cold?’. This is because the listener in this case is not as comfortable with guessing what you mean based on context and common sense. For this listener, it is not possible to know whether you meant ‘I feel cold because the weather is cold’ or whether you meant ‘I’d like to direct your attention to the fact that the weather is cold, though I myself am not bothered by it’. Further, it actually isn’t even completely clear whether you are talking about yourself, as you haven’t said ‘I’. This is why in English we must say ‘I’m cold’ or ‘it’s cold’, if we hope to be reliably understood.

Stay with me – I will give a more academic example later.

As we can see, the English speaking listener (and by extension reader), is likely to be confused if there is more than one meaning implied in any statement. A useful way of thinking of this is that English speakers interpret communications on a possibility basis and not on a probability basis. Being 80% sure that you meant x is not acceptable, as there is still a possibility that you meant y. A successful English-language communication is one that has only one possible meaning.

So returning to the common (annoying) feedback at the top of this post, if you are being told that you are being vague, it means that you are writing in a higher-context mode than the reader and asking them to be probabilistic where they want more certainty.

How to Deal with Vagueness

Forget your supervisor or examiner, this is your reader!

Dealing with vagueness is about learning to ‘get out of your own head’. As I have implied, context-dependency issues can arise for writers with English as a second/other language, but they can also occur for native speakers who are simply too close to their work (a common problem for thesis students).

A useful technique is to learn to read your work through the eyes of a kind of caricature of the low-context communication mode. You need to imagine a reader who is highly intelligent and logical, but who has no common sense and will fail to interpret any multiple meaning in the way you had intended.

I call my version of this the Commander Data Meditation based on the robotic Star Trek character of the same name, but it works just as well to imagine Sheldon Cooper from the Big Bang Theory or any other hyper-logical character.

This technique is best used in combination with what I call the 48-Hour Rule. After you have finished writing, put aside your work for 48 hours. This is long enough to forget the exact words you chose, but to recall exactly what you meant to say. Sit down with your work, close your eyes, and put yourself into the mode of the character that works for you.

First warm yourself up with some simpler (and more humorous) examples. For each of the below, identify the multiple meanings, and then re-write them to make these multiple meanings clear.

Here’s an example:

  • During the incident, the defendant struck the man with a walking stick.
    • During the incident, the defendant used a walking stick to strike the man.
    • During the incident, the defendant struck the man who was holding a walking stick.

Now try the following:

  • The star was observed with a telescope.
  • I saw the tree coming around the hill.
  • It is widely acknowledged that flying planes can be dangerous.
  • I shot an elephant in my pyjamas.

Here is an example based on a real thesis:

“Some recommendations are still relevant and can be implemented. Most of the recommendations were related to project management, public debt management, budgetary reforms and financial sector reforms.”

In this case, two sets of recommendations are identified in the first sentence, 1) all recommendations, and 2) the recommendations that are relevant to be implemented. While it may have been perfectly clear to the writer that they were referring to 2) when they said ‘Most of the recommendations…’ in the second sentence, in my low-context mode it becomes clear that the writer could actually be pointing to either set of recommendations. I would then edit the text as such to remove this second meaning:

“Some recommendations are still relevant and can be implemented. Most of these still relevant recommendations were related to project management, public debt management, budgetary reforms and financial sector reforms.”

Now, go back to your thesis. As you read, try to identify where anything you are saying might be interpreted as having more than one meaning. Treat for vagueness as you have above.

While it can be frustrating to be told that you have vagueness issues, I think you can see how the fix is quite simple. The key is to remember that you aren’t writing for a clone of yourself, with all of your knowledge and experiences. Nor are you writing for someone who can be relied upon to ‘fill in the gaps’ in what you have said.

Thanks Shaun! What do you think? Is this post on vagueness helpful? Do you have any other writing trouble you would like help with? Now is the time to ask! We hope you will be able to buy ‘Writing Trouble’ in mid 2018, if all goes to plan.

Related posts

Using deliberate practice to improve your writing

Doing a copy edit of your thesis

Sign up for the writing trouble mailing list

41 thoughts on “The vagueness problem in academic writing

  1. Peter Isdale says:

    Shaun’s analysis is attractive. In hindsight, many of us who are low-context natives really are quite indulgent in our expectation that our readers will do the work of understanding what we meant to convey out of a spectrum of possibilities. I’m guilty. From now on, I’m going to write as if trying to convince an imaginary Vulcan. Excellent test. Thank you.

  2. Jakub Samoraj says:

    Thank you that is good!

    On Tue, Jun 27, 2017 at 7:01 PM, The Thesis Whisperer wrote:

    > Thesis Whisperer posted: “Dear Readers. Shaun Lehmann, Katherine Firth (of > the Research Voodoo blog) and I are currently in the process of writing a > new book for Open University Press called ‘Writing Trouble’. The proposed > book evolved out of our work on the Thesis Bootcamp p” >

  3. Aimee says:

    This makes so much sense and has been very helpful – thanks, Shaun! Like that I can blame English for my communication failings!

  4. Lynne Kelly says:

    This is a really excellent post. I have this problem constantly. It is like what has been referred to as my ‘convoluted syntax’ – great long sentences which make perfect sense if you read them with the emphasis in my head when I wrote them, and none if you read them any other way. Shaun’s suggestion of reading a few days later often picks this up.

    The other issue I had in the thesis and subsequent books was not wanting to treat my reader as stupid. I always assumed that things I knew (even though I had just discovered them) were well known to everyone else, especially examiners. So I didn’t want to explain and imply that they didn’t know it. My supervisor was constantly asking the questions which started Shaun’s piece. Using Commander Data Meditation as the reader is a great suggestion!

    Thanks, Shaun!

  5. Mathea Roorda says:

    Shaun, this was a really clear post about vagueness. It was interesting (I’d never thought about high/low context in relation to language) and it finished off with some practical tips. Thank you.

  6. kabiraj says:

    thank you so much for some practical ideas and tips, I frequently get the feedback as vagueness in writing. Now I got the idea, I will be writing it as if Mr. Sheldon Cooper is reading it :). Oh! I did not use 48-Hour Rule in this comment.

  7. linwinn says:

    The post is useful, thanks. I have also found the ‘so what?’ question helpful when reviewing writing. I do query the assumption though ‘For instance, it’s likely that you understand cultural references and memes that completely mystify your parents’. I recently completed my PhD and will soon be 60. I do not consider it unusual and there will be mature students reading the book. My father is in his 80’s and would not be mystified either.

  8. Patricia Harris says:

    Absolutely fantastic, I love the idea of using non-academic examples as a warm up exercise and will certainly be introducing such activities in to my workshops with UG as well as PGs.

  9. MS says:

    Thanks very much, this is so helpful for me! I always get told I am too vague, and the worst question of them all: “I am not sure what you are trying to say here”. I am hopeful that your tips will have me hear these things far less 😉

  10. nyctootcyn says:

    I think this identifies a problem I frequently have. My specific case is that when writing a technical paper I often adopt the jargon and assumptions of the field and my advisor writes the exact quotes above – “what are you trying to say here?” – because he has a different background. Subfield jargon = high context mode! It feels great to understand it a different way than just being told to write with more clarity.

    I agree that a thesis should be written low context, but I sometimes feel miffed about rewriting my technical papers to be lower context. If the top guys in the field are writing high-context, then shouldn’t I be writing high context if I want to join their club? Or is it just a mistake to not write in a more accessible way, which costs me nothing but a little revision time?

  11. ceciliafenech says:

    I have quite enjoyed reading this. Although my PhD writing happened quite a while ago, I now work to support academics to write grants. I can say that this problem is pervasive even after people get their PhDs. I quite liked the language link, as it has been something I have noticed a couple of times, but could never pinpoint it.

  12. Polly Grainger (@PollyGrainger) says:

    This is spot-on. I have to remember that I’m becoming the expert on this topic in this relationship. I now have to support my supervisors on the content while they support me on the style. Of course they’ve learnt a lot from my past iterations.
    The point I’m taking is that: if they are asking for clarifications with either/or type questions – what will the examiners think? One is likely to to be a subject matter expert who’ll have less difficulty, the other is probably going to be a methodology expert. I have to write for two completely different writers.
    Thank you Shaun.

  13. littleleafcopyediting says:

    This is such an interesting post! I especially like the discussion about how English differs from other languages. Many students, even undergrads writing research papers, can learn much from this. Thanks for sharing!

  14. Eveline says:

    Good post, ik look forward to read the book.
    I am from a low context culture (being Dutch) but it suddenly made sense to me why users of sign languages (woh often now each other, often contexts all familiair to them, etc), my phd subject, sometimes are so vague… in my eyes… the are from a high context culture! What a brilliant insight

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