“Often after entering the world of academia, students assume the need to showcase their understanding of a subject through their writing by using extensive and supposedly eloquent prose and vocabulary, in a pursuit to assimilate themselves into and join the ranks of those they view as highly intelligent beings: academics.”
The above sentence (which I wrote) is an example of “flowery language.” Students often use flowery language as a strategy to sound more professional in their papers. Flowery language occurs when elaborate words are substituted for simple ones and longer sentences are used to try to convey multiple ideas. It is an attempt to make themselves sound like they know more about a subject by using jargon terms and connecting different concepts together. However, I call flowery language a writing fallacy. I call it a fallacy because, more often than not, flowery language has the reverse of the intended effect: it makes students sound less confident in their understanding of a subject.
You may be wondering how this could be, since the readings you do for your courses definitely use elaborate words and long sentences, and yet they are respected works. Well, in short, there are important differences between writing papers as an undergrad and writing papers as someone who has specialized in a field for many years.
In my time volunteering as a Writing & Learning Peer at the SLC, the following are some myths about flowery language that I have had to debunk for students, much to their dismay, but importantly for their learning:
Synonyms mean nearly the same thing as each other, so it okay to substitute them/use them interchangeably.
Synonyms never carry the exact same meaning or connotation as each other. Especially if you are writing for a particular discipline where a term has a very specific meaning, a synonym is unlikely to convey the same message. Rather, using the same word when referring to a concept actually shows your understanding, because it results in a high level of consistency in your paper.
Often, when students feel they are repeating themselves, they use synonyms throughout the paper to substitute the repeated word, without paying attention to where the word is in a sentence. Contextual differences in the content of a paper are often a better determinant of which words should be used.
Example: “feelings” vs. “emotions”
The word “feelings” often connotes a lighter tone than the word “emotions.” We associate intensity and depth with emotions. We can “catch feelings” for someone but go through a lot of “emotions” when things go extremely well or badly. Yet, if you were to take a course in Cognitive Science, you would soon realize that the word “emotions” is not used to express a sentiment, rather it is a particular experience a person has in a given situation.
Therefore, before replacing one word with another, it is important to know what the original word means for your particular paper, and what meaning it conveys to the reader.
The feedback my professor gave me on my draft says I need to work on my writing. They probably mean I need to make my paper sound better, so I should use better words and fix my grammar in the next draft.
Remember that writing papers is a form of assessment for your professor to know if you truly understand a concept. When the professor asks you to work on your paper, they are often encouraging you to strengthen your content rather than how you phrase that content. Simply substituting synonyms will not show your professor that you know what you are talking about. In fact, you may get further away from clearly explaining your understanding, for the reasons mentioned above.
A word of caution
If you change your style of writing drastically between drafts with minimal change to the content of your paper, this is often a red flag for professors of potential plagiarism. Professors do compare drafts and will be suspicious if your second draft merely sounds more elaborate than the first and nothing else has changed.
Using concept terms and/or jargon from the field, as found in the textbook, will make me look like I understand the concepts better.
Concept terms and jargon have an important place and use in papers:
- when they are specific names that refer to an idea,
- when they are an umbrella term for multiple ideas,
- when they are universal names/concepts that are repeatedly used in the discipline.
It is definitely okay, and often even encouraged by professors, to use concept terms in your papers, but the difference lies in using them to refer to and/or explain a concept, and simply dropping them in as though they are an explanation in and of themselves. Term names do not stand in for a concept; you must be able to explain the concept yourself.
If you can explain a concept in simpler terms than your textbook, you actually show that you have grasped the core of the concept. This is because anyone can reword a textbook definition, but if you can simplify a concept enough to be able to teach it to a group of non-subject experts (or even elementary school children!), then you show a deeper understanding of the concept. Simplifying a complicated concept is not easy. This is what mastery looks like and what will truly impress your professor!
Quotes or a dramatic tone makes for a good hook.
It is true that a quote and/or a dramatic tone will definitely sound intriguing to a reader in the first line, but it is important to remember three things:
- your paper should be as engaging as your hook,
- your paper should be consistent and so you will want to be able to maintain that tone or make a clear transition to another tone, which can be challenging to do effectively;
- you need to be able to support the strength of your claims with the strength of your evidence: overly dramatic claims are often unsatisfying to readers because they cannot be supported by equally dramatic and strong evidence.
The point of a hook is to draw your reader’s attention to your paper, but it is the job of the paper to maintain that attention. If you are considering using a quote or a dramatic tone in the hook, it is important to consider whether the quote or tone is appropriate to the content of the entire paper. Furthermore, if you do use a quote, you should be explaining why you used the quote, or the quote’s significance to your content. Often, it is not straightforwardly clear why a certain quote has been used and your professor will likely be expecting an explanation, because whatever you write in your paper is fair game for being marked, including your quotations.
If I am writing about the health risks of smoking and miscarriages, starting my paper with, “Since the dawn of the new age, a deadly danger has lurked over the futures of young families…” is probably not appropriate for both the content of my paper and the seriousness of the topic. The tone is dramatic and could even intrigue readers, but I will surely not be able to carry this tone through the paper, when citing research studies or talking about personal stories or the biological, emotional or social effects. Rather the dramatic tone, if carried through the paper, may sound like it is mocking or even making light of the subject.
Such a tone is also likely to make my claims too dramatic to be supported by the available evidence... Am I really able to provide evidence about the lurking dangers of smoking "since the dawn of the new age" in my paper? And show convincly that those dangers have lurked over the futures of all young families? Probably not.
If I use the writing style of the author I am reading and responding to, I will sound like I have read the paper well.
- You are not the author and the author has likely had years of writing experience which allows them to present their topic in a particular way.
- You may lose the essence of your paper in stylistic errors or attempts. Again, your professor is not looking to see if you can respond to a reading in the same way as the author, but is looking to see whether you can respond to the concepts that the author presents. You are being graded for understanding the content, not writing style. Furthermore, students often lose the message of their original response when they begin to explain the response in more elaborate language or long sentences. This is because the author is likely using conceptual terms to link multiple ideas, because they already have other papers or books in which they have explained the concepts. Your response is not going to, and frankly should not, sound like the author’s work: it should sound authentically yours. You will have to explain your response, and simply dropping in terms will not do justice to your content.
But, a simply worded paper is not university standard.
Wrong! A simply worded paper is maybe not going to be published in an academic journal. However, simple and clear writing is precisely what your professor is expecting of you in your undergraduate career.
Remember that you are not being expected to write like researchers or professors, who are writing for readers specializing in a particular field. What your professor is looking for is simply to assess whether you understand a concept. The main focus in paper writing should be your content, not your writing style or word choice (except for important concept terms, which you should ensure you are able to clearly and consistently explain).
While this debunking may seem counterintuitive, given the vibe of “higher expectations” that learning in a university gives off, but these are hard truths that I have had to learn the hard way. I wish someone had told me about these myths at the start of my undergraduate degree, and so now I am telling them to you.
Your writing can only hold the weight of your paper as strongly as its content: words alone, no matter how beautiful sounding, cannot convey a message when there is none. Take my advice, stay off the flowery path for a bit, and hit that rugged terrain, because the view from the mountaintop is more victorious after a slightly challenging hike (all “flowery language” puns intended)!
- Deeya B., former Writing and Learning Peer, SLC