You’re so vague…


It is important when writing about research to be specific. And by writing about research I mean writing about methods in a journal article, writing methods in a thesis or journal article, writing about research  design in a research bid. See what I did there? Specific, not vague.

Now I’m guessing you do know that examiners and peer reviewers always look to find the details in design and methods. They search for N = number of people, things and places, the times you are in your research location and the number of transcripts you are working on. If you don’t have these N details about the research, your chapter, paper or bid will fall down.

However, these are not the only places where it’s easy to be imprecise. You can also be vague and woolly in two other places – writing about what you want to do, and writing about your results. And, like not having N info, lack of attention to details here can cost you too.

  1. What you want to do

If you are doing an intervention study, design or action research, or a trial, you might find yourself using these words – improve, enhance, reduce, lessen, change. Problem. These are imprecise terms. The point of intervention studies is that you can see if you have achieved what you set out to do. So the words improve, enhance, reduce, lessen, change really don’t cut it.  You need to do more work on what these these terms mean.

Let’s take an example.

If you wanted to improve something – say the ways in which doctoral researchers approach literature reviews – then you need to make improve much more explicit. Does improve mean that DRs

  • read more or less – and if so how much,
  • read more often – and if so how often,
  • read regularly – and is that everyday, every week, or what,
  • read differently – and if so how,
  • write about the literatures differently  – and if so how,
  • take better notes  – and what does better look like,
  • read out of their field  – and does that mean specific field or any fields and what do they do when they do this…

and you can keep adding possibilities I’m sure. You get the point. You have to say what you mean in order to see if your intervention has ‘worked’.

  1. Your results

There are lots of places in reporting results where you can get very imprecise. Like saying lots of places. Words like lots, many, few, the minority, the majority, most, frequently, rarely, often, sometimes, are all classic instances where imprecision takes over. Problem. How is the reader to know what you mean?

An example or two will help.

  • What do we mean by often if we say  “Doctoral researchers reported often feeling out of their depth.” What is often – once a day? more? every five minutes? Or is it only once a week? There is a significant difference between these versions of often, and yet the term applies equally to all of the options.
  • What do we mean when we say the minority – “A minority of doctoral researchers reported that they enjoyed the PhD process.” What is the minority – one less than 50%? A third, a quarter, only one or two? There is a significant difference between these versions of minority and yet the term applies equally to all of the options.

Examiners and reviewers almost always pick up vagueness (two or three might not care but the rest of us do). While examiners and reviewers might let you get away with one or two instances of opaque, unclear and unfocused writing in results, we/they’ll not accept much more. And we/they’ll just outright reject any muddiness and obscurity in research design.

And even though I’m a person who doesn’t like rules, there is a maxim here. When writing about design, objectives and goals, results and claims, don’t ‘make vague’.  Through a text darkly ain’t on. Clear the fog away and say exactly what you mean.