Writing Better University Essays/Defining key terms

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Having decided what to include in the answer, there is another way to make sure the answer is focused: telling the reader what we are talking about. By defining what the key terms mean, we do two things. Firstly, we show that we know what we are writing about. Secondly, we avoid misunderstandings by settling on a single understanding of the key terms. It might be that your marker understands power in a Marxist way, and you want to approach the essay from a feminist point of view. By providing a brief definition, there will be no misunderstanding. Your marker may not agree with you, but that is not necessary to get good grades. A definition makes sure you and your readers talk about the same things. For example, you can define fruit salad as consisting of bananas, pineapples, and yellow apples (ideally you would have a reason for this, too). Having done so, your reader will not object when you later state that fruit salad lacks the vital bits of red.

In order to define the key terms, you first have to bluntly state what they are. Always include the key words included in the question. These have been identified as central concepts for you, and by excluding them, you’ll be very likely answering a different question from the one set. There are often other key terms you want to include, and it’s usually worth spending some time thinking about which ones are the key concept. This is time worth spending, because you can later use the concepts without giving any further qualifications or comments. For this reason you should also define the terms carefully. Having defined power in a particular way, for example, every time you use the term in the essay, it only means what you want it to be.

Providing the definition of the key terms also works as a signal to your marker that you know what you’re talking about. By defining power in a certain way, you demonstrate that you’re aware of other interpretations. In fact, it’ll often not be necessary to state what the other interpretations are, unless the distinction is a key aspect of the argument. Very often, you’ll use the work of somebody else to help you define the key terms. Make sure that you put references accordingly.

The following three paragraphs define the concepts social disadvantage, social mobility, and siblings. The definitions are taken from a range of sources, and referenced accordingly. In the context of another essay, these definitions may be too long or too short.

Social disadvantage, to start with, refers to a range of difficulties a person can be exposed to. Social disadvantages include a lower expectancy in educational attainment, lower prospects at work, or lower status in society (McLanahan & Sandefur, 1994). It has been demonstrated that social and economic disadvantages in society often come together, leading some sociologists talking about underclasses (Steinberg, 1999). Social disadvantage, however, does not necessarily have to be as extreme as that: it describes a relative difficulty in reaching a similar position in society than people not disadvantaged.
Such disadvantage in society has been shown to be transmitted from one generation to another. The term social mobility is often used to describe this phenomenon (Braham & Sherratt, 2002). Intergenerational mobility describes the difference between a person’s location in society as compared to his or her parents (Goldson, 2004). If social disadvantage is sustained across generations, it is often argued that in one way or another the disadvantage has been passed on.
Siblings, finally, in the context of this essay, refer to brothers and sisters of the same birth family. This means that siblings are biologically related, as well as living in the same family. For consistency reasons, often siblings are chosen that live in the same family with one other sibling only. This is thought to reduce influences of effects between siblings that are not the concern in the case here (Sandefur & Wells, 1999).

Depending on the length of your essay, you’ll have between 2 and maybe 5 key terms. Sometimes it takes a bit of time to think which terms are the central ones. Consider the following phrases as ways to define terms: X is understood as a process by which, X regards Y as, one view is that there is X so that Y, or X is commonly considered as.

Sources for Definitions[edit | edit source]

When writing your definition, there are a number of sources you can use to help you. Using a common-sense definition is hardly ever suitable. In many cases, a definition as found in a specialist dictionary will do. In other cases, you want something even more specialized, and consult your course material. Many introductory books define key terms, and then discuss them in more detail in the chapter. It’s important not just to simply copy a definition, but choose what is suitable for your needs. Bear in mind that every text, even a specialized dictionary, was written with a specific purpose in mind. What you need for your essay is likely to be a bit different.

Google and other internet search engines may be an easy way, but they are usually not suitable. Apart from the fact that your source may not be reliable, you’re likely to end up with a definition that is either too generic, or from a different area. A definition of power from a physics text may not be what we want in our discipline.

It’s often worth spending some time on the key terms. This is the case, because the way you set out this section will direct the remainder of the essay a great deal. Choosing a certain way to interpret a concept rather than another may be just as important as focusing on certain issues and not others in the main part of the essay. Despite its importance, the section providing the definitions should not be too long: focus on the concepts that are really central. These are usually the concepts that are recurring throughout the essay.

Next: Main part