On The Importance Of Well-Defined Terminology In Writing (Even On Blogs)

There is a difference between mediocre writing that contains great thoughts and great writing that contains great thoughts. Something that gets overlooked, but is a key factor to good quality writing, is how terms are defined within your writing. A good goal to shoot for is enabling others to make agree or disagree statements, based on how your terms are defined. By this I specifically want to avoid “fluff”, ambiguous definitions of your core concepts. There are consequences to poorly defined terms and I wish to demonstrate those to you.

Meet Frederich Hayek the Austrian economist, recipient of the Nobel Prize in economics, and author of The Road to Serfdom. He states, “I prefer true but imperfect knowledge, even if it leaves much undetermined and unpredictable, to a pretense of exact knowledge that is likely to be false”. Hayek in some ways was referring to slogans used by British socialist parties. Phrases such as “social justice”, “freedom”, and “equality” can lose their meaning when defined poorly. Hayek believed that British socialists intentionally threw around “social justice” and the concept of equality under socialist policy to attract supporters without any true guarantees. A guarantee would be “every man earns x amount in wages” or “individuals earning more than x wages must forfeit a percentage of their earnings”. Hayek went on to state,“I am certain, however, that nothing has done so much to destroy the juridical safeguards of individual freedom as the striving after this mirage of social justice”. Here Hayek is outlining his belief that the blind following of slogans is crushing laissez faire and free market principles that are the foundation of individual economic freedom.

So in essence terminology transformed Europe into a collective of socialist states. Thus, clearly defined terms make your intentions very clear. Being vague may leave less opportunity for others to prove you wrong, but your readers may have widespread impressions of your ideas; you could end up with socialism when wanting democracy or vice versa. Think of terms as the logical building blocks of your idea or argument. If you start with a solid foundation that you define, then there is no room for a vast array of interpretations. Then build your analysis on top of that to give your audience a general direction.

Speaking of audiences, in some cases poorly defined terms exclude people unfamiliar with the specific topic or subject you are writing about. For example my mother was asking me today if “the market” will get better. As a student of economics I realize there are a million markets, but she was referring to the market for stocks within the United States. At the same time someone unfamiliar with economics may develop some strange notion of a cloud in the air that signifies the overall health of the US economy called “the market”. For people unfamiliar with your topic, basic explanations provide them with a gateway to access your logic. Great writing always explains the logical premises that lead to the conclusions; even if you really know what you are talking about, half hearted explanations represent sloppiness in terms of logic. In terms of people already familiar with your topic, defining terms clearly will also make your logic flow better because you have a solid foundation that supports your analysis. Also people in the familiar category can pick up on all sorts of underlying associations concerning your term, which you did not explicitly define. Making this a bad habit can really bite you in the behind when not intended as you give complete control of the meaning behind your words to the reader. In short, there is no reason not to have well-defined terms.

So far we have talked a lot about what poorly defined terms are and how to establish a logical basis for your writing. Now let’s concretely understand what I mean by well-defined. Well-defined terms evoke agree or disagree statements. Cow is defined as “a fully grown female animal of a domesticated breed of ox, used as a source of milk or beef” and if I defined it as “ruler of the universe and creator of cheesy goodness”, you would probably disagree with that statement. Therefore readers should be able to evaluate your statements and go yay or nay in terms of agreeing or disagreeing with your definition. Any ambiguity in good writing comes from analysis, not your initial definitions.

As bloggers we try to reach out to a variety of people with different perspectives. While you may not be defining some rigid, super important terms, keeping this in mind will allow you to make your writing as clear as possible to anyone who reads it, almost regardless of their knowledge base. People may disagree with you, but they will probably not stop to ask about your written intentions! Also this is a good way to include people outside the close knit circle of those who think the same way you do.

As a small disclaimer: this post is not about politics and I was stating Hayek’s opinions and not my own. If I pissed you off by accident, let it be known that I respect socialism and that was not my intention.

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