explain your terms – writing a journal article

That picky reviewer. They’ve questioned your words. Asked you to clarify. Suggested that you have things wrong. What’s that about?

Reviewers often take issue with the ways in which writers use particular terminology. They may politely suggest that some clarification would be helpful. The much less generous reviewer assumes that the writer does not know their field and/or isn’t sufficiently critical and reflexive – they demand more extensive changes.

You just have to grin and do what’s asked. But, particularly in a journal article, there often isn’t much room to go into all of the caveats, histories of argument and twists and turns that surround particular terms. In a more extended piece, like your thesis, you get space to wrestle with words and say just how you are interpreting them. And the examiner expects to see these extended discussions of contested concepts and tricky terminology.  However, in a journal article the reader mainly wants to get to the new material that you are offering. They don’t want to get bogged down in extended elaborations, they just want to know how you are using your terms and then for you to get on with it. They want you to focus, clarify and then move on.

So how to you manage to get on with it and be nuanced about your language at the same time?


Well, here are a couple of paragraphs from a paper that show one way to achieve this – to situate and define terms concisely.

I’m going to present the paragraphs first with some discussion and then show them as sentence skeletons that you might use to practice stating your particular case. Stripping out the content and leaving the rhetorical moves exposed is a helpful strategy for practising academic argument.

Please note that I’m not suggesting that these are perfect sentences and paragraphs – if there is such a thing –  and you might want to write them completely differently. The point here is simply to understand the moves that are being made – the moves give the journal reader enough information so that they can move on to the actual contribution, knowing what the writer means.

The text I’m using comes from a ( paywalled) paper written by Göran Gerdin entitled The ‘Old Gym’ and the ‘Boys’ Changing Rooms’: The Performative and Pleasurable Spaces of Boys’ Physical Education.

In a section which comes straight after the introduction, in which the purpose of the paper and its argument are outlined, Gerdin offers a series of paragraphs to clarify his key terminology and understandings. I’m going to use the first two only.

In the first paragraph, Gerdin states what he means by a problematic word in common use. He shows the reader that he understands the issues and debates about the word boy.

Article text My commentary
First of all, I want to reaffirm that, based on my Foucauldian and Butlerian lens, my use of ‘boys’ is in no way meant to essentialize or homogenize boys or their performances of gender. Although I use the term ‘boys’ throughout this article, I recognize that there are both multiple ways of being a boy and describing such gendered subjects (i.e., ‘young males’ or ‘young masculinities’). ‘Boys’ is used to refer to the male interviewees/subjects of this research in a colloquial rather than analytical sense. This descriptor was selected as it was used by the participants in this study to refer to both themselves and others (i.e., ‘being one of the boys’ and ‘come on boys’). The writer identifies a troublesome term – boys. He states the theoretical resources he is using – he then discusses how he is using the term in the next two paragraphs. In noting the theories, Gerdin also signals his wider positioning in the field – the reader knowns that the text is written with some kind of ‘post’ epistemological stance. Gerdin then says what he is not doing – he anticipates the concerns that a reviewer might have, showing that he knows the history of debate in the field. He states his basic position – there are multiple ways of being a boy. He then offers a justification for his use of the term, despite knowing its problems and having a different take on it – it is in everyday use and it came from the participants in the study.  In four sentences, Gerdin has signposted knowledge of the field and its debates, he demonstrates that he is using a tricky term in full knowledge of its difficulties.

Here are the moves that Gerdin makes:

First of all, I want to reaffirm that, based on (theoretical position), my use of (troublesome term) is in no way meant to (explains the critiques that are made of said troublesome term).

Although I use the term – repeats term –  throughout this article, I recognize that there are (states the ways in which he understands the term).

(term) is used to refer to (names who/what) in a (how the term is used and is to be understood by the reader)

This descriptor was selected as it was (reason for using the term despite its difficulty).

Gerdin next goes on to address the ways in which he is using his theoretical resources to address the key idea in his paper – gender. It is important to note that he does not offer an extended essay-like discussion of these two theorists, but rather, shows how he uses them to explain gender. This paragraph extends the explanation he began in the previous paragraph.

Article text My commentary
By using the term ‘performativity’ (Butler, 1990), I take the position that gender comes into existence as boys perform, using the resources and strategies available in a given social setting. By adopting the position that gender is performative, I reject essentialist categories of masculinity and femininity as these can be seen to conceal gender’s performative character (Butler, 1990) and instead draw on Foucauldian theorizing to argue that masculinity and femininity are not fixed to the male or female body (Pascoe, 2007). Thus, I define masculinity and femininity as concepts which are detached from the biological body and part of discourses which shape performances of gender. Gerdin begins by offering a statement about what her understand the term performativity to mean when it applied to gender. He then states what follows from this position – he points to interpretations that he doesn’t make and wont make in the paper. He again anticipates potential reader concerns, while simultaneously showing his epistemological positioning. Gerdin then states how he understands gender – masculinity and femininity – drawing on his second theoretical resource. To conclude the paragraph he offers the definition of masculinity and femininity that he uses in the paper.

This is a pretty brief discussion of two highly complex theoretical resources. So I assume that this brevity means that the readers of this journal are highly familiar with these theoretical approaches, –  they only need to see a succinct statement or two to show that Gerdin also understands them and is as familiar with them as they are. However, the moves that Gerdin makes in three sentences could easily expand – they might become three paragraphs in a paper written for a journal in which readers were less accustomed to this way of thinking.

Here are Gerdin’s moves:

By using the term (key theoretical term and reference) I take the position that (outline the meaning that underpins the paper.)

By adopting the position that (connects key theoretical term to key idea in the paper), I reject (outlines major problems that often appear in writings on this key idea) and instead draw on (name of additional theorist and piece of theory which is used in the paper) to argue that (more about how the key idea is to be understood).

Thus, I define (terms integral to the key idea) as concepts which are ( summary of the two points put together as the working definition used throughout the rest of the paper).

Sentence skeletons – writing in someone else’s tracks – can help you to develop more concise expressions of your own positions, terminology and definitions. You might like to try Gerdin’s moves out for yourself. Looking at his rhetorical moves and pouring in your own content may help you to understand one of the ways in which you can tell your readers how you understand and use your own key terms and ideas.

You might like to find some definitional paragraphs for yourself, in your field, and do the same exercise. Strip out the content to see the moves that writer makes. Put your content in.

How does it feel to be this precise?

Image credit: Albert, Flickr Commons

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, definition, journal article, sentence skeleton, terms, theory and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to explain your terms – writing a journal article

  1. Kate says:

    May I ask if you can recommend some readings for the writing of extended elaboration on term definitions in a thesis? How should I justify my adoption of a term definition when there are many existing definitions? Thanks!


  2. Sarika says:

    Thank you for the great tips on rhetorical moves! Could you please post something about using qualifying language (qualifiers)??
    Dr Sarika Kewalramani


  3. Thank you so much for this. I will finally tackle writing a journal article to publish and I needed help in making terminology clear. Dr. Franchetta Beckford


  4. Matthew says:

    Thanks for the tips.


  5. Rosalie Mathie says:

    Your blog is fantastic! I wish I had found it before I wrote my thesis not at the end! However, i’ll keep it in mind for the future and use your advice over the next few weeks whilst I attempt to revise my thesis to make sense 😉


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