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Unpacking Jargon—Part One

by | Nov 5, 2018 | Advice, Editing and Revision, Nuts and Bolts

Jargon serves important functions in any field of activity. It lends accuracy and efficiency to communication within a subfield, and terms that begin as jargon may eventually enter into common use: consider the current popularization of specialized terms like “intersectionality,” “epigenetic,” or “VPN.” But in grant writing, jargon can be risky. The need for precision and the need to demonstrate your immersion in your field must be balanced against the need to communicate clearly to a diverse audience of reviewers. Reviewers may come from outside your subject area, from different fields, or even from outside academia. Your proposal must communicate to reviewers that you know what you are talking about, and that you have something important and interesting to contribute, without making them feel confused or frustrated. Moreover, your proposal must be coherent and possible to be understood quickly by reviewers, as they have limited time to read each application. Finally, some funders prioritize the ability to communicate research to the public or to students, and your proposal gives evidence of your communication skills. Study the funder’s materials closely to learn about their reviewers and review criteria, so you can adjust the level of technical detail and jargon in your proposal accordingly. When in doubt, it is wise to err on the side of clarity and readability by replacing, unpacking, or defining highly technical or theoretical language.

One way to limit your use of jargon is to begin a draft by describing your work in plain language. To avoid slipping into your academic writing mode, you may even want to speak into a recorder or to a friend rather than sit down and write at this point. Once you have described your project in plain language, as jargon-free as possible, put it in writing. Then look for the areas where more specific detail or technical language is needed, and elaborate on those areas, using jargon as sparingly as possible.

Another strategy is to ask someone outside your field to read a draft of your proposal. Learn about what kinds of reviewers will assess your application, and match your readers to the expected composition of the review committee. Ask your readers to mark words and phrases that they find unclear, or that they think would be difficult for readers who are unfamiliar with your area.

Part Two of this post [link] offers more specific advice for addressing jargon that you or your readers have identified.

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