Four Words to Avoid When Writing English Essays

OK, this post is for all the undergrads out there who will be writing English essays for me (or frankly for anyone else) in the future. There are a few words that you really need to eliminate from your writing in order to make your prose more concise, analytically rigorous, and meaningful. Of course, I can only speak to my own experience as a professor here, but damn, these words are meaningless. Don’t use them.

  1. Effective
  2. Accurate
  3. Important
  4. Successful
Alrighty then, let’s go through these one at a time, shall we?

1. “Effective”

This word crops up a lot in papers on poetry and Shakespeare and I am always a bit confused as to what it means. It usually crops up in two ways. First, as a kind of disingenuous intensifier; second, as a way of signalling basic comprehension of the text.

The problem is that “effective” actually can be a term of analysis when you start applying it to basic rhetorical analysis. That is, it makes perfect sense to say that Brutus’ speech in Julius Caesar was not effective. Why not? Well, it didn’t convince the Roman people, but Mark Antony’s speech really did rile them up. 

And just look at how pretty he is… that is part of his effectiveness… no, seriously!

Thus, you can use “effective” as a way of opening up a discussion about the rhetorical distinctions between those two speeches. One posits the audience in this way, the other posits the audience in this other way; one uses metaphor in this way, the other uses metaphor in that way. This form of analysis is always looking to the audience, investigating the relationship with the audience and what “the audience” means.

Too often, however, “effective” in papers ends up presuming that “audience” is identical with “me, the student writing this paper.” To such a student, a text therefore becomes “effective” if that student comprehends the text.  

“Gerard Manley Hopkins’ The Windhover is an effective 
statement about the beauty of nature.”

Well, yes… sort of… but that, at best, is only showing that the student has reached the very bottom of Bloom’s Taxonomy, but is trying to sound like something more advanced is going on.  

One version of Bloom’s Taxonomy.

In university, it is great that you “get” the text. But so what? Now that you “get” it, what are you going to do with it? The point of literary study after all isn’t just to memorize texts and their basic meanings. We do things with words. That’s the fun part.

2. “Accurate”

This is another of those cases where the word sounds like it is signalling some form of analysis, but really all it is doing is saying “look, I understood the words on the page!”  Again, that’s great, but there’s more to university literary study than simply “getting” a text.

When I’ve seen this in the past, it has come up in regards to the terms of representation. That is, all texts are representations, and representations have a fraught relationship with reality. Indeed, there might not even be an accessible reality underneath it all, if the post-modern theorists like Jean Baudrillard are correct. Dealing with representations, where those representations are not derivatives of a prior, authentic, “real” original is a hard concept to wrap your mind around, I know.

It`s so much easier to think in terms of `truth`and `lies.`

So it is not surprising that people want to say things like “Shakespeare`s representation of gender in the early modern period is accurate.” That said, what the hell does that even mean? Does it mean that Shakespeare in this text provided a completely descriptive model of what “gender” meant in the early modern period? Does it mean that he provided a partially descriptive model of one aspect of gender, which may or may not be complicated or refuted by other aspects of gender in the early modern period? Hell, for that matter, what do you mean by “gender”? Gender presentation? Policing? Gender bending? Gender as power? Gender as… well, you get the idea.

It’s almost like trying to say there’s a reality that is X. There is a representation that is Y. Now write a compare and contrast between X and Y. Wow, they overlap! I guess Y is accurate.

The problem is that there is no reality that you have access to as a student. There is ONLY representation. Every book you read is a representation (of a historical moment, of a poem, of an individual), even the history books aren’t the real events themselves, but representations of history. So at best, what you end up saying is there is this representation that is Y. There are a bunch of other representations, A, B, C, that all say the same thing. Well, Y is accurate.

That’s not accuracy. That’s intersubjective agreement. If you want accuracy, go to Engineering.

3. “Important”

A personal pet peeve of mine.

Never say something is important. It wastes words and says nothing. 

You may as well just write this.

One (very old-school) way to think about an English essay is that you are being asked to show how a text works. It’s like being told to explain how a car works. Now, you can talk all about the car and all the details of it, but if you say “the brake is important,” then that’s just wonderful, but what the hell does this “brake” thing do? How does it work? Is there one component or many? What does it add or take away from the overall purpose of this “car” of which you speak?

Also, which part is it?

Texts that we study in university are usually as, if not more, complex than your average VW Golf. If all you tell me about Isabella Whitney’s use of geography in her poetry is that it is “important,” then you’ve done no real analysis. On the other hand, if you tell me that it is important and here’s why, then why did you need to say it was important?

That is, if you explain what a “brake” does in a car, it is self-evident why it would be important for the functioning of the vehicle. You don’t have to then add “isn’t that important?!” Similarly, if you show how geography informs Isabella Whitney’s poetry, then you don’t have to add how important it is. It is self-evident from the explanation. 

Seriously, read Isabella Whitney’s Last Will and Testament. She’s awesome.

Finally, there is another reason why you should avoid saying “important.” I said above that in university literary analysis we do things with words. We tear them apart; we put them back together in new ways; we burrow into the different ways that they are related to each other; we fill old words with new meanings; we trace the changes in meanings of individual words… we do a lot. None of it is “important” – but then nothing is. That isn’t to say you should dive into the depths of existential despair, but that without being tied to the idea that what we do is “important,” we can play. We can seek Jouissance.

4. “Successful”

This is closely related to all the other ones insofar as the use is predicated on a misunderstanding of texts-as-representations. That is, what does it mean for a text to be “successful”? 

When I get this, usually students aren’t talking about sales or box office, so that metric is out the window. Usually students seem to talk about a text being successful if the text communicates some larger thematic concern: “Macbeth successfully depicts the struggle between good and evil.” 

Is this what it is to depict the struggle unsuccessfully?

Of course, all this actually means is that the student has identified a certain thematic element within the text and wants to communicate that. Whether or not those thematic elements are, in fact, in the text is another matter entirely.

Another way to think about why this word doesn’t work is to ask, why is one text successful and another not? I’ve seen this word attributed most often to Hamlet, to be honest. Undergrads seem fairly certain that Hamlet is a successful text. OK, fair enough. But why is Hamlet successful and, say, The Room is not?

Really, how different is this from “O that this too too solid flesh would melt…”?

When you start exploring that question, you have to start looking into how texts produce meanings and shape them, as well as how those meanings are determined and shaped by certain cultural moments, generic proscriptions, and audience expectations. Suddenly, the interest is not about how one works well and the other doesn’t – a matter of taste – but how both texts work in terms of what they do and how they do it.

Ultimately, as a professor of English, I don’t care about your taste. Like Shakespeare, don’t like Shakespeare; either way works for me. Tell me that you think he’s successful, sure, fine… I don’t care. What I do care about is that you are seeing how the text is both shaping you and shaped by you. I want you to move beyond knee-jerk aesthetic judgments and into analysis of the text that isn’t a matter of “success” or “failure.”

After all, as far as I’m concerned, all texts fail to communicate. In fact, that’s the most interesting part of them. But that’s probably for another time.


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