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Ask Dr. Editor

Being understood outside your discipline

How to immerse yourself in the linguistic world in which your readers live, write, and think.



Dr. Editor’s response:

The answer to almost every writing query is “audience and context,” and my response to this question is no different. Let’s figure out first how to determine your readers’ conception of ‘occupation’ in a few different contexts, and next, whether or how to define your key term for your reader.

Context: The journal publication

Once you’ve determined which journal you’d like to publish in, find a database that will enable you to run a full-text search within that journal. As an experiment, I searched for your keyword, “occupation,” in the journal American Sociological Review, restricting my search from 2009 to 2019. I ran this search in both SAGE Journals Online and Google Scholar’s Advanced Search; SAGE gave me 281 results, while Google Scholar gave me 3,040.

Scrolling through these results, I saw two contexts in which the word “occupation” appeared: primarily, it was used to mean “employment” or “career,” but it also appeared to refer to the military and political occupation of one state by another. I couldn’t find a single instance of the word “occupation” being used to refer to an individual’s unpaid activities — only their paid ones.

What you create when you scroll through a list of Google results — when you’re able to see the keyword bolded, and in context — is the beginnings of a concordance. A concordance is similar to an index in a book: concordances list all the major words used in a text as well as the contexts in which these words appear.

If you have the time (or the graduate student support), you could create an abbreviated concordance of the last 10 years of a journal. Using Count Wordsworth, generate a list of the words and short phrases that you use most frequently in your writing. Cut and paste your keywords into a blank document. Then, search for these terms in your target journal, noting in your doc the number of times each term appears, and providing some exemplary contexts. By developing a quasi-concordance that is highly tailored to your needs and interests, you’ll generate a firm evidence base from which you can analyze the language of your target audience.

If there’s an audience you need to address regularly — if you’re in the health sciences but you’re seeking to have your research applied in, say, education or medicine — this sort of deep dive into your readers’ vocabulary could improve your ability to translate your knowledge into their context.

Context: The grant application

As best you can, determine who is serving on the selection committee for your grant application. If you have the names of specific individuals, search through the journals in which they publish regularly, as above. If you are applying for funding from a clinical or professional association, search for your key term in their journal.

For some funding organizations, such a search may not be feasible. I volunteer as a reviewer for the Vancouver Foundation’s Systems Change grants, and the names of all 62 advisory committee members are listed on the Vancouver Foundation’s website. Looking up the publications associated with all 62 people — of whom only a select few will be reviewing your application — is likely too time-consuming. In such a context, you can instead search the language used on the funder’s website and in their publications, such as annual reports or newsletters. Your readers will be well-versed in these documents.

Context: The policy brief

Policy briefs, unlike journal articles and grant applications, don’t require an in-depth understanding of the texts your audience usually reads. One simple rule governs all advice for writing to this kind of broad, generalist audience: use plain language.

The characteristics of plain language include:

If you regularly write policy briefs, consider spending some time with the excellent 48-page Plain Language: Clear and Simple, produced by the Canadian government in 1991, and available for free online thanks to the research and advocacy of my Editors Canada colleague Iva Cheung.

Replace or define — strategically

If you’ve determined that your readership won’t understand your term — or won’t conceptualize it the way that you conceptualize it — then you are left with two choices. The first is to find a substitute for your term. Some alternatives to “occupation” that you might consider include “paid and unpaid labour,” “activities of daily living,” or “work and leisure activities.” Once you’ve chosen your substitute term, don’t fear repeating it. We sometimes think we need to have variety in our language, but including a string of synonyms has the potential to confuse your reader, who may have difficulty understanding if your different phrases are synonymous or if there is some subtle, unspoken difference in connotation between them.

Your second choice is to define your key term. Craft this definition carefully: help your reader to picture your definition by incorporating concrete terms. In your case, you’d want to say something like “people fill their minutes, hours, and days with activities and actions — that is, occupations — that can be paid or unpaid.” This kind of clear, concrete definition is preferable to an alternative like, “occupations are the set of activities in which individuals participate.”

This latter sentence uses broad terms that are difficult to picture in the mind’s eye: if I asked three different people to illustrate “a set of activities” or “individuals participating,” I’d probably see three very different images. If I asked these same three people to describe “people” and “minutes, hours, and days,” though, they’d probably give me very similar descriptions.

When you describe with abstractions, it’s difficult for your reader to picture your concept in their mind’s eye — and consequently it’s difficult for them to mentally grasp your definition. By using precise, concrete terms that most people will define in similar ways, you’re helping your reader to connect your key term to words and concepts they already understand. It will consequently be easier for your reader to store and re-access your key term in their memory, reducing the cognitive burden they need to carry to understand your work. To further clarify your definition, you could also provide some examples of occupations that are relevant to your discussion.

In short

To ensure you’ll be understood, immerse yourself in the linguistic world in which your readers live, write, and think. Once you determine how they conceptualize your key term, you’ll understand how you need to adapt your language so that your message will be well understood.

Letitia Henville
Ask Dr. Editor is a monthly column by Letitia Henville, a freelance academic editor at She earned her PhD in English literature from the University of Toronto. Have a question about academic writing or editing? Send it to her at
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