Generalizing in essays and term papers

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1. You should avoid generalizing in essays. It works against the spirit of academic inquiry, and leads away from precision and accuracy. Instead, it leads towards sloppy thinking and the sort of empty prejudice which fills tabloid newspapers.

2. Generalizing often arises from attempts to avoid the first person mode, or from misguided efforts to appear rather grandiose in style.

‘Encountering Catherine Mansfield’s well-sculpted prose, the reader immediately feels that …’

3. As a substitute for ‘I feel …’ this is both clumsy and unacceptable. It suggests that all readers will respond in the same way and that there is only one possible response to the subject in question.

4. Try to avoid this expression and all its variations, such as ‘the reader becomes involved with…’ and ‘the reader’s attention is gained … ‘.

5. Another common form of generalizing arises when a specific example is discussed as if it were a general truth. It might be tempting to say ‘Thus Marx’s work shows us that …’ However, this suggests that you have read everything Marx ever wrote – which is probably not the case.

6. Variations of this approach occur in phrases such as ‘Women in the nineteenth century were all …’ and ‘The French have always been a nation which finds it impossible to …’.

7. Whatever the conclusions to these two statements, they are making claims about every woman in the nineteenth century and the entire population of France. Neither statement is likely to be true, because there will be so many exceptions.

8. The solution to this problem (in both cases) is to be more accurate and precise. This is a matter of clear thinking rather than written style – but it is at this point that the two subjects intersect.

9. If you wish to make such a claim but do not have exact numbers or percentages – then you should be more cautious and modest. You could at least say ‘Many women in the nineteenth century were …’ and ‘Many French people seem to …’.

10. Keep in mind that most essay assignments are asking you to deal with the specific details of your subject. You will gain more credit for claims which are modest yet accurately supported, than ones which are grandiose but unproven.

© Roy Johnson 2003


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