I’m reading a lot of scholarly writing these days. Unfortunately that means that I’m reading a lot of bad writing these days. I have some sympathy with these writers–they are writing about complex topics in a discipline (psychology) which has a long tradition of bad writing. I worked many, many, many hours on my honors thesis and only managed to get it out of the “bad writing” category, not into the “good writing” category, except perhaps here and there. However, there are two very easy things we can all do to make scholarly writing better: Stop using the words “utilize” and “extant.”

“Utilize” means no more or less than “use,” and “use” is a better word because it’s simpler and everyone knows what it means.

“Extant” means no more or less than “existing.” Scholarly writers love to refer to “the extant literature” on a topic. It’s not just bad because most people don’t know what “extant” means, it’s bad because if you do know what it means, you know it’s completely superfluous in the phrase “the extant literature.” That is, unless you are really making the distinction between the literature that exists and the literature that does not exist. And you are not.

It may be that folks who are using these words just can’t help it, in the way that a guitarist who has just learned a bunch of flashy licks can’t help playing them all the time. The thing is, you are a writer. You get to edit. Please edit out these words.

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