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Not just psychology: how not to start an essay

Should you start an essay with a definition?

The simple answer is NO, but Daniel Chandler, an excellent communicator from Aberystwyth University (who has just edited a dictionary, so you would think he’d be very pro-definition), recently posted on Facebook:

Despite all my warnings, a 3rd year student is still starting an essay with definitions of key terms drawn from Wikipedia and miscellaneous online dictionaries. Argh!!!

– but then followed it up with some useful advice:

Unless the term is highly contested (when there is no single agreed definition), key terms do not need to be defined (it can be assumed that the reader knows) but an understanding of them needs to be demonstrated by the ways in which they are used in the essay.
Good psychology suggests making the reader’s first experience of a text in any medium arresting and interesting. It would be possible to begin an academic essay with some dramatically contradictory definitions from authoritative sources (as long as the subsequent essay explored this further). The let-down is the essay that begins by using low-grade sources to define terms about which there is little disagreement or with which the reader can be expected to be thoroughly familiar.

Note that nearly all this post is not All My Own Work, but it’s not plagiarism, because I’ve clearly stated my source, and clearly identified the words that aren’t mine (by using italics: you might think double quotes would have been clearer). However, you might count it as a pretty poor piece of work on my part, because it’s all Daniel’s points, not mine.

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