1. Curry, Kim PhD, FNP-C, FAANP
  2. Editor-in-Chief

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"By using your intelligence, you can sometimes make your problems twice as complicated."


-Ashleigh Brilliant (1985)


Ashleigh Brilliant (yes, that's his real name) is an 88-year-old British author and cartoonist. Brilliant came to the United States in the 1960s and studied at the University of California at Berkeley. He then spent time in the Haight-Ashbury area of San Francisco during the "Summer of Love" in 1967. We will probably never know if his incredibly original thinking and quote-worthy writing was influenced by his choice of activities during that time. Nevertheless, his witty epigrams have long been appreciated as timeless and often hilarious reflections on the faults and foibles of humans. Brilliant is a true wordsmith.


I have been rereading some of Brilliant's quotes recently as I reflected on a trend I am seeing in scholarly writing of using words somewhat carelessly. Turning a research study or an academic or clinical project into a publishable manuscript warrants serious consideration in the selection of each and every word. Often, although, it seems that authors introduce words, including really important words like key terms, without gifting readers with a definition. The problem this creates is more than one of frustration for the hopeful reader. It creates a lack of clarity for the entire manuscript. Clarity of purpose, clarity of meaning, and clarity of outcome. As a result, the significance and impact of the entire paper is called into question.


When are definitions needed? At a minimum, for any key terms, major constructs, variables, and common terms used repeatedly in the manuscript. There are many words, constructs, and phrases for which multiple definitions exist. In the case of some words, their definitions and common usage have changed over time.


The Purdue writing laboratory (2021) contains useful information on definitions. Three things should be included in a well-crafted definition:


* The term (word or phrase) being defined


* The broader class or concept to which the term belongs


* The differentiating characteristics that distinguish it from other terms



Added to this, authors should take care to define each term in a way that is measurable so that change over time can be assessed.


My ongoing observation of the problem with missing or misguided definitions indicates that the reasons are multifactorial. They include common and understandable problems such as losing sight of foundational elements of the paper after months of having a laser focus on data analysis. They also include an author's assumptions about the number of available definitions. Personal feelings, evolving science, or lack of knowledge of how to construct a definition can also play a role. Here is a look at some problems with defining terms that have appeared in recent manuscripts. Brilliant's quotes provide a convenient summary of each.


"The greatest obstacle to discovering the truth is being convinced that you already know it."


The author's assumption is that each reader shares the author's definition of the term in question. The term is not defined or incompletely defined.


"I like who I am, and I'm puzzled to find that not everyone shares this opinion." (Brilliant, 1985)


This author creates his/her own novel definition for a word that is inconsistent with another current and often widely acknowledged definition. There is no explanation that addresses why a new definition is needed or why the existing one is inadequate.


"There has been an alarming increase in the number of things (we) know nothing about." (Brilliant, 2021)


The author omits multiple definitions.


"To be sure of hitting the target, shoot first, and call whatever you hit the target." (Brilliant, 2021)


The author defines variables or other terms based on the findings in the paper when this was not the stated plan for the research or project.


"I may not be totally perfect, but parts of me are excellent." (Brilliant, 1997)


The definition lacks key elements. For example, the definition of a key outcome indicator does not provide a means of measurement. Readers are therefore unable to assess whether improvement has occurred based on the definition.


"My sources are unreliable, but their information is fascinating." (Brilliant, 1997)


This author provides a definition and cites the source. However, the source is not evidence based and the accuracy and completeness of the definition are questionable.


It is imperative to define terms used in scholarly writing and to clearly communicate the definitions selected. Progress over time cannot be ascertained if definitions are vague and unmeasurable. Clinicians and writers understandably have individual and subjective definitions of words, terms, and constructs. Professional communication requires transparency in defining terms and an ability to locate or develop definitions that will be useful to evaluate outcomes and advance science.




Brilliant A. (1985). All I want is a warm bed and a kind word and unlimited power. Woodbridge Press.


Brilliant A. (1997). I may not be totally perfect, but parts of me are excellent, and other Brilliant thoughts. Brilliant enterprises.


Brilliant A. (2021). Brilliant thoughts in 17 words or less.


Brilliant A. (1980). I have abandoned my search for the truth, and am now looking for a good fantasy. Woodbridge Press.


Purdue Online Writing Lab (2021). Writing Definitions. Purdue University.[Context Link]