Establish Your Authority by Defining Terms in Your Own Words

I’ve seen a lot of books, both published and unpublished, in which authors use what I call the “Webster cliché.” This is the bit where the author brings up some aspect of his topic, and then, assuming the element is unfamiliar to the reader, writes something like this:

Webster’s defines “element” as “one of the simple substances air, water, fire, and earth of which according to early natural philosophers the physical universe was composed.”

This is a problem, and not only because I picked a different definition of “element” than one would expect from the context of the first paragraph. Continue reading