Students and researchers all write under pressure, and those pressures—most lamentably, the desire to impress your audience rather than to communicate with them—often lead to pretentious prose, academic posturing, and, not infrequently, writer’s block.
Sociologist Howard S. Becker has written the classic book on how to conquer these pressures and simply write. First published nearly twenty years ago, Writing for Social Scientists has become a lifesaver for writers in all fields, from beginning students to published authors. Becker’s message is clear: in order to learn how to write, take a deep breath and then begin writing. Revise. Repeat.
It is not always an easy process, as Becker wryly relates. Decades of teaching, researching, and writing have given him plenty of material, and Becker neatly exposes the foibles of academia and its “publish or perish” atmosphere. Wordiness, the passive voice, inserting a “the way in which” when a simple “how” will do—all these mechanisms are a part of the social structure of academic writing. By shrugging off such impediments—or at the very least, putting them aside for a few hours—we can reform our work habits and start writing lucidly without worrying about grades, peer approval, or the “literature.”
In this new edition, Becker takes account of major changes in the computer tools available to writers today, and also substantially expands his analysis of how academic institutions create problems for them. As competition in academia grows increasingly heated, Writing for Social Scientists will provide solace to a new generation of frazzled, would-be writers.
|Publisher:||University of Chicago Press|
|Series:||Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing Series|
|Edition description:||Second Edition|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.63(d)|
About the Author
Howard S. Becker lives and works in San Francisco. He is the author of several books, including Outsiders, Tricks of the Trade, and Telling About Society.
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Freshman English for Graduate Students
A Memoir and Two Theories
I have taught a seminar on writing for graduate students several times. This requires a certain amount of "chutzpah." After all, to teach a topic suggests that you know something about it. Writing professionally, as a sociologist, for almost thirty years, gave me some claim to that knowledge. In addition, several teachers and colleagues had not only criticized my prose, but had given me innumerable lessons meant to improve it. On the other hand, everyone knows that sociologists write very badly, so that literary types can make jokes about bad writing just by saying "sociology," the way vaudeville comedians used to get a laugh just by saying "Peoria" or "Cucamonga." (See, for instance, Cowley's  attack and Merton's  reply.) The experience and lessons haven't saved me from the faults I still share with my colleagues.
Nevertheless, I took the chance, driven to it by stories of the chronic problems students and fellow sociologists had with writing. I listed the course.
The turnout for the first class surprised me. Not only did ten or twelve graduate students sign up, the class also contained a couple of post-Ph.D. researchers and even a few of my younger faculty colleagues, and that pattern of enrollment continued in succeeding years. Their worries and troubles with writing overshadowed the fear of embarrassing themselves by going back to school.
My "chutzpah" went beyond teaching a course whose subject I was no master of. I didn't even prepare for the class, because (being a sociologist, not a teacher of composition) I had no idea how to teach it. So I walked in the first day not knowing what I would do. After a few fumbling preliminary remarks, I had a flash. I had been reading the Paris Review Interviews with Writers for years and had always had a slightly prurient interest in what the interviewed authors shamelessly revealed about their writing habits. So I turned to a former graduate student and old friend sitting on my left and said, "Louise, how do you write?" I explained that I was not interested in any fancy talk about scholarly preparations but, rather, in the nitty-gritty details, whether she typed or wrote in longhand, used any special kind of paper or worked at any special time of day. I didn't know what she would say.
The hunch paid off. She gave, more or less unselfconsciously, a lengthy account of an elaborate routine which had to be done just so. Although she was not embarrassed by what she described, others squirmed a little as she explained that she could only write on yellow, ruled, legal-size pads using a green felttip pen, that she had to clean the house first (that turned out to be a common preliminary for women but not for men, who were more likely to sharpen twenty pencils), that she could only write between such and such hours, and so on.
I knew I was on to something and went on to the next victim. A little more reluctantly, he described his equally peculiar habits. The third one said he was sorry but he'd like to pass his turn. I didn't allow that. He had a good reason, as it turned out. They all did. By then they could see that what people were describing was something quite shameful, nothing you wanted to talk about in front of twenty other people. I was relentless, making everyone tell all and not sparing myself.
This exercise created great tension, but also a lot of joking, enormous interest, and eventually a surprising relaxation. I pointed out that they all were relieved, and ought to be, because, while their worst fears were true — they really were crazy — they were no crazier than anyone else. It was a common disease. Just as people feel relieved to discover that some frightening physical symptoms they've been hiding are just something that is "going around," knowing that others had crazy writing habits should have been, and clearly was, a good thing.
I went on with my interpretation. From one point of view, my fellow participants were describing neurotic symptoms. Viewed sociologically, however, those symptoms were magical rituals. According to Malinowski (1948, 25–36), people perform such rituals to influence the result of some process over which they think they have no rational means of control. He described the phenomenon as he observed it among the Trobriand Islanders:
Thus in canoe building empirical knowledge of material, of technology, and of certain principles of stability and hydrodynamics, function in company and in close association with magic, each yet uncontaminated by the other.
For example, they understand perfectly well that the wider the span of the outrigger the greater the stability yet the smaller the resistance against strain. They can clearly explain why they have to give this span a certain traditional width, measured in fractions of the length of the dugout. They can also explain, in rudimentary but clearly mechanical terms, how they have to behave in a sudden gale, why the outrigger must always be on the weather side, why the one type of canoe can and the other cannot beat. They have, in fact, a whole system of principles of sailing, embodied in a complex and rich terminology, traditionally handed on and obeyed as rationally and consistently as is modern science by modern sailors. ...
But even with all their systematic knowledge, methodically applied, they are still at the mercy of powerful and incalculable tides, sudden gales during the monsoon season and unknown reefs. And here comes in their magic, performed over the canoe during its construction, carried out at the beginning and in the course of expeditions and resorted to in moments of real danger. (30–31)
Just like the Trobriand sailors, sociologists who couldn't handle the dangers of writing in a rational way used magical charms, that dispelled anxiety, though without really affecting the result.
So I asked the class: What are you so afraid of not being able to control rationally that you have to use all these magical spells and rituals? I'm no Freudian, but I did think they would resist answering the question. They didn't. On the contrary, they spoke easily and at length. They feared, to summarize the long discussion that followed, two things. They were afraid that they would not be able to organize their thoughts, that writing would be a big, confusing chaos that would drive them mad. They spoke feelingly about a second fear, that what they wrote would be "wrong" and that (unspecified) people would laugh at them. That seemed to account for more of the ritual. A second person who wrote on legal-sized, yellow, ruled tablets always started on the second page. Why? Well, she said, if anyone walked by, you could pull down the top sheet and cover what you had been writing so the passerby couldn't see.
Many of the rituals ensured that what was written could not be taken for a "finished" product, so no one could laugh at it. The excuse was built in. I think that's why even writers who type well often use such time-wasting methods as longhand. Anything written in longhand is clearly not yet done and so cannot be criticized as though it were. You can keep people from taking your writing as a serious expression of your abilities even more surely, however, by not writing at all. No one can read what has never been put on paper.
Something important had happened in that class. As I also pointed out to them that first day, they had all told something quite shameful about themselves, and no one had died. (Here what had happened resembled what might be called the "new California therapies," which rely on people revealing their psyches or bodies in public and discovering that the revelation, similarly, does not kill.) It surprised me that people in this class, many of whom knew each other quite well, knew nothing at all about each other's work habits and, in fact, had hardly ever seen each other's writing. I decided to do something about that.
I had originally told prospective class members that the class would emphasize, instead of writing, copy editing and rewriting. Therefore I made the price of admission to the class an already written paper on which they would now practice rewriting. Before tackling these papers, however, I decided to show them what it meant to rewrite and edit. A colleague lent me a rough second draft of a paper she was working on. I distributed her three or four page "methods section" at the beginning of the second class, and we spent three hours rewriting it.
Sociologists habitually use twenty words where two will do, and we spent most of that afternoon cutting excess words. I used a trick I had often used in private lessons. With my pencil poised over a word or clause, I asked, "Does this need to be here? If not, I'm taking it out." I insisted that we must not, in making any change, lose the slightest nuance of the author's thought. (I had in mind here the rules C. Wright Mills followed in his well-known "translation" of passages from Talcott Parsons [Mills 1959, 27–31.]) If no one defended the word or phrase, I took it out. I changed passive to active constructions, combined sentences, took long sentences apart — all the things these students had once learned to do in freshman composition. At the end of three hours, we had reduced four pages to three-quarters of a page without losing any nuance or essential detail.
We worked on one long sentence — which considered the possible implications of what the paper had so far said — for quite a while, removing words and phrases until it was a quarter as long as it had been. I finally suggested (mischievously, but they weren't sure of that) that we cut the whole thing and just say, "So what?" Someone finally broke the stunned silence: "You could get away with that, but we couldn't." So we talked about tone, concluding that I couldn't get away with it either, unless I had properly prepared for that sort of tone, and it was appropriate to the occasion.
The students felt very sorry for my colleague who had donated the pages we did this surgery on. They thought she had been humiliated, that it was lucky she hadn't been there to die of shame. In empathizing like that, they relied on their own unprofessional feelings, not realizing that people who write professionally, and write a lot, routinely rewrite as we just had. I wanted them to believe that this was not unusual and that they should expect to rewrite a lot, so I told them (truthfully) that I habitually rewrote manuscripts eight to ten times before publication (although not before giving them to my friends to read). Since, as I'll explain later, they thought that "good writers" (people like their teachers) got everything right the first time, that shocked them.
This exercise had several results. The students were exhausted, never having spent so much time on or looked so closely at one piece of writing, never having imagined that anyone could spend so much time on such a job. They had seen and experimented with a number of standard editorial devices. But the most important result came at the end of the afternoon when, exhaustedly, one student — that wonderful student who says what others are thinking but know better than to say — said, "Gee, Howie, when you say it this way, it looks like something anybody could say." You bet.
We talked about that. Was it what you said that was sociological, or was it the way you said it? Mind you, we had not replaced any technical sociological language. That had not been the problem (it almost never is). We had replaced redundancies, "fancy writing," pompous phrases (for instance, my personal bête noire, "the way in which," for which a plain "how" can usually be substituted without losing anything but pretentiousness) — anything that could be simplified without damage to the thought. We decided that authors tried to give substance and weight to what they wrote by sounding academic, even at the expense of their real meaning.
We discovered some other things that interminable afternoon. Some of those long, redundant expressions couldn't be replaced because they had no underlying sense to replace. They were placeholders, marking a spot where the author should have said something plainer but had at the moment nothing plain to say. These spots nevertheless had to be filled because otherwise the author would only have half a sentence. Writers did not use these meaningless phrases and sentences randomly or simply because they had bad writing habits. Certain situations evoked meaningless placeholders.
Writers routinely use meaningless expressions to cover up two kinds of problems. Both kinds of problems reflect serious dilemmas of sociological theory. One problem has to do with agency: who did the things that your sentence alleges were done? Sociologists often prefer locutions that leave the answer to that question unclear, largely because many of their theories don't tell them who is doing what. In many sociological theories, things just happen without anyone doing them. It's hard to find a subject for a sentence when "larger social forces" or "inexorable social processes" are at work. Avoiding saying who did it produces two characteristic faults of sociological writing: the habitual use of passive constructions and abstract nouns.
If you say, for example, that "deviants were labeled," you don't have to say who labeled them. That is a theoretical error, not just bad writing. A major point of the labeling theory of deviance (outlined in Becker 1963) is precisely that someone labels the person deviant, someone with the power to do it and good reasons for wanting to. If you leave those actors out, you misstate the theory, both in letter and spirit. Yet it is a common locution. Sociologists commit similar theoretical errors when they say that society does this or that or that culture makes people do things, and sociologists do write that way all the time.
Sociologists' inability or unwillingness to make causal statements similarly leads to bad writing. David Hume's Essay Concerning Human Understanding made us all nervous about claiming to demonstrate causal connections, and though few sociologists are as skeptical as Hume, most understand that despite the efforts of John Stuart Mill, the Vienna Circle and all the rest, they run serious scholarly risks when they allege that A causes B. Sociologists have many ways of describing how elements covary, most of them vacuous expressions hinting at what we would like, but don't dare, to say. Since we are afraid to say that A causes B, we say, "There is a tendency for them to covary" or "They seem to be associated."
The reasons for doing this bring us back to the rituals of writing. We write that way because we fear that others will catch us in obvious errors if we do anything else, and laugh at us. Better to say something innocuous but safe than something bold you might not be able to defend against criticism. Mind you, it would not be objectionable to say, "A varies with B," if that was what you really wanted to say, and it is certainly reasonable to say, "I think A causes B and my data support that by showing that they covary." But many people use such expressions to hint at stronger assertions they just don't want to take the rap for. They want to discover causes, because causes are scientifically interesting, but don't want the philosophical responsibility.
Every teacher of English composition and every guide to writing criticizes passive constructions, abstract nouns, and most of the other faults I mentioned. I did not invent these standards. In fact, I learned them in composition classes myself. Although the standards are thus independent of any particular school of thought, I believe that my preference for clarity and directness also has roots in the symbolic interactionist tradition of sociology, which focuses on real actors in real situations. My Brazilian colleague Gilberto Velho insists that these are ethnocentric standards, strongly favored in the Anglo-American tradition of plain speaking, but having no more warrant than the more flowery, indirect style of some European traditions. I think that's wrong, since some of the best writers in other languages also use a direct style.
Similarly, Michael Schudson asked me, not unreasonably, how someone ought to write who believes that structures — capitalist relations of production, for instance — cause social phenomena. Should such a theorist use passive constructions to indicate the passivity of the human actors involved? That question requires two answers. The simpler is that few serious theories of society leave no room for human agency. More importantly, passive constructions even hide the agency attributed to systems and structures. Suppose a system does the labeling of deviants. Saying "deviants are labeled" covers that up too.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Writing for Social Scientists"
Copyright © 2007 The University of Chicago.
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Table of Contents
Preface to the Second Edition
Freshman English for Graduate Students
Persona and Authority
One Right Way
Editing by Ear
Learning to Write as a Professional
Risk, by Pamela Richards
Getting It out the Door
Terrorized by the Literature
Writing with Computers
A Final Word
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