I bought the first edition of this book about 20 years ago and found it very helpful. I long ago misplaced my copy and so was happy to order the new second edition. On reading the book again, I found Becker's advice to be as good as I remembered, but I was disappointed that he had made so few changes in the "second edition." Essentially, the first edition has been reprinted verbatim--even typos weren't corrected--with a relatively few pages of additional material added to the last two chapters. Chapter 9 now contains Becker's general thoughts on recent software that he considers useful to writers. This discussion would have been more helpful if he had been willing to mention specific programs. I guess he decided not to either to avoid giving free advertising or to avoid dating the discussion. The last chapter gives some interesting, if brief, observations on the place of writing in modern academic life.
In short, if you already have the first edition, there's not much point in buying the second edition. If, on the other hand, you haven't encountered this book before and you would like some useful tips on academic writing, it's well worth the price.
on October 10, 2014
Becker's message for his readers is to set aside their fears, relax, and do it. As unimpressive as that advice may sound, it is laid out in very modest, clear, practical terms and, like all good analyses, it is hard to implement because it goes to the heart of the matter and questions the assumptions that guide people's writing practices, mostly without them realizing it. It helps that Becker has been grappling with similar problems for 30+ years as a writer, teacher, and editor. I will try to give a bullet list of what I took away from the book. That fails to do justice to the book, predominantly for two reasons: Firstly, the proof is in the pudding. If Becker is critical of citation practices, his own relatively short bibliography is rich and thought-provoking. Secondly, he has a knack for situating the problem in its context. Along the way, he appears to sociological gems of analysis like the dichotomy between head and hand, "the corruption of indicators," "pluralistic ignorance," etc. Some of the conclusions are a little too quick, but, overall, this is quality sociology applied to a common problem.
Some of the practical advice:
- What if I cannot organize the chaos of my thoughts in the form of an attractive product that I can then "export" to my readership?
This concern rests on a misleading dualism between thinking and writing, where writing is understood as the product of thinking rather than a process of thinking in its own right. Students tend to believe that, unlike them, adept writers simply sit at their desks and transcribe their perfectly orchestrated thoughts into well-structured compositions in one go. The dualism also blinds us to the complexity of the writing process and the different demands of, say, a first vs. final draft.
- Like accents, people's writing style gives away the kind of person they want to be. Classy locutions mostly have a ceremonial, rather than a semantic, purpose and, by dropping them, your writing gains clarity and loses pretense. "To overcome the academic prose, you have to overcome the academic pose." Writing style can also signal allegiance to a theory or school.
- Experiment with ritualistic behavior when writing. While it may be interpreted as neurotic and obsessive, crazy habits that you stick to can help relieve stress, especially in a process such as writing where you do not, however much you wish, exert total control over the product.
- Write first drafts "quickly and carelessly" precisely because you know you will be returning to revise it multiple times later.
- Collect pre-fabricated parts of text for use in the future if it sounds intuitively promising and remotely related to your research interests.
- Be frugal with your bibliography and citations. A bibliography was originally supposed to be about specific further information that the reader might find useful if your research interested them. For instance, a book that contains information in a generally similar area is not a good candidate for inclusion in your bibliography.
- Choose your metaphors judiciously. Trite and tired metaphors such as "a body of literature" do not mean much unless you are willing to say what the heart, brain, and other organs of that body map to in your metaphor. Otherwise, it is superficial, lacks seriousness, and is best left out. Metaphor, in this sense, is "a serious theoretical exercise," not a literary device to make your prose sound more flowery. This advice, obviously, does not apply to metaphors that are permanently built into our language.
- "Evasive beginning"s that are so common in scholarly writings are misleading and risk confusing the reader, if not the author. Rather than being suspenseful and Conan Doyle-ish, tell your reader where you are headed in the beginning. This does not mean that evasive, vacuous, almost meaningless sentences cannot be used in early drafts. On the contrary, committing to words can help you crystalize your thoughts in an iterative process. But such sentences have to be flagged and revised before you get your writing out the door.
Some of the insights (greatly expanded on in the book):
- Verbosity and "bulls*** qualifications" that shun explicit specification arise because writers want to avoid attributing causality or agency. Unnecessary words occur because writers want to hedge and avoid big claims or sound profound.
- Abstract words sometimes mean nothing in themselves, but "mark a place that needs a real idea." General words such as "relationship" or "complex" are good cases in point.
- The stories you can/choose to tell are more important than the theories you use to explain them.
- Rules are never as clear and unambiguous to have only one interpretation. This means there are no absolute rules for editing and the process is largely done "by ear."
- An outline might help in the early stages, but only if there is a dynamic interaction between it and the text. Writing frequently sends the author back to the drawing board.
on October 13, 2012
I am a communication graduate student working on my master's thesis. I purchased this book based on the many positive reviews here on Amazon. I found the book to be basically worthless. The book has a few practical suggestions, but is otherwise padded with personal anecdotes. Throughout the book I found Becker's writing style to be long-winded; he spent pages saying nothing of import. His writing style contradicts the advice he espouses for academic writers. The chapter "Writing with a computer" was written in 1986, making it outdated to the point of irrelevance, and should not have been included in the book. In my opinion, the worthwhile advice contained in this book can be summarized in two points:
1. Don't be afraid to write.
2. Don't be afraid to revise.
Other reviewers seem to have found this book to be helpful, and perhaps you will, too. But it told me nothing I didn't already know. The time I spent reading it would've been better spent writing my thesis.