Writing for Social Scientists: How to Start and Finish Your Thesis, Book, or Article: Second Edition (Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing) Second Edition
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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.
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.
Top international reviews
I thought my problem was that I needed to frighten myself into producing stuff earlier, but since I read this book, I realised that the problem was about the bad habits I'd picked up from being a student. What Becker reveals is how real writers do stuff, that is, they let other people read their drafts, and get their views on it. The take-home message for me from this book was that you don't have to worry about your draft, because you're going to edit it afterwards anyway.
This helped me finally get out of my perfectionist prison where I'd not be able to put a sentence on paper til I felt it was perfect. Now I know that it's better to just write the draft, however crappy, so that you've got something to edit. This has quite literally changed my life. I can now draft, and enjoy the process of editing, rather than dread the 'blank page' scenario. Becker's writing style is easy to read and encouraging, and he's very honest about things that other writers (particularly academics) don't admit. Until I read this book, I don't think that what I was doing was writing in any serious sense of the word - it was a kind of adolescent essay panic lasting too long into adult life.
I liked the book for three reasons. First, I was relieved to learn that even great academics do not get their writing 'right' the first time; they constantly polish their papers while incorporating feedback from colleagues. Contrary to popular belief, therefore, writing then is not a solitary exercise; it is quite a social endeavour.
Second, the book allayed my fear of presenting written work to academic audiences. I - and I suspect most Ph.D. students - shudder at the thought that our inchoate ideas will be shredded by a savagely critical academic community the moment we put ideas to paper. Worse, we fear that the audience will treat our papers as finished work and judge us incompetent or uncreative. In the 'publish-or-perish' world of the academy, this may spell doom. Drawing on his personal experience, Becker advises young scholars to write and present their papers anyway. Or, if possible, to develop a network of friendly critics who can help improve their papers. That advice is not rocket science. However, in the cerebral, over-intellectualised world of academia, social skills are often underrated.
Third, Becker advises scholars to just do it: start writing. You can't learn to swim without getting into the water. No matter how many times an author plans the paper in her head, the paper will only be written when she puts her ideas to paper.
My main criticism of the book: Becker's argument that academics write in plain English is disingenuous. Academic social science journals notoriously use high-falutin words to describe simple concepts. According to Becker, academics do this in order to to sound smart. Afterall, if a simple concept were expressed in plain English, then anyone could say it? Why get a Ph.D? It is indeed refreshing to know that plain English is still good English in academia; I am all for plain English. Yet, Becker's recommendation is hollow. It is easy for a tenured professor like Becker to say that academic papers should be written in plain English. Sadly, however, young scholars will not get their papers published by writing in plain English. They must copy the style of the journals in which they hope to publish. Therefore, the solution to the proliferation of dense, verbose words in the academic literature is more likely to be institutional rather than individual. Journal editorial boards, which are staffed by professors like Becker, should demand papers written in plain English. One prominent journal that does this very well is the Journal of Economic Perspectives edited by Timothy Taylor.
Despite the Becker's unpersuasive recommendation to write in plain English, Writing for the Social Sciences is an excellent book. Scholars are reminded that fear of being judged on the basis of their unfinished papers is universal. The only way to write great papers is to start writing and thereafter, to polish, re-write, seek feedback, ruthlessly edit the work and submit it. Becker's book deserves four stars.