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Resource Review writing for social scientists by howard becker

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13-07-02 Becker

Don’t let the hand-drawn, totally 80s cover  fool you – this is a terrifically smart, insightful book!

Overall: Becker provides advice like that friendly, older, wiser professor that you always wanted to chat with over beer or coffee. Because he’s seen so much of academia (since the 1960s!), he is able to give truly timeless advice that cuts to the chase of writing in academia. He doesn’t talk about mechanics of writing, but he focuses on the larger process of theorizing and writing. Plus, he has a great, relaxed sense of humor. Great advice, funny read, highly recommend!

Becker began teaching a writing seminar for graduate students and was surprised when fellow faculty members showed up to take notes! Becker soon realized that, even among academics who write for a living, there is an overhanging anxiety around writing. He didn’t feel like he had all the answers, but in that 1960s seminar classroom, Becker provided a space for talking about writing. Those conversations, and his experience since then, produced this book.

The main points:

  • We create crazy rituals around writing. Some people have to write at a certain time, with the lights set not to high or not too low, with the temperature just so, and on and on and on. We bring nearly magical charms to our writing stations because we are scared, even terrified. The first step is to realize that we are all scared when we sit down to type.
  • Editing and re-writing is absolutely essential. No one gets the wording perfect on the first go. You might re-write anywhere from three to nine times, or more, depending on your own process.
  • Most people tend to be too wordy, using 20 words when ten will do. Becker’s favorite question to ask as he edits, “Does this need to be here? If not, I’m taking it out.”
  • Why do we use more words than necessary? We’re trying to sound intelligent. We think that we need so sound stuffy and overbearing to “fit in” to academia. Becker says that’s a misconception because, actually, no one likes to read overblown, wordy essays, even professors. So, let’s all agree to just stop the madness, alright? (He says this as a former journal editor, too!)
  • Becker actually goes into depth about the notion that anyone who claims to be an academic should use long, complicated (pretentious) sentence structures, and he has heard that a lot of that notion from his graduate students. He persistently pushes back, though, saying that we should write in the clearest way possible, and he shows that most pretentious academic writing is not necessarily clear at all. He uses some truly fantastic examples of how one’s writing can be both simple and brilliant. Computer scientists use the word “elegant” to describe a simple, brilliant algorithm. Wouldn’t it be great if the social sciences advocated “elegant” writing?
  • Social science writers tend to use passive voice because the author doesn’t want to ascribe agency. It’s much easier to say, “The deviants were labeled,” than to say who labeled the deviants. Oh, you know, the social order labeled them! Your tendency to use passive voice may be covering a big, blank hole in your theory.
  • There is no one, right way to write your sentence, paragraph, paper, or book. There is not even one right way to organize the order in which you present your theoretical points or your findings. Becker provided an image here that is so very perfect in my mind that I wanted to share the quote in its entirety here:

“…[M]y colleague Blanche Geer wished for a way to write what she had to say on the surface of a sphere, so that nothing would have to come first. That would shift the problem of what to take up first to the reader. The image of writing on a sphere exactly captures the insoluble nature of the problem, as people usually define it. You can’t talk about everything at once, no matter how much you want to, no matter how much it seems to be the only way. You can, of course, solve the problem, everyone eventually does…Writers find the question of which-way-to-organize-it a problem, again, because they imagine that one of the ways is Right. They don’t let themselves see that each of the several ways they can think of has something to recommend it, that none are perfect. Believers in Platonic perfection don’t like pragmatic compromises and accept them only when reality – the need to finish a paper or thesis, for instance – compels it” (no page number because read on an e-book, citation problems abound).

  • Sometimes your “writing” problems are actually theory problems, and you won’t figure out how best to write those pesky paragraphs until you spend some time untangling your theory issues.
  • Becker’s rules for editing:

1. Use active rather than passive voice
2. Use fewer words
3. Avoid repetition
4. A clearer sentence structure leads the reader to more easily understand the content of your sentence
5. Use concrete rather than abstract words
6. Use well-thought-out metaphors (Don’t just throw in “the cutting edge,” when that means nothing to your piece. Really think through using metaphors to illuminate a difficult concept.)

  • Much of our anxiety about writing has developed because we know very little about what other people’s drafts look like. Becker recommends developing friends and peers with whom you can share early drafts, so they can provide feedback as you edit your work and so that you can see their works in progress.
  • Get it out the door. Yes, you could spend years, tweaking every sentence, improving the wording just a little more, but in the end, you just need to ship your manuscript out. People will have different turn-around times. Becker publishes a lot and frequently, but he admits that there is a time and place for a more carefully crafted book. The important thing is that you not allow your anxiety delay getting your piece out the door. When it’s done, it’s done, and move on with life.
  • Literature reviews have become less a way to discuss your theoretical issues and more a way to declare your academic allegiances. Becker is highly frustrated with all the unnecessary citations, and I do think he has a valid point. When we cite five, six, or seven authors in one set of parentheses, it starts to look a little silly. I like this quote from Becker, “Use the literature. Don’t let it use you.”

Becker’s down to earth style is inspiring.

We could solve so many of academia’s problems if we would learn to say, clearly and succinctly, what we mean. While some high-level vocabulary is sometimes appropriate, and some ideas are naturally quite complicated, writers should go the extra step to try to be as clear as possible and to avoid pretentious language for pretentiousness’ sake.

What do you think? Did any of Becker’s points strike you? If you aren’t in the social sciences, do you think any of this applies to your field of writing?

Comment below!

FREE QUIZ: Which "Publishing Path" Is Right For Your Book?

There are four different publishing paths for the modern author.
Do you know which is right for your book?

TAKE THE QUIZ