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Antonio Dias de Figueiredo
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Howard S. Becker, the author of "Writing for Social Scientists: How to Start and Finish Your Thesis, Book, or Article", is a social scientist. Of course, no respectable scientist, social or non-social, would dare generalizing to other fields of knowledge the findings laboriously made in his own field. So, Becker conservatively addresses his book just to "social scientists". Writing is, however, an essential aptitude for any scientist. In fact, it is no less crucial to the survival of the scientist, as a scientist, than his or her own aptitudes to read or think logically. So, what Becker writes in his book is just as important to social scientists as it is to any other kind of scientist. Quite paradoxically, most scientists initiate and develop their scientific careers without devoting a single minute of their time to specifically learning how to write. Anyone would agree that it is impossible to play good tennis without proper training, and whoever wished to become a professional tennis player by just playing along would very likely be regarded as downright naive. This is, however, what most scientists do when it comes to writing. Becker's book does not fall in the category of the so called "how-to" books. It is, rather, a personal reflection written in a very entertaining and conversational style by an academic who addresses his fellow academics, not from the top of a pulpit, but from the cultural standpoint of the beliefs, traditions, aspirations and rites of their common academic life. It covers, in this way, a remarkably diverse collection of central aspects of scientific writing, such as the crucial role of editing and rewriting (and rewriting, and rewriting), the fear of scorn, the encounters with writer's block, or the urge to produce pompous and obscure texts. As the book progresses, the readers notice that they are being faced with the main fallacies of traditional scientific writing and that they are being helped to build their own opinion on how these fallacies can be properly handled. One such fallacy resides in the belief that there is only one right way of putting things down on paper. In fact, most less experienced writers tend to believe that to write well is to get the text right the first time. So, they stumble in the beginning of their text, unsuccessfully trying to work out the best beginning (and believing that, if they don't, they will not be able to proceed). Often, they also stumble when trying in vain to get the best plan for their text. Indeed, they seem to ignore that a significant part of our knowledge is built through experimentation, and that experimentation begins inside our own minds, as we tentatively combine ideas and try to make sense out of them.
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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.