by thinkingculture: http://thinkingculture.wordpress.com/2013/08/06/writing-for-social-scientists-by-howard-becker/
I’ve posted before about how I like to read about writing, particularly when I’m spending dedicated time writing something.
Last week I was talking to my colleague Anne Akeroyd about Howard Becker, she kindly gave me an old copy of his book Writing for Social Scientists.
It’s a book I’ve wanted to read for a while but hadn’t got around to.
I’ve found myself returning to it repeatedly over the last few days. Its
full of inspiration, ideas and genuinely revealing insights into
I’ve used Becker’s book Telling About Society quite a bit,
and I liked his reflective and direct approach in that book - which
looks at forms of sociology from outside the discipline.
The Writing for Social Scientists
book is probably not what you would expect, unless you know Becker’s
other work. The rather tame and functional title is not at all
representative of the book’s lively and engaging content.
It is not so
much a nuts and bolts guide to writing as it is a whole ethos for
communicating sociology. The book contains some useful advice on how to
compose active and direct sentences and paragraphs, but the book does
not aim to be a prescriptive guide on how to write.
Instead this book is
far more useful. The generous and welcoming manner give the book some
real warmth. There is a sense of solidarity and encouragement in its
pages. Perhaps the most powerful sections of the book attempt to open up
the backstage of the academic writing process.
This book talks about
the anxieties and fears of writing, the inhibitions and barriers to
In one chapter Becker includes a lengthy letter from Pamela
Richards in which she describes the risks of writing and her own sense
of fear and difficulty - which includes the fear of showing early drafts
The book explores how we might build a network of people
we can trust to show early drafts to for comments. Indeed, it was the
sections on the various stages of writing that spoke directly to the
approach I try to use.
Becker talks about the need for early draft
stages that are about getting down ideas, which can then be edited and
worked up in to a more complete piece in later drafts. This then
alleviates the concerns associated with trying to write perfectly from
There are some really nice descriptions of the process, and
also some descriptions on the importance of not overworking ideas.
Indeed, Becker points out that taking a long time over writing pieces is
not likely to be directly connected to their quality.
The aspect of the book I found most encouraging came in the frequent
but gentle indications that we need to take some risks and avoid being
too safe. We need, he suggests, to ‘trick’ ourselves in to writing and
in to sharing our ideas.
Knowing Becker’s other work, you get the sense
that Becker wants us to break from the shackles and write in direct and
expressive ways about our ideas.
This is a book about leaving behind
inhibitions and the more problematic conventions of academic writing. It
shows the reader the shared fears and risks of writing so that they
feel less necessity to imitate. this increases confidence leaving
sociologists free to write and to experiment.
What I like is how open
and encouraging Becker is, how he leaves the guidance the book provides
open to different writing styles, how assured his own writing is, and
how encouraging and understanding he is in addressing fellow
The book goes far beyond a being a guide to writing and is
actually an account of the experiences of writing and a means by which
it might be used to facilitate creative sociology whilst being
incorporated more directly in to research processes and practices
(rather than simply reporting on that research).