Category Archives: Random

Random fluffy thoughts. In English.

On reader’s block

Occasionally I find myself amid stormy and difficult relationships with my sociological readings. During those dark times, I would struggle between carefully crafted lines, flip back and forth with a speed of 10 pages per hour, and return later only to find myself remember not a single word. There was a time I spent eight hours trying to summarize a thirty page paper on history of conversation analysis. Instead of devouring, I felt myself devoured by that merciless monster. I felt thoroughly alienated from the youthful lives that had been occupying library seats around me. In an ironical sense, I felt the kind of scholarly loneliness.

With regard to the infamous “writer’s block”, I name this phenomenon “readers’ block”. This painful experience is by no means unique to me. My supervisor used to tell me that her graduate students have this problem too. They would blatantly complain to her that they could not understand the readings. She, with the kindness of a mentor, would respond that this was due to their lack of background knowledge, not talent.

I suppose that for a graduate student in sociology, losing the ability to read is like the second most frightening nightmare – the first is losing the ability to write. Let’s be honest, there are not many professional technical skills left disposable to sociologists. How many student enter this filed, not as a march towards mastering sociological imagination, but as an escape from math and science? And how many times are sociologists bitterly criticized by statistician for using statistics in an incorrectly way? On hearing my transfer to sociology, the first thing that came out of my statistics professor’s mouth was:” Oops, then you have to read those gigantic books!”

My impression is that reading as a skill tend to be undervalued, especially when compared with writing. As one of my professor recalls her encounter with researchers in hard science: “we do experiments and complicated math, but you – you read.” Also to quote Hilma Wolitzer, a writer, those with talents become professional writer while those without become “much better readers”.

Yet reading and writing are nothing more than two sides of the same coin. After all, it is sociologists themselves who write those impossible readings for each other. Sociologists of our time write from what they have read, and what they write continue to trouble the next generation. Thus the difficulty of reading is closely intertwined with difficulty of writing. If only the power trio had produced less convoluted text!

I want then to posit the relation between writing, reading and codification. Writing is the process of codifying sociological knowledge into text, and reading is the process of translating the codified text back into knowledge. Thus any difficulty in these two processes reflects failure in codification or de-codification.

For example, we always say that ambiguity in writing is the ambiguity in thinking, but this only accounts part of the truth. Difficult text might result from either inscrutable knowledge that cannot be codified, or merely unfamiliarity with the skill of codification. In other words, sometimes we cannot write because we don’t know what to write, other times we cannot write simply because we don’t know how to put down what we know onto paper.

The same applies to reading. Failure in reading is failure in de-codification. Now that I recall, the problem with that forbidding paper I spent eight hours on, is that it requires a translation key that I do not have. It’s too “deep”. And in my supervisor’s words, I might lack the relevant background information. But there are other texts that are hard to read simply because the language they use are unnecessarily cumbersome. Some criticize that those pretentious texts are produced by scholars who seek to hide the secret that they don’t know anything at all. Because the knowledge to be codified is easy, they manipulate the codification process and make the resultant text hard.

I don’t want to go deeper into a discussion about professionalization of sociology that I cannot handle. In this post I only want to destigmatize my reader’s block by passing the responsibility to someone else, and rekindle my faith in being a good graduate student. After all, reading can be fun – as long as you don’t run into German or French writers.

An Unintended Encounter

I bet you are familiar with that overwhelming feeling of facing a 10 page essay assignment. This always get me freaked out. As usual, to avoid the pain of actually writing it, I instead turn away to study “how to write” it. Typical me.
That’s how I picked up this little book by Howard S. Becker, Writing for Social Scientists. My criminology professor recommended this one to me when I asked him how he could be so productive in publishing top research papers. With a modest cover, the book doesn’t look much different from other written instructions. Moreover, since its subtitle starts with a “how to”, I thought this would be an instrumental book filled with handy grammar rules.

But I was wrong. Being an influential American sociologist, Becker writes his book in a subtle, sociological way. This doesn’t mean he writes convoluted scholarly sentences. On the contrary, his writing is so accessible that I frequently lose his thread of argument. The point here is Becker approaches the difficulty of writing in a sociological way. He analyzes the social origins of the problem, and discusses the process that creates the problem. Instead of selling specific writing tips, Becker actually talks about an informal theory about writing and sociology of profession.

I have to admit that I am disappointed both by the style and content of this book, because all I want for tonight is a clear written reference book that can be quickly digested in two hours. But for this one? It takes me the whole night to read the first five chapters and I am not sure I grasp all of the main arguments.

I titled this as “an unintended encounter” because I heard of Becker’s name long ago. My then supervisor recommended his 1967 book “Outsider” as leisure reading to me. She might be fond of this one because she was trained at Chicago – Becker is known as one of the Chicago school scholars. Also, at HKU we learned about Becker’s labeling theory in criminology class. Anyway, I just didn’t expect to run into Becker here.

So what exactly did Becker say in the first part of this book? I divide my take-home into two parts: theory and tips. To save time I have to use bullet list again. I am not surprised at all that I write super slow in English.

Becker’s discusses how the hierarchy structure of academic world creates the problem of writing for students and young scholars. Students as subordinates learn the preferred style of writing from their professors in education system. Those scholars talk in a pretenious way, so their students also talk this way. Another point is that sociologists writes in difficult way to show they know more than ordinary person. They use writing as device to establish expertise and authority.
Also, the excessive use of passive construction reflects sociologists’ fear of committing to causal claims.

1. Free writing. Write down everything you think of in your first draft, in an as fast as possible way. Identify key arguments and support in this draft. Reorganize them. Edit and rewrite them. A clear and sound outline is unnecessary.
2. Fix dissertation topic. Write one hundred dissertation topics in one to two sentences. After twenty five of them you will find there are in fact all about two or three key arguments and their variations.
3. Use active verbs and put crucial actions into them.
4. Use fewer words if possible. This can be done in editing and rewriting.
5. Don’t repeat yourself. Similar point at 4, but at sentence level.
6. Only use carefully constructed metaphors. “The tournament of associates” is good metaphors, while “a growing body of literature” is cliche.

1. Nothing will happen without work. But you must also take some chances, show others your work and open yourself to criticism.

I don’t know whether I will read this book again in the near future. For now it seems the “Berkerley Guide to Writing” is more helpful. This one is good, but just takes more time for me to understand.