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.

Theory
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.

Tips
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.

Morals:
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.

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