July 23, 2013

The Sociology of Writing Sociologically

SternheimerBy Karen Sternheimer

It’s been a while now since I started graduate school, but I suspect from current grad students at least one part of the experience remains: the struggle to prove to yourself and others that you belong in a Ph.D. program.

One of the ways we prove ourselves is to sound smart, learn the discipline’s jargon and use it as much as possible in our writing and conversations with other grad students and professors. In order for grad students to earn good grades on papers, they must show that they include and clearly understand what other sociologists have written about and how their research adds to the discipline. Advanced students strive to have their work published in a handful of well-regarded sociology journals.

Ironically, writing about our social world for other sociologists can make our work practically unreadable to anyone else.

I noticed this in my own writing a few years after finishing grad school. I knew I was writing about interesting topics, but the writing was formal, dry, and a chore to read. On a lark I decided to take a creative writing course one summer; in order to write for a broader audience, I had to unlearn many of the writing habits I picked up over the years as both an undergraduate and graduate student. Here is what I learned:

1.       Tell a story

No, don’t make up a story: sociologists tell true stories, the story that our data are telling us. This shouldn’t be too difficult, because we are trying to demonstrate how our social world is interconnected. Our enthusiasm for our findings should shine through in the writing; if it doesn’t, perhaps they are not worth writing about.

Some of the best writing about social science findings comes not from sociologists but from journalists, who are trained to draw readers’ attention through story telling, often starting with an individual anecdote and detailing how this example is part of a larger trend.

2.       Use simple but engaging language

Just like in face to face interactions, one of the ways people lose interest in our stories is if we clutter them with unnecessary words. Story tellers also know how to keep peoples’ attention as they are telling their stories. All too often, academic writing presumes that it is the reader’s burden to follow along if they are intelligent enough to do so. But good writing keeps a reader’s interest.

3. Get to the point

Writing for a broader audience isn’t like telling a joke, where the punch line comes at the end. We need to tell readers our main point right up front. 

This was a hard one for me to get. In a traditional journal article the findings and discussion sections are at the end, perhaps mentioned briefly in the abstract. But as journalists know, most people don’t read all the way to the end, so we have to tell readers the most important stuff up front.

How many times have you listened to someone speak and wanted to shout, “Get to the point!” Even if the story is a long one, we need to see why the details matter and how they are related to the main point. This is a difficult goal for many students to achieve when they are writing about previous research on a topic. It’s helpful to imagine the reader asking, “Why are you telling me this?” when writing about important but expository information.

4.       Structure matters

Sociologists know all about how social structure matters, but we can forget about sentence structure and the organizational logic of writing sometimes.  Shorter sentences may seem incongruous to people whose dissertation titles could fill a paragraph, but they are clearer for readers.

We also have extensive training in writing in the passive voice (“the topic was studied and findings were reported”) but the active voice (“I studied topic X and found…”) keeps the story moving because someone or something is actually doing something.

Social scientists often use the passive voice in an effort to demonstrate objectivity and to remove one’s self from the discussion of data. But people are interested in reading about people, so writing in the passive voice loses more of an audience than writing in the active voice does.

5.       Read what you aspire to write

If you want to write about sociology for a general audience, read work by sociologists for a general audience (like blogs, Contexts, and books written for the public). Or just read great narrative nonfiction, written by academic or non academic authors to get a sense of how they tell stories.

One great piece of advice I remember from grad school was to always read several issues of a publication before you submit a contribution to it. What range of topics do they include? What is the publication’s style?

If you are interested in reading its other articles, you are likely to have an easier time tailoring your work to meet its guidelines. If not you may be in for a chore, but this is sometimes a necessary part of climbing the academic ladder.

Of course writing for a general audience isn’t for everyone. There can be consequences for those at academic institutions that don’t value this sort of activity. As I previously wrote about, writing for the broader public can have its own unique challenges.

Above all, writing is a practice. It involves reading, writing, rewriting, learning, and then letting go. A colleague once compared writing to having an adolescent child grow up. You do your best with it, but what happens after it is out in the world can be entirely beyond your control.


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Well, it need to be understand that listening music, reading and writing, especially poetry, cooking and eating new food, running, and talking to people. Everyone has a story, and I try to hear as many of them as possible.

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