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Just one month into graduate school, I sat with a few of my fellow graduate students as we read first drafts of various fellowship applications. By editing each other's work we accomplished two goals. First, we honed our writing skills, digesting the feedback offered to us and reshaping our proposals accordingly. Second, we gained an appreciation for the source of each student's passion for sociology. We were no longer neophyte sociologists but union organizers and nonprofit directors who somewhere along the way identified sociology as a critical part of our social justice work. Looking back on that occasion, however, the one thing I remember most is the violence we did to those early drafts. Unflinchingly, we abandoned the sections of our proposals that connected our own histories and emotions to our sociological projects. We beefed up our methodological arguments, cited every relevant theorist, and replaced voice and lyricism with scientific authority. At the end of this massacre, we sat in silence, each staring down at the ink-scratched pages before us. The silence continued until one woman muttered the words we were all thinking but were afraid to admit out loud for fear that public pronouncement would make them true: “I guess our days of writing creatively are over.”

The scholars in this volume will share with you the philosophies of writing they have developed throughout their careers. They will pair their dedication to the discipline with a well-versed narrative of its literary shortcomings. But, from the vantage point of a graduate student, I will recount my adaptation to sociological writing and my perspective on the dominant views on writing in the discipline. All too often, sociologists see good writing as an either-or dilemma. Either strong writing entails grammatical precision, preserving the rigor of positivist inquiry, or it demands narrative and rhetoric, eschewing any pretense of positivist scientific analysis. I find these two quests intertwined, however. We cannot write well without attention both to grammar and to narrative. Rather than separate the two goals, allocating one to the positivists and one to the subjectivists, we must pursue both. Failing to do so limits the potential of our enterprise by dehumanizing the subjects of our research and shackling our prose. By treating our subjects as individuals and embracing their stories, we give meaning to our research and offer a richer and more coherent description of the social world. In doing so, we neither undermine the scientific foundations of our discipline nor reaffirm them. Instead, by embracing these stories, we begin to bolster the technical aspects of our writing and to broaden the reach of our discipline.

Learning to Write Like a Sociologist

  1. Top of page
  2. Learning to Write Like a Sociologist
  3. Stories as a Writing Tool
  4. Bringing in Narrative
  5. Resistance and Action

From our first weeks of classes, few of us in graduate school looked back to our days of creative writing, to the times when professors encouraged us to incorporate voice and individuality into our papers. Although no professor or course explicitly taught us how to write sociologically, we quickly learned from the structure of our classes and our assignments that we should focus on the logic of our critiques, not the quality of our writing. We learned to mimic a prosaic professional style, polishing our ideas and our arguments but not our writing. Unbridled overachievers, we embraced this style for what it offered us professionally, without devoting much attention to the pranks it played on our writing. We began substituting ten-letter words when three-letter words sufficed. We overused prefixes and suffixes, inventing ridiculous words like “decomplexify.” We did so in order to flaunt our intelligence or at least to assuage our worry that we lacked any. We learned that the most respected sociologists coined new phrases to describe the social world. Thus, we coined as many new phrases as we could, even when our arguments did not require it. To demonstrate objectivity and authority, we abandoned our attention to passive voice (although this strategy accomplished neither). We learned that in the professional world, those who look back to their days of creative writing risk being turned into pillars of salt. And, finally, we began our articles and papers with eloquent quotes from others. These quotes were both a means of salvaging some creativity when there was little room for it and a means of masking the lack of creativity in the text to follow.

Many of us do not realize the habits we developed over time. In our early socialization as graduate students, we lamented the loss of our creative writing, but as we progressed through our programs, we accepted its passing. Now, we write to meet deadlines, and our bad habits, as Kai tells us, have become reflexes. Writing, however, should never be a reflex. It should never be something we do just to avoid the flames of a hot stove, the prick of a pin, or the sharp tongue of a professional critic. It requires deliberative thought, continuous revision, and painstaking attention to detail. We must read each sentence carefully, avoiding passive voice, unnecessary prefixes and suffixes, and fifty-cent words. We should consider the possibility that if we cannot explain something simply, we might not understand it as well as we think we do.

Bad writing takes multiple forms. When papers overflow with jargon, poor sentence structure, and passive voice, readers waste time rereading each paragraph in an effort to grasp the writer's argument. Yet clear writing is only a first step toward engaging writing. We bemoan jargon-rich papers for their lack of clarity, but we also lament those papers whose words plod along so slowly that we fall asleep before finishing a page. Poor writing deadens even the most powerful arguments and research conclusions. Moreover, it dehumanizes the individuals and communities we study. Confusing jargon and soporific prose sabotage the goal of enriching our understanding of the social world. Moreover, before it is even published, poor writing tells the world the author has no desire to be understood except by academics so engaged by the topic that the data make up for the appalling prose.

If attention to word choice, active voice, and sentence structure helps us write clearly, attention to verb choice and to stories are among the many tools that can help us write compellingly. Kai notes that the “sociologese” he quotes in his article suffers from poor sentence structure. Fair enough, but these quotes also lack voice and emotion. Their authors use weak verbs that linger on the page and fail to take us in any one direction. Simplifying our sentence structure cannot solve this problem. Too often, we rely on our nouns (and our newly coined terms) to carry the weight of our ideas. When we assign this task to our verbs, however, we strengthen our prose as well as our arguments. Powerful verbs convey strength and emotion; they make our writing more compelling without sacrificing objectivity or subjectivity.

Stories as a Writing Tool

  1. Top of page
  2. Learning to Write Like a Sociologist
  3. Stories as a Writing Tool
  4. Bringing in Narrative
  5. Resistance and Action

By allowing our verbs to carry the weight of our arguments, we invite vigor and individuality into our prose. Yet this strategy still takes us only halfway. Even with strong verbs, our writing often dehumanizes our research subjects. Telling their stories, as well as our own, can be a productive strategy for emboldening our writing. In sociology, our concern with the representativeness of our data and our desire to draw broad conclusions about the social world and its patterns steers us away from telling individual stories. Adopting Kai's imagery, sociologists look at the world as if looking down on a street from the 14th floor of a building. We look for patterns, for tendencies, not for unique intricacies or individual oddities. Yet, the attractiveness of the 14th-floor metaphor withers away if we think about how we collect our data. We may analyze from a distance, but we collect data from various angles. We do not bury ourselves on the 14th floor and peer down from above. We stroll along the streets with nannies and babies. We bustle in and out of offices with corporate executives. We toil in sweatshops, protest with striking workers, and hang out in ghettos and barrios. From the 14th floor, trapped in an enclosed apartment or office, we can only watch, but, as sociologists, we also listen, ask, and participate. Certainly, we use these individual interactions as a means of identifying broader patterns, but we must not forget that our data involve real people with real stories. When we write only from a 14th-floor perspective, when we obscure the stories and experiences of the people from whom we learn, we dehumanize our informants and do the discipline a disservice. These stories and individuals link our work to the broader public sphere.

Those who eschew the imperatives of positivism or challenge its biases will embrace this point. As many race and gender scholars remind us, individual stories unearth voices and perspectives muzzled by our quests for objectivity. However, those who embrace positivism see individual stories as a threat to the foundations of the discipline. They argue that stories cannot be accurate readings of the social world for attention to individual stories compromises our interest in producing authoritative scientific results. The use of stories as a writing technique, however, need not threaten our positions on the values or pitfalls of objective sociological inquiry. We can use narratives to accomplish multiple goals. On the one hand, we can make stories the centerpiece of our arguments, drawing conclusions from them, sacrificing representativeness for literary quality. Alternatively, we can use stories as a tool to enliven our writing. This latter approach places stories not on the wall between positivism and subjectivism, but envisions stories as a means by which to enrich prose, enliven debates, and expand the reach of sociology beyond academia.

Bringing in Narrative

  1. Top of page
  2. Learning to Write Like a Sociologist
  3. Stories as a Writing Tool
  4. Bringing in Narrative
  5. Resistance and Action

Every ordinary moment or individual life story has elements of uniqueness (and how boring the world would be if they did not), but each event and story also elucidates general principles and tendencies. Yet rather than use these stories to our advantage, sociologists typically obscure them. We highlight the pattern and the method rather than the life, the resistance, and the action in our data. We laud the literary efforts of journalists, burying our heads and excusing our poor writing by asserting that our methods and data differ entirely from theirs. However, while our methods are more rigorous than those of journalists, they are not inherently different. We each engage with the social world as a means of unraveling its intricacies. Yet journalists manage to write with more emotion and precision than we do, partly because they embrace stories as legitimate means of communication. As Kai rightfully points out, writing stories is easier than writing literature reviews or explaining methods. But rather than use our methods as an excuse for leaving good writing to the journalists, we must embrace the stories in our data as a means by which to improve our writing.

If we begin our papers and articles with stories, we set the stage for the rest of our paper, not just topically but in tone and writing quality. In reviewing our data or explaining our projects to others, certain moments or individuals stand out. Before we begin writing the substance of our paper, we ought to devote some time and energy to writing up those moments or stories. If we write initially as if we are narrating a story, writing a lyrical poem, or mimicking the style of our favorite author or journalist, it is easier to carry this style of prose through to the rest of our work even as we progress through literature reviews and methods sections. By embedding these stories in our writing, we carry this voice and lyricism through the entirety of our papers and books. Even those of us who conduct large-scale statistical studies inevitably have our own story of an event, history, or observation that compelled us to explore the topic initially. Which story we write matters little; what matters is that we write powerfully, eloquently, and accessibly.

If we have learned so well how to mimic a professional sociological style of writing, we can learn just as well to mimic the style of those authors and journalists whose writing leaves us gripping our seats. Beginning with stories and employing them throughout our work is one fruitful technique for rectifying a number of the problems which plague our writing. First, stories draw in our readers, avoiding the pitfalls for soporific writing. Second, stories require no jargon. Third, by devoting ourselves to a powerful depiction of our data or our motivations for launching the project, we accustom ourselves to using strong verbs, to writing with emotion, voice, and authority. When we begin strongly, we know when our writing starts to falter later on in the work. Eventually, our hands will drum across the keyboard with little motivation. We revert back, mid-paper, to our usual slovenly style of writing. When this happens, we can revisit our narrative, reminding ourselves of the aim for which we strive, or we can embed additional stories in our work to keep our readers and ourselves engaged. Fourth, when we use stories to our advantage, beginning our writing with engaging narratives, our readers and editors notice when our prose starts to falter. They hold our writing to the high standard we initially set for ourselves. Well-composed stories thus make us accountable to ourselves as writers as well as facilitate the editing process. Even though the standards of journals and editors may on occasion force us to remove these stories from our work in order to publish them, these excerpts still serve their ultimate purpose of strengthening our prose because they force our attention to the craft itself, elevating writing to the same level as analysis and theory.

Although narratives alone will not save our writing, this strategy is one of the many I use to guide my own work. It pushes my colleagues to comment not just on my argument and data but on my presentation. “You begin so well,” they tell me. “But in the middle, you lose your steam.” They tell me when they start to yawn, when the paper turns from brilliant to boring. Beginning strongly and with narratives also resolves many lapses in confidence. When we write narratives about our data or our motivations, we resist the temptation to add prefixes and suffixes to every word or to search for longer words just to boost our egos. We know the stories we write better than anyone else because we did the research and experienced them firsthand. We can tell these stories with complete authority.

Kai fears that lyrical prose distracts us from logic and argumentation, providing us examples of beautifully written pieces with faulty arguments. However, the fragments Kai offers us are not proof that poetic writing, by nature, cannot be logical, as H. L. Mencken infers. Rather, they are evidence that if we write lyrically, we must do so carefully. But we are in a solid position to do so, for what we have over Abe Lincoln is a desire to focus on the thought and the logic. Our aim, as sociologists, is not to pacify a divided country but to explain the divisions and their implications. I am quite confident in our ability to write lyrically without violating the lessons or limitations of our evidence.

Resistance and Action

  1. Top of page
  2. Learning to Write Like a Sociologist
  3. Stories as a Writing Tool
  4. Bringing in Narrative
  5. Resistance and Action

Middle Eastern journalist, Amira Hass, writes that her decisions as an author and an activist stem from her “dread of being a bystander” in a region wracked with conflict and strife.1 If nothing else, the recent push toward public sociology signifies that many of us turned to sociology for similar reasons. I know this is true among my fellow graduate students, many of whom left the policy and justice worlds to embark on this academic journey. We turned to sociology because we, too, dread being bystanders in a community, a country, and a world plagued by social problems. We believe in sociology as a form of resistance, an opportunity for change-making whether as teachers, researchers, or activists. The opportunities presented by this discipline stem from our unique vision, the vision about which Kai so eloquently writes. This sociological vision is our view of the world but also our means of engaging with it. Yet we cripple ourselves if our writing fails to engage readers from outside the confines of the discipline and academia, readers whose support is necessary to accomplish the social objectives we seek to promote. Our writing must humanize those individuals and communities about whom we write, providing a fuller and more holistic view of the social world. Although only one step toward this end, narratives, written thoughtfully and lyrically, can engage our students as well as our fellow citizens. Moreover, they hold the potential to invigorate our writing and fortify the sociological vision that motivates our efforts.

ENDNOTE
  • 1

    Hass, Amira. 1999. Drinking the Sea at Gaza: Days and Nights in a Land under Siege. New York: Metropolitan Books.