Social scientists, whether earnest graduate students or tenured faculty members, clearly know the rules that govern good writing. But for some reason they choose to ignore those guidelines and churn out turgid, pompous, and obscure prose. Distinguished sociologist Howard S. Becker, true to his calling, looks for an explanation for this bizarre behavior not in the psyches of his colleagues but in the structure of his profession. In this highly personal and inspirational volume he considers academic writing as a social activity.

Both the means and the reasons for writing a thesis or article or book are socially structured by the organization of graduate study, the requirements for publication, and the conditions for promotion, and the pressures arising from these situations create the writing style so often lampooned and lamented. Drawing on his thirty-five years’ experience as a researcher, writer, and teacher, Becker exposes the foibles of the academic profession to the light of sociological analysis and gentle humor. He also offers eminently useful suggestions for ways to make social scientists better and more productive writers. Among the topics discussed are how to overcome the paralyzing fears of chaos and ridicule that lead to writer’s block; how to rewrite and revise, again and again; how to adopt a persona compatible with lucid prose; how to deal with that academic bugaboo, “the literature.” There is also a chapter by Pamela Richards on the personal and professional risks involved in scholarly writing.

In recounting his own trials and errors Becker offers his readers not a model to be slavishly imitated but an example to inspire. Throughout, his focus is on the elusive work habits that contribute to good writing, not the more easily learned rules of grammar and punctuation. Although his examples are drawn from sociological literature, his conclusions apply to all fields of social science, and indeed to all areas of scholarly endeavor. The message is clear: you don’t have to write like a social scientist to be one.

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This article has 3 comments

  1. Anonymous

    A practical and profound analysis of writing as a practice Becker’s message for his readers is to set aside their fears, relax, and do it. As unimpressive as that advice may sound, it is laid out in very modest, clear, practical terms and, like all good analyses, it is hard to implement because it goes to the heart of the matter and questions the assumptions that guide people’s writing practices, mostly without them realizing it. It helps that Becker has been grappling with similar problems for 30+ years as a writer, teacher, and editor. I will try to…

  2. Anonymous

    Good, but the second edition has few changes I bought the first edition of this book about 20 years ago and found it very helpful. I long ago misplaced my copy and so was happy to order the new second edition. On reading the book again, I found Becker’s advice to be as good as I remembered, but I was disappointed that he had made so few changes in the “second edition.” Essentially, the first edition has been reprinted verbatim–even typos weren’t corrected–with a relatively few pages of additional material added to the last two…

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