Our new sociology and Asian Studies editor on writing vividly in academia.
On July 21 I was honored to start as SUP’s new editor for sociology and Asian studies. Even before that day people have been asking me: what will you acquire? In most cases I gave the obvious response about seeking new directions in these fields and at the same time furthering established dialogues scholars are already engaged in. And that answer is true, but it’s not the full story. What I’m actually looking for is clear, vivid thought.
When a scholar’s writing has been refined to transparency her idea shows through in all its glory.
The eminent sociologist Howard Becker says in Writing for Social Scientists (now in its second edition) that clear writing is the product of clear thought—and that revising many drafts of scholarly writing is actually a good way to refine and analyze the ideas behind the writing. Put another way by Norman Maclean (one of my favorite authors) in A River Runs through It: “ . . . all good things—trout as well as eternal salvation—come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.”
But when a scholar’s writing has been refined to transparency her idea shows through in all its glory. Howard Becker obviously has examples of this in his own writing, but I have also witnessed it in what many people may think of as the most opaque branch of study: phenomenological and existential philosophy. Although the experience happened almost eight years ago I vividly remember listening to Edward S. Casey deliver a conference paper on philosophical differences between borders and edges and feeling his sentences take an idea, hold it up to the light, and allow its facets to sparkle. When that session’s presentations were finished audience members were clamoring to discuss Casey’s ideas further.
How can a scholar achieve that effect in her own writing? By constant refining, as Howard Becker tells us, and specifically, in my own experience, by paying attention to word choice. Certain words are heavy with connotations and the weight of all the reading an author has done to learn them—words like interpellation, structuralist, and regression, for example. Other words demand our attention, like racism, inequality, and sexuality. And of course there are the words that try to make readers think they’re tweed-covered scholarly behemoths when they’re usually just bluster: operationalize, praxis, a priori.
Which words to choose? Complex, intensely intellectual arguments often do need heavy terms—but to make their weight matter the trick is to balance them with simple, direct words. Take this sentence: “However, negative education-to-status ratios suppress the effect of perceived mobility achievement on life satisfaction for those with higher occupational ratings over time.” The key term “perceived mobility” gets buried among tongue-twisting poseurs; rewritten as, “Highly educated people who climbed the career ladder more slowly than their peers reported a lower perceived mobility,” readers can clearly see the important concept without compromising the scholarly nuance.
If you’d like inspiration I recommend scholarly writing like Gramophone, Film, Typewriter by Friedrich Kittler and Orientalism by Edward Said. It might also help to read nonfiction masters outside the academy, like John McPhee, Joan Didion, and Annie Dillard.
This weekend I’ll be meeting scholars and listening to their ideas. I will be seeking manuscripts that explore new directions in the field and others that further established dialogues scholars are already engaged in. And most of all I’ll be hoping to find ideas whittled to their vivid core.