I’ve posted before about how I like to read about writing, particularly when I’m spending dedicated time writing something. Last week I was talking to my colleague Anne Akeroyd about Howard Becker, she kindly gave me an old copy of his book Writing for Social Scientists. It’s a book I’ve wanted to read for a while but hadn’t got around to. I’ve found myself returning to it repeatedly over the last few days. Its full of inspiration, ideas and genuinely revealing insights into writing experiences.
I’ve used Becker’s book Telling About Society quite a bit, and I liked his reflective and direct approach in that book – which looks at forms of sociology from outside the discipline. The Writing for Social Scientists book is probably not what you would expect, unless you know Becker’s other work. The rather tame and functional title is not at all representative of the book’s lively and engaging content. It is not so much a nuts and bolts guide to writing as it is a whole ethos for communicating sociology. The book contains some useful advice on how to compose active and direct sentences and paragraphs, but the book does not aim to be a prescriptive guide on how to write. Instead this book is far more useful. The generous and welcoming manner give the book some real warmth. There is a sense of solidarity and encouragement in its pages. Perhaps the most powerful sections of the book attempt to open up the backstage of the academic writing process. This book talks about the anxieties and fears of writing, the inhibitions and barriers to writing. In one chapter Becker includes a lengthy letter from Pamela Richards in which she describes the risks of writing and her own sense of fear and difficulty – which includes the fear of showing early drafts to colleagues. The book explores how we might build a network of people we can trust to show early drafts to for comments. Indeed, it was the sections on the various stages of writing that spoke directly to the approach I try to use. Becker talks about the need for early draft stages that are about getting down ideas, which can then be edited and worked up in to a more complete piece in later drafts. This then alleviates the concerns associated with trying to write perfectly from the outset. There are some really nice descriptions of the process, and also some descriptions on the importance of not overworking ideas. Indeed, Becker points out that taking a long time over writing pieces is not likely to be directly connected to their quality.
The aspect of the book I found most encouraging came in the frequent but gentle indications that we need to take some risks and avoid being too safe. We need, he suggests, to ‘trick’ ourselves in to writing and in to sharing our ideas. Knowing Becker’s other work, you get the sense that Becker wants us to break from the shackles and write in direct and expressive ways about our ideas. This is a book about leaving behind inhibitions and the more problematic conventions of academic writing. It shows the reader the shared fears and risks of writing so that they feel less necessity to imitate. this increases confidence leaving sociologists free to write and to experiment. What I like is how open and encouraging Becker is, how he leaves the guidance the book provides open to different writing styles, how assured his own writing is, and how encouraging and understanding he is in addressing fellow sociologists. The book goes far beyond a being a guide to writing and is actually an account of the experiences of writing and a means by which it might be used to facilitate creative sociology whilst being incorporated more directly in to research processes and practices (rather than simply reporting on that research).