I read some academic books for pleasure. Really weird eh, perhaps indicative of someone with a pretty sad life… well yes maybe, but that’s how it is. But there are some people whose writing has become, for me anyway, a marker of how it might be possible for academic writing to be.
It seems that most of us struggle to put the ideas that we have into a logical order and into sentences that will make sense. A few of our peers in the social sciences can not only do this, but also do so in a way that is particularly elegant or pithy or surprising.
Perhaps literary scholars might call this an authorial voice – a particular use of syntax, vocabulary, metaphor and the like – that constitutes a kind of personal textual signature (even if the text that they are working on/for is irretrievably heteroglossic ). There are so many debates about the notion of voice that it isn’t worth pursuing whether this is the right term to use to use, but the kernel of ‘truth’ in the notion of voice is that there are some people who just seems to write really, really well.
I am sure that different people are drawn to different writers. My good social science writers may not be the same as everyone else’s. The point of looking for good writers is not to draw up a universal list of approved social science texts, nor to develop a set of criteria which can be used to supplement the current ways of evaluating scholarly texts. The point is to see what we might learn from those who can craft a paragraph, a page, an article into something the like of which we might, one day, also be able to produce.
I’m a big fan of the writings of the late Clifford Geertz, the anthropologist. Anthropologists got onto the idea of writing as representation pretty early compared to the rest of the social sciences. Not surprising perhaps, considering what they did. As one of the social sciences that eschewed the language of numbers and the practices of measurement, and relied on the researcher as the instrument of inquiry in ‘foreign locations’, they came to see writing as a meaning -making process that was ethical, political and affective, as well as cognitive. They also often found themselves explaining and defending their discipline at the same time as they interrogated and changed their own assumptions and practices.
I currently have one of Geertz’ books on my desk – Available light: Anthropological reflections on philosophical topics (2000) – and every so often I distract myself by reading random pages. Today I came back to one of my favorite snippets.
Everyone knows what cultural anthropology is about: it’s about culture. The trouble is that no one is quite sure what culture is. Not only is it an essentially contested concept, like democracy, religion, simplicity, or social justice; it is a multiply defined one, multiply employed, ineradicably imprecise. It is fugitive, unsteady, encyclopaedic, and normatively charged, and there are those, especially for those for whom only the really real is really real who think it vacuous altogether, or even dangerous, and could ban it from the serious discourse of serious persons. An unlikely idea, it would seem, around which to try to build a science. Almost as bad as matter. (p 11)
So what do I admire about this? It’s got to be the sting in the last sentence which refuses the dichotomy between social and so-called hard sciences and asserts the quintessentially fallible and temporary nature of all forms of knowledge production. Yes, but it’s also the way that the sting is set up. The seductive nature of the first and second short sentences garner agreement. Geertz then metaphorically pulls the rug from under the reader’s feet through the long and complex third and fourth sentences. The claim to indeterminacy is produced by piling up multiple descriptive phrases which show just how indeterminate this anthropology is… the reader goes from it’s this, yes but …to its not its not its not… Then comes the fifth sentence, a fragment rather than a proper sentence with a verb, which expresses profound doubt. And then the final sixth, well so what, it’s not just us, we’re all in this together, packed into a five word fragment. The punctuation – a bell curve of short and long sentences using commas to show the connectedness of reading on, with pauses, but without stopping, and full stops to signal emphatic halts - is key to the way that the sting is set up.
OK, so maybe I’m a syntactical anorak. But I do think it’s worth occasionally finding a piece of text that you think is the kind of good writing you’d like to do and then dissecting to it to see how it was put together, and why it works. You might even like to try writing something using the same shape and moves. This is not plagiarism, but is another way, like sentence skeletons, of learning how to ‘do’ academic writing.
Geertz, C ( 2000) Available light: Anthropological reflections on philosophical topics. Princeton: Princeton University Press