I’m writing this as a rebuttal to my colleague Amanda’s blog post about writing. I fully understand the intent of her piece and appreciate the message she is trying to send to young writers. However, the idea that students should write from their soul troubles me greatly as a social science professor. The danger of telling young writers to come up with their own voice, is that they often interpret it as opinion or personal reflection in their papers. This is perhaps the greatest source of annoyance for social science faculty (and likely for those in the natural sciences as well). As someone who grades nearly 100 sociology papers a term, I am increasingly bothered by my students’ inability to write social science papers. They resort to MLA, because that’s how they’ve been taught for years. They extensively use metaphors and similes, because that’s how they learned to “show, not tell.” There are a number seniors who tell me that they’ve never written a research paper until they reached my class. Basically, my sociology colleagues and I need to (re)train our students in social science writing.
This does not just affect undergraduate students. Because high school writing and college composition is so heavily dominated by English departments, even graduate students often struggle to adapt to the norms and conventions of non-humanities fields. While Amanda is encouraging students to break the rules, I am arguing the opposite. Students need to learn the “rules” if they want to be taken seriously as social scientists. Duke University, for instance, has a guide to discipline-specific writing guide. Other discipline-specific writing resources can be found at the bottom of this post. I would argue that discipline-specific writing needs to be better integrated into K-12 and college curricula.
In most cases, writing is not simply about the author expressing their creativity. It is also about the audience. It is about communicating your ideas effectively to that audience. Different audiences expect different things. This is because different types of writing serve different purposes. The goal of creative writing is different than social science research writing. There are also different kinds of social science writing. Are you generating theory? Or reporting findings? Or is it a review of the literature? This all requires fundamentally different rhetorical strategies, and discipline (or even sub-discipline) specific writing. The strategy of “show, not tell,” is accomplished very differently in different fields. In order to effectively communicate ideas, the author must (reasonably) conform to the norms of the discipline.
Amanda emphasizes two things in her blog: voice and style.
I believe that ALL authors need to have a voice. However, different types of writing require different voices and styles. For example, ethnographers walk a tightrope where they need to ensure their voice does not overly impose their own subjectivity onto their “subjects” while still making their own argument. In some (not all) experimental and quantitative work, the author is often “reporting” results. It’s a matter-of-fact style in which procedure and results are front and center, not necessarily the author’s voice. Typically, the method chosen reflects the different goals and interests of the researcher, and in turn shape the writing. In fact, I would argue that voice, structure and style is very much tied to research method. The type of writing associated with different research methods has largely evolved out of the rhetorical needs of researchers to effectively make arguments, legitimize their work, establish credibility and make reliable claims. To deviate from convention is not just a risk, but poor social science writing. In some cases, it might even be considered unethical.
In conclusion, I want to offer different advice. It is actually a bit of advice that’s cobbled together from several professors I had in graduate school: Study the “type” of work published where you want to publish. Study the style and language of what you enjoy reading. In other words, learn to write like the authors you read. This does not mean give up on creativity. It means using successful examples of writing as a model for your own success.
Discipline Specific Writing Resources: