In my writing process of jumping into #AcWriMo for November, I also decided to add reading to my writing goals. I have a number of books on academic writing I’ve acquired, so why not read more about said things to gain motivation, inspiration, and ideas for my writing process. As I’m personally extending my November #AcWriMo through this weekend (because American Thanksgiving interrupted my workflow, and perhaps some other fun things), I thought I would share some words of wisdom from Michael Billig’s book, Learn to Write Badly.
I may have ordered this book based on the Times Higher Education review or comments from @ThomsonPat‘s blog post — either way it was not fully read until this month. I spent some time away from the screen to visit my parents in Florida and also to get ideas about my own writing practice. This was one of the books I packed and picked up again. A few comments stood out from these posts, which I agreed and wanted to read more about:
- “Academe is part of a wider world in which the use of highly technical, specialised language is endemic and possibly even necessary.” ~Times Higher Education
- “…in writing in particular ways – doing pretty conventional social science in fact – we actually do poor research. When we turn actions into lofty abstractions, he suggests, we actually gloss over important ambiguities and difficulties and make it hard for readers to understand what has really happened, how or why.” ~ @ThomsonPat
As I agreed on both of these points, I thought — this read is for me. I will be honest. This books is not for all. There’s some historical context to academia that interested me; however there is also a delve into the discipline diatribe nature of certain social science arenas. This is not the fun “how to” light read you might be looking for; however it’s one academics comments and thoughts on how we research, write, and contribute to the cannon. If you’re into that, then you’ll enjoy this book.
A section of the book that stood out to me was in Chapter 2, where Billig discusses “Mass producing research” and the efforts academe puts into this process in higher education:
“Superficially all seems to be well in the academic world, for, along with the increasing student numbers, research is booming as never before and, as we shall see, never have academics been publishing so much. This is an age where research, across all disciplines, is being mass produced. Of course, with more academics working in higher education, one might predict an increase in research and academic publications. However, the books in research is far too big to be accounted for simply by the increase in the number of academics. The job of many academics has changed so that they are now expected to publish as well as teach” (Billig, 2013, p. 19).
[As well as service: mentoring, advising, career development, coaching, program development, course design, and then some.]
Just because there is more research or a “massification” in academic publications — it does not mean it is good. If you have had the chance to do a systematic literature review and citation analysis lately in your field or specific research area — you will soon discover a bunch of okay research gets published. Multiple times. Sometimes the same research, almost written the SAME WAY… just with different titles [I kid you not, and will dig into this topic in a later blog post].
This book had some serious slagging for how social scientists write and perpetuate a particular writing style, paired with a number of interesting historical and discipline specific references. For all academic writers, I think Billing’s (2013, pp. 212-215) recommendations offered in the final chapter provides helpful suggestions for our academic writing practice:
- “We should try to use simple language and avoid technical terms as much as possible. We should not assume that technical terms are clearer and more precise than the ordinary ones…” – Keep it simple. Could you explain your research to anyone outside your field? Then do it in your manuscripts.
- “Try to reduce the number of passive sentences in your writing.” Say what you mean in present terms. Own it. The active voice should be the default voice as your sentences will contain more information and connect with your readers. Build this habit in your writing.
- “We should try to write clausally rather than nominally… I would like to see a greater proportion of them [technical terms] as other parts of speech besides nouns.” i.e. we need to express ourselves in clauses with active verbs. Be less passive in how we write (see #2).
- “Treat all these recommendations as either guidelines or aspirations, but not as a rigid rules.” You need to know the rules to break the rules of writing. I may have this rule for most things in life. Understanding more of the rules to guide how you draft your publications.
- “As social scientists, we should aim to populate our tests – to write about people rather than things.” The goal for this suggestion is to describe and write about what people think, do, feel, etc. How do your research findings actually impact the world around you? What does this mean for your discipline, field, or society?
Billing, M. (2013). Learn to write badly: How to succeed in the social sciences. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
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