May-June 2009 Issue • Volume 37 • Issue 5

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From the Executive Officer

Only One Way to Write. Right?

sally hillsman
Sally T. Hillsman,
ASA Executive
Officer

The unpretentious, yet world-famous paperback The Elements of Style celebrated a half century of publication in April and emerged anew in the public consciousness. Its influence on generations of teachers, students, and the writing public is documented in several recent tributes and critiques in mainstream media. The reign of the pocket-sized guide to better writing, by William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White, might seem disproportionate to its humble origins as English professor Strunk’s self-published 1919 writing guide for Cornell University students. But this is a mighty if small book.

Ten million copies have sold since its first commercial publication in 1959. A reader-friendly "how to" guide, Strunk and White (as it is universally known) provides writers with advice on how to connect effectively with their audiences. True to its message of straight-forward writing, the manual "weighs in" at a mere 100 pages in most editions.

But the recent tributes are not without critics, such as Geoffrey K. Pullum (Chronicle of Higher Education, April 17, 2009) and Jan Freeman (Boston Globe, October 23, 2005). They defuse the golden anniversary festiveness with some legitimate questions about over-simplification and the consistency and accuracy of Strunk and White’s grammar lessons. Many maintain that the "Little Book" has nonetheless widely and permanently raised the grammar and composition consciousness of writers in academia, journalism, and the general public during the second half of the 20th century. It achieved this, they say, partly through its eccentricities and humor.

vp_logoThere are many useful writing guides, but this succinct gem, with its concurrent authority and celebrity, is generally considered a necessary tool by those who take the written word seriously. I am comfortable acknowledging that I occasionally consult Strunk and White; but I am less confident writing about it, considering how frequently I violate its advice!

Should I be intimidated? Not according to Pullum or Freeman. But their specific criticisms aside, my message—during this window of opportunity of Strunk and White’s 50th year—is the importance of good writing. A cliché? Yes, but one worth repeating. Borrowing shamelessly from a Supreme Court Justice’s famous quote about pornography: "Readable writing? I know it when I see it."

Strunk and White’s central message is for the ages and easily recognized when it is applied: Good writing provides an effortless connection with the desired audience(s). For sociologists, it leverages the awesome power of language to focus others’ thinking and actions on one’s research findings; to convey sociological concepts and knowledge to students (who [whom?] we know from ASA research are thrilled by them); or to share the meaningful research insights to a client, court, or policy maker.

Like any social, physical, or biological process, language is characterized by evolutionary change driven by forces that include culture, geography, demography, technology, science, and myriad other social phenomena. As any good editor knows, immutable rules of grammar or usage—no matter how authoritative—will not make a language stand still. Good editing is a fine balance between abiding by rules and helping writers connect with their audience. Readable text can be found in good-quality newspapers and publications, but don’t attempt to analyze the writing against Strunk and White! Even at its best, it won’t measure up. Writing standards help us think carefully about how we communicate effectively, but they are rarely the final word.

Losing and Gaining Discriminatory Power

Editors and writers who have been diligently enforcing semantic distinctions for decades are dismayed as dictionary publishers progressively "cave in" to popular usage. But new words emerge, new meanings attach to words, and evolution moves on. Questions arise about whether English is losing its power to convey fine semantic distinctions, as written English yields to the conventions of less formal, spoken language. What does this process mean for the scholarly writer? If scientific writing capitulates to less complex language, does it lose its power to convey precise information by seeking to be understandable to broader audiences? This is a growing conundrum as scholarship increasingly goes online and search engines make scholarly writing accessible by knowledge seekers beyond a discipline’s cognoscenti.

Writing guides are especially useful when they help writers confront the realization that intuitive understanding of one’s spoken language is often insufficient to produce good prose. A writing guide should instill curiosity about one’s own language and evoke questions about the usefulness of communication tools such as word choice, phrasing, and compositional options in producing a text that informs correctly and communicates effectively. There are few substitutes for understanding a language’s technical aspects in unshackling ourselves as writers from comfortable oral conventions that are not always helpful in constructing writing that is accurate, engaging, and connects with the intended audience.

Writing for Sociology

Scientific and other scholarly writers face many complex issues when we write, but one is deciding whom we are addressing. This seems obvious when deciding if the audience is one’s disciplinary peers or a general readership. Research domains develop and reward the easy flow of specialized jargon that conveys precision and familiarity with the discipline or sub-discipline. But even here there are treacherous waters: Is the audience that rewards your writing one’s departmental peers, the dean (who is of a different discipline), a larger cross-disciplinary academic body, or all of these? How does one write for this broader academic marketplace? What if that academic marketplace also includes undergraduate students or non-majors? If one of your professional goals is bringing your scholarship into the non-academic marketplace of ideas, must you rewrite your content, or is the technology of search engines applied to scholarship openly available to the general reader sufficient? There are no simple answers.

There is also a paradox in sociology that the complexity of social phenomena needs to be described in accessible writing, even if it is only to benefit the discipline, but especially if we are to disseminate our knowledge more broadly. There are attempts at this. ASA’s magazine Contexts: Understanding people in their social worlds is one. And, Social Psychology Quarterly now provides "Tighter, abbreviated versions of articles emphasizing relevance and readability" online. International initiatives such as "Writing across the Curriculum" seek to cultivate logical writing by undergraduates.

Sociology’s own pocket-sized writing "bible," the American Sociological Association Style Guide, provides invaluable advice on grammar, composition, word use, and punctuation, along with specialized guidance for writers preparing manuscripts for ASA journals. The Chicago Manual of Style and the APA Style Manual provide more comprehensive guides for social scientists writing research papers. But general writing guides such as Strunk and White provide us all with a critical service: They ask us to be self-reflective about our writing, to seek answers to our writing quandaries, and to be inquisitive about the power of our language to communicate.

Music to Our Ears

If even a small proportion of sociologists and our students adhered to a handful of the tenets in Strunk and White, we would understand each other more effectively. Legitimate criticisms aside, The Elements of Style is so popular that it inspired a musical adaptation in 2005, with a promise of an operatic rendition. While to my knowledge the opera has not materialized, perhaps before long we will be treated to a promising summer blockbuster movie preview . . . "Imagine a world without The Elements of Style!" logo_small

Sally T. Hillsman is the Executive Officer of ASA. She can be reached by email at executive.office@asanet.org.

 

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