Thursday, March 17, 2011

Book Review: The Zen of Academic Writing

Writing for Social Scientists: How to Start and Finish Your Thesis, Book, or Article
By Howard S. Becker. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1986, 187pp. Paperback

Academic writing is easy. That is a lie, but people do not want to admit. Because, at least, for a desperate graduate student who was staring at the blank page, it could be a stress-reducer. And for a best seller on writing tactics, it is a good slogan to satisfy the consumers.

However, Howard Becker is different. He tells his stories from a cub graduate to a well-established scholar. He tells the truth, although the truth is discouraging sometimes. But the readers can feel that they are having dialogues with a real person, not listening the monologue of a mythical figure.

I strongly recommend readers starting from the last chapter, and then chapter 2 to 9, and finally the chapter 1. Because at the last chapter, Becker declares that he is not the one having cures for writings. He tells the readers do not expect too much from this book. It is readers’ own business. Becker’s warnings sound like a Zen teacher drubs the followers and shouts: “Are you enlightened?” And he also tells the readers they can only get the transcendent wisdom through meditation, and then they can finally get ultimate freedom. Readers should keep his warnings in mind.

Chapter 2 to 9 are composed of many personal experiences. And chapter 1 is revised based on a journal article, in which readers can pick up many useful tips once for all. But I appreciate the personal experiences more. Because readers may find something new every time they revisit these parts, and readers will harvest not only writing tactics, but also reflections about the socialization of academic writing.

Practically, Becker offers many useful tips, such as “start writing early in your research”, “write introductions last”, “ put your last paragraph first”, “write whatever comes into your head, as fast as you can type”, “keep rewriting”, and so on. But these tactics are the fur of Zen (皮毛禅). More importantly, readers should find the logic embedded in the fragments of wit-and-wisdom.

First, being disenchanted. Max Weber rose the term “deenchanted” in his speech “Science as a Vocation”. This is also the gist of Becker’s book. “ I am lazy, don’t like working, and minimize the time I spent on that.” Becker tells readers that he is a scholar, but also an ordinary person. He hammered away at the point that there is no authority and there is no one right way. He tries to de-apotheosize the illusion of intellectual elite in readers’ mind. Because he understands that the readers’ fears are embedded in their imagination towards academic authority and elitism.

Second, realize the socialization of academic writing. Becker admits that academic institutions do exist. The criteria for good writing are ruled by several top journals. Becker queries the legitimacy of the rules and sticks to his own standards. For readers who feel powerless to resist the rules, Becker suggests that, on the one hand, believe there are good writings and read them to improve their academic taste; on the other hand, respect editors’ comments and keep positive attitudes when receiving rejection from journals.

Third, adopt heuristic rules not algorithms. Becker’s style is heuristic. For example, in chapter 2, Becker suggests, “To overcome the academic prose you have first to overcome the academic pose”. This tip is vague rather than precise. It is like the Zen of discourse (话头禅). Readers shall digest it through meditation.

Fourth, multiply identities and dialogues. In his book, Becker presents as a young scholar who get his doctor degree and can not find a job, as a assistant professor who is in a dilemma as whether to show the senior colleagues his writing or not, as a well-established scholar who is entangled with “ get it out” and “wait for a while”, as a chief editor who queries the legitimacy of the rules in academic community. As Everett Hughes told him, Becker tells his readers “ the intellectual life is a dialogue”. That’s why the book can strike a deep chord in readers of all ages.

No comments: