Learning to write badly in the social sciences

I recently finished Michael Billig’s book, Learn to Write Badly: How to Succeed in the Social Sciences, and I was largely convinced of Billig’s thesis so I shall reiterate it briefly here. Billig argues that much of social scientific writing is difficult to understand because of the excessive use of nouns instead of verbs. If we (ironically) use the word nominalization to describe the process of turning verbs into nouns, it would sound pretty similar to old hat of avoiding the use of jargon in scientific writing.

Billig goes a bit further though then the usual avoid jargon advice (which is uncontroversial), but gives many examples of where this change from verbs to nouns has negative consequences on how writing is interpreted. Two of these are:

  • Verbs are often much more clear about what actor is performing what actions (and in turning the verb to a noun both the actor and the action can become ambigious)
  • Replacing verbs with nouns gives a false sense of authority that the noun actually exists

The first is important for social scientists because we are pretty much always describing the actions of humans. The second Billig likens to marketing strategies to promote ones work (similar to how advertisements promote products), which I imagine the analogy turns a few academics stomachs.

As an example from my own work, I will use the title to one of my papers, The Moving Home Effect: A Quasi Experiment Assessing Effect of Home Location on the Offence Location. The title is really awful, and in a bit of self-deprecation the few times I presented the work I would make fun of my title making skills at the opening of my talk. The first part of the title before the semi-colon, "The Moving Home Effect", is an example of an ambiguous use of nouns. First, describing my findings as the moving home effect is rather ambiguous, it could mean effecting anything and everything. My particular study is much more restricted, I examined the distance between crimes before and after offenders move. Second, the effect of the added distance between crimes when moving I found to be rather small, which is probably one of the more interesting points of the paper. So saying "The Moving Home Effect" places unwanted emphasis that it exists and is real.

The same exercise can be used for the second part of the title. The use of quasi-experiment is simply econometrics jargon and is unneeded. It is an appeal to associate with a particular camp of analysis, and really does nothing to describe the nature of the work. So, I propose possible rewrites of my title to be:

  • Moving one’s home slightly changes the average distance between offences
  • When an offender moves, it slightly changes the location of where they offend

These are much more descriptive (and shorter) than the original title. Reviewing my own work such examples are rampant, so I have a bit of work to do to live up to Billig’s ideal, but I am convinced it will lead to improved writing. Also it seems to me it is a good exercise to make ones writing more concise, which is always welcome.

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  1. Tables and Graphs paper rejection/update – and on the use of personal pronouns in scientific writing | Andrew Wheeler

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