How to think about academic writing in the social sciences

With so many parts to write in a research article, academic writing can seem overwhelming. How should we think about academic writing?

In this post, to help with your thinking, I present a simple philosophy of academic writing in the social sciences. It acknowledges who we are and is rooted in honesty and respect.

Social scientists are writers.

Sociology, political science, economics, psychology. Our primary job is to write papers based on the analysis of data.

You may be a student. You may be a PhD. It doesn’t matter: if you are doing social science, you are a social scientist.

Social scientists are human beings.

We have expectations, preferences, and feelings.

Our expectations can be subverted, our preferences can be ignored, and our feelings can be hurt.

We need to acknowledge all of this as we go about our job in reading and writing social science research articles.

Why? Because we must acknowledge that our writing is an extension of ourselves. We have feelings bound-up in our writing. When our writing is criticized, we may feel hurt. This is normal.

We must acknowledge that we have preferences for what we like and what we do not like. This is also normal.

We must acknowledge that we have expectations for what is good research and what is not good research. For what is good writing and what is not good writing. For what is acceptable in a research article and what is not.

And our readers have these expectations, too. (and they have preferences and feelings!)

As writers and human beings, it is important that we treat each other with respect.

This goes for the classroom and for our colleagues (and others). We should treat ourselves with respect. By acknowledging our humanity, by placing ourselves in the writing, we become human writers. Be excellent to each other.

Writing should be clear, simple, and engaging

To respect the reader, we need to produce clear, simple, and engaging writing.

Clear means that the sentences convey the meaning that you intend.

Simple means that the structure of everything from sentences to the whole paper, is easily understood by your audience.

Engaging is not necessarily The New Yorker style engaging, or “funny.” It means that the work that you produce is interesting to your intended audience.

Overall, of course, it must be honest.

Your article should be a Harmonious Whole

The article should be a harmonious whole – every part should tell a key part of the story. 

There are a limited set of concepts that repeat throughout the paper. The key is to write only about those concepts. 

From title to appendix, the key concepts and their relationships to one another are central.

Like trees reaching to the same overstory, like a band singing together in key, all of the parts fit together.

All else is unnecessary.

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