1Keith A. Roberts Hanover College For many sociologists and sociology students, writing is a method of reporting findings or of presenting ideas for evaluation. It is a necessary task after the “real sociology” is completed. However, writing may be enhanced if we understand the writing process sociologically. My thesis in this article is that writing is a prototypic example of the “sociological imagination.” When he coined that term, C. Wright Mills (1959) pointed out that sociology is interested in the micro social processes of personal biography —how individuals deal with “personal troubles,” with intimate experiences, and with definitions of their situations. Likewise sociology is concerned with the larger social structures that impinge on those individual experiences and shape the most private domains of our lives. Sociology, according to Mills, must have both micro and macro dimensions if it is to be complete. Few experiences are more personal, more private, than writing. Certainly there are few academic activities in which students engage that make them feel as vulnerable. Yet writing is also a profoundly public activity, shaped by many norms and by the social context in which it will be read. By reflecting on this reality, we may find that writing can be illuminated through sociological analysis. Writing as a “Private Trouble” Writing is often experienced as very private and even intimate in nature. Writing makes many people —especially young and inexperienced writers —feel exposed and vulnerable. Even experienced writers feel vulnerable in regard to the first drafts of their work. For students this is often experienced as feeling that the internal self is being exposed. The writer may fear that her or his own lack of inner depth and of intellectual sophistication will be exposed. Attempts to protect one’s self from criticism may be stripped away in the requirement to write (Richardson 1986).Once the first draft is on paper, many people are loath to let anyone see their work until it has been revised and honed into “presentable” form. At this early stage, the piece is still what dramaturgical theorists would call “back-stage” material. It is still too private to be exposed to public view, still too crude to sustain one’s image as a competent scholar. Some of the very best writers produce poetry or prose that cannot meet the eye even of close friends until it is “ready.” This highly personal character of writing causes some students to fear writing assignments or to write in a stilted style that creates a barrier to communication. A colleague of mine in theological studies recently lamented that some of his students write in a miserable style that is barely acceptable, then write eloquent editorials for the college newspaper. When they do not fear the criticism that a grade entails, he speculates, they stop using passive-voice and third-person conventions. They start to take ownership of their own ideas. Before I submit this article to anyone else to critique, I will go through it and make sure I have not fallen prey to the weak passive voice constructions for which we sociologists are so well known. Until my spell checker has made me look competent, and my wife has read these pages to see whether my thesis makes any sense at all, I will not submit it even to trusted professional peers for criticism. At this early stage, this writing is part of my private life and is not ready for exposure. This internal struggle to express ideas is not merely a matter of picking the right word or even of impression management; it is in part a matter of deciding how to construct the reality I am trying to understand. In essence I am trying to define a situation for my audience, but also for myself. When I am forced to put words onto paper, I often find that the implications of my thesis seem to open up before me. Alternatively, when I attempt to flesh out a thesis I have been ruminating about for several weeks, sometimes I discover that the whole idea is internally contradictory or 1This article is a revised version of an article previously published in Teaching Sociology(Roberts 1993).
lacks substance. Insofar as writing involves discovery and demands precision in thinking, it is part of the social construction process for the writer. The writing process is a micro social experience par excellence. Although writing is a very private and personal process, the very act of putting thoughts on paper facilitates critical thinking and self-reflection. The fact that my ideas are frozen on paper and therefore are open to criticism allows me to criticize my own thinking (Emig 1977). I am forced to recognize that the ideas which seemed so profound a few days earlier have not been integrated fully into a coherent thesis. George Herbert Mead’s concept of the “I” and the “me” is relevant here, for what authors do when they suspend their work for several days is to objectify it and then view it from the viewpoint of an “other.” The writing process allows the writer to role-take and, in doing so, to improve the clarity of his or her thinking. Even the writing process itself is extraordinarily personal. Although many people of my generation grew up with the idea that there was only one correct way to write effectively (with an invariable sequence of steps from outline to finished product), this notion now is refuted widely by writers and writing instructors (Lindemann 1987, pp. 21-30). Each person must discover what “works” for him or her. For one thing, each of us has our own “rituals” which get us started. I was unable to begin this piece until I had cleared my desk of clutter (as if I were clearing my mind of the dozens of other tasks that demand my attention) and had my obligatory cup of hot tea at my side. I nearly always do prewriting brainstorming and then shape it into some sort of rough outline. Other people have entirely different prewriting rituals and steps. Some excellent writers find it distracting and inhibiting to begin with an outline. As one colleague in English composition put it, “How can I outline my material when I do not know what I want to say yet?” She puts her ideas on paper and worries about organizing them later —with extensive editing and revising. Erika Lindemann (1987) writes that typically she does not discover her message until she is on the second draft, and she quotes E. M. Foster as saying, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” (p.171). That approach to writing would not work for me. My own writing process also includes clearing a block of time so that I can write without interruptions. Sometimes I sit down to write and do not move from my seat for five or six hours. Many writers work more efficiently with frequent breaks and with many changes of activity in the midst of the writing. I also find that I have become addicted to my word processor —that it is difficult for me to write without my trusty aid, which can so quickly cut and paste, correct spelling, and slash entire paragraphs. I find that I think better in front of a screen, where the words seem less final, than when I scrawl ink onto paper. My own preferred style is to write incomplete sentences and to correct grammar and syntax as I write. This procedure actually requires that I concentrate simultaneously on three very different types of thinking skills: 1) creative work in which I formulate ideas and develop the content of my message, 2) application of the structural rules governing the conventions of writing, and 3) recollection of the computer commands that allow me to quickly modify the mess I just composed. I tend not to move on to the next sentence until I am relatively satisfied with the one I have just written. For many writers, such a procedure would prevent the flow of ideas and block effective writing. They put their ideas on the screen or on paper and worry later about fragments and contorted syntax. Indeed, for many people the process of remembering how to make the computer do what the writer wants is a block to writing. For them there is no substitute for pencil and paper. James Baldwin, a prolific writer, once told me he could not write with anything but a pencil; a word processor or even a typewriter seemed to stifle his creativity. Clearly the writing process is not simple and linear. It is not universal, as I had mistakenly learned in my own composition courses in college. Writing is recursive; the early steps of deciding on an outline, a purpose, an audience, and so forth often are revised and redecided as one works with the material. The outline itself and even the format may change at any point in the composition process. Different people prefer to enter at different points in that process. Our styles of attacking a writing task are individuated. Most writing, however, does not end here —as an isolated individual experience. Writing is also fundamentally a social experience, shaped by the norms of writing and by the social context in which it is produced.
Writing in Its Macro Context Unless the writing is done as part of poetry therapy or as a private diary, it is ultimately social. We want our work to be read. The process is somehow incomplete until someone has read our piece and provided feedback. We write to communicate ideas to others; if no one reads our work, the entire venture is disappointing. My colleague Jim Crone called Robert Merton to invite him to our campus for a week as part of our visiting scholar program. Dr. Merton graciously declined our offer, saying that at the age of 82, he knew his time on this earth was limited. Currently he is working on 45 writing projects, and he has decided that writing must take priority over speaking opportunities. Clearly Merton has a sense of mission about writing, and he feels that this will contribute more to the discipline than being a visiting scholar on one small campus. He fully expects his work to be read. If he thought it would not be read, his urgency about writing would evaporate quickly. When professionals are asked to write an article on a topic in their area of expertise, one of their first actions would be to identify and analyze the intended audience. Is this work intended for scholars? For policy analysts who want pragmatic solutions? For a popular journal that is read by highly educated lay people? For the editorial page of a local newspaper? Word choice, the necessity of defining words or concepts, the tone of the writing, the number of disclaimers and caveats, and many other elements of writing will be affected by that anticipated audience. The social context of one’s writing influences writing in other ways as well. If the author is trying to persuade, she will want to know whether her audience is sympathetic or hostile to her message. That knowledge will shape how aggressively she sets forth her ideas and how she develops the thesis and expands the arguments. This very article illustrates the point. I originally wrote this essay for sociology professors. I later decided to direct these ideas to students. Several sections had to be deleted, pronouns had to be changed, different examples were needed, and the style was modified. To keep my audience’s interest and to keep them reading, I had to keep them in mind as I selected words and chose examples. Writing is not merely personal; it is profoundly social. One reason why students’ writing in sociology seems stilted is that they have not figured out how to write sociology for a sociology professor. Unless the assignment specifies an audience, students struggle to anticipate the social context of their writing. If they think they are writing only for the instructor, they may play a guessing game of trying to anticipate the instructor’s degree of sympathy to their point of view. In short, writing papers to be read only by one other person is a rather artificial social context for writing; it is no wonder that students have difficulty with defining their situation. Some instructors think the matter of audience is clear if they tell their students to write solely for the instructor. This solution, however, is not as simple and straightforward as it first appears. Given such information about the audience, a student may muse as follows: The instructor said she wanted a paper developing a feminist critique on religion. Since she is an expert herself on this topic, it does not appear that I am writing to inform her. If I define every term, will she think that unnecessary and pedantic? Do I assume she already knows the basics of feminist theory (which, of course, she does) and that I need not spell out what “feminism” means? Or do I need to be explicit about the little things —so she knows that I know these underlying assumptions? I have a limited number of pages. If I devote too much space to clarifying assumptions and basic concepts, I may be marked down for lack of depth. Who am I really writing for: Professor Roberts, the scholar who knows all of this material and is looking for original insights, or Professor Roberts, the grader who wants to know whether I know underlying issues and concepts thoroughly and can explain them clearly to a lay person? Either way, I run a risk of missing what the professor wants. The problem identified by this hypothetical student is that a professor is not a simple audience. As Barbara Walvoord points out, “When you read student writing, you are not totally you; there are likely to be hypothetical audiences mixed in with the ‘you’ students write for” (1986: 21). Often professors have in mind an audience that they have not made explicit to the students. They read to see whether students understand the material clearly enough to explain it to others, but do not make clear that they —as scholars —are not the
intended audience. That is, the audience to whom students write may remain ambiguous. Sociology offers insight regarding the anxiety students experience when they receive writing assignments with an imprecise social context: failure of an instructor to establish an audience (or to help the student do so) can create a measure of anomie. Part of the reason why a writer wants to know who the audience will be is that knowledge of one’s audience provides a clue about the criteria for evaluation. For example, professors are far more stringent in their critique of their own writing when a piece is written for other scholars than when it is written for a popular audience. They are more careful about presenting the details of evidence, more cautious about causal claims, and more sensitive to presenting caveats. A popular audience would be bored by all of the disclaimers and dry logical discourse. The argument would not be convincing to such an audience because a popular audience has different criteria for evaluation; they usually prefer a good example instead of intellectual gymnastics. Even when professors write for other scholars, the criteria for evaluation depend on the purpose of the task; they write differently depending on whether the purpose is to persuade, to inform, or to motivate. Therefore, faculty members write differently for an opinion journal, a research journal, a teaching newsletter, and an anthology. Students write differently to their parents than to their English instructor, partially because the standards for evaluating effective communication are different. However, even in writing to parents, nineteen-year-old students are likely to vary their writing depending on the purpose of the letter: seeking approval (and financial support) to spend a semester abroad, informing the parents of an unfortunate incident about which the Dean of Student Affairs will soon be calling, venting anger regarding a roommate’s behavior or regarding a little brother’s damage to one’s property at home, or dropping an appreciative note to say “I love you.” The anticipated criteria for evaluating the effectiveness of our communication are part of the social context in which we write —even if those criteria remain implicit. They impinge constantly on how we develop our ideas and how we transform them into words on paper. The matter of audience awareness and development of an effective writing “voice” has another dimension, especially among advanced students. Students already may have observed that academics often write in convoluted sentences and with their own “specialized” vocabularies. Some students, in trying to manage an impression and appear intellectual, develop a wordy and complex syntax because they think it fits a scholarly image. They may be trying to model themselves after professors; yet the professors are appalled by the stilted style! Students sometimes write in arcane styles because their professors do. Many writers have commented on this problem among academics, but for pithy commentary, C. Wright Mills probably says it best when he writes, “To overcome the academic prose you first have to overcome the academic pose” (1959: 219). Again, this problem in writing is an issue of the social relationship between writer and audience. Norms and expectations of the larger society shape the writing process in one other major respect: we always write within the confines of a particular language. Conventions of grammar and syntax impose on the way we structure sentences. Just as an individual cannot function without a larger social structure to give order and meaning to existence and to allow for cooperative interaction, we cannot communicate without common expectations about word usage, spelling, appropriate punctuation, sentence structure, the meaning of certain morphemes, and various norms about how to communicate tense. The routines, regulations, and role requirements of society often limit our individual expressiveness and our choices. Just as individuals chafe under the rigidity and inequity of social structures, we sometimes chafe under the necessity of making our words fit conventions of standard sentence structure or struggle to find a word that has the right connotative as well as denotative meaning. As the individual writes, his or her expressions must be made to fit the linguistic rules of the larger group before the prose is suitable for public distribution. An interviewer once asked Ernest Hemingway what had stumped him so severely in writing A Farewell to Arms that he had to rewrite the last page 39 times. He simply responded, “Getting the words right” (Lindemann 1987:188). Most writers understand what he meant. At this moment, one of the most vivid examples for me of trying to “get the words right” is the problem of gender-neutral language. If I use only “he” as the singular pronoun in this paper, many members of my reading audience will be offended, and I would be profoundly uncomfortable with the lack of inclusive language. In the draft of this article that I sent for review, I chose to alternate the pronouns so that I used “he”
in one instance and “she” in the next. Two of the reviewers for Teaching Sociology found my use of that particular convention to be distracting and inappropriate. One recommended that I change everything to plural. I tried that; in some cases it worked, but at other times it resulted in very convoluted syntax, subtly changed the meaning of the sentence, or created other problems of consistency in number within the paragraph. I have just spent nearly an hour on two paragraphs, and I still cannot seem to get the words right! My struggle involves a movement back and forth between considering the values and expectations of my audience and focusing on how to communicate my own message clearly and precisely. The issue of gender-inclusive language illustrates another dimension of the sociological imagination. Although linguistic structure is essential, it also changes over time as people use it. This point is consistent with Mills’s observation: not only are individual biographies shaped by history and the social structure, but individuals also may shape history and reform the social structure. Just as writing conventions determine our personal writing processes, individual writers sometimes break or publicly protest certain conventions, and the conventions themselves are changed. Student Writing and Sensitivity to Social Context As Linda Flower points out, writing is not simply “saying what we mean.” Those persons who simply “think it and write it” —without adequately reprocessing and retouching the material with an appropriate audience in mind —are ineffective writers (Flower 1979). Flower distinguishes between “writer based prose” and “reader based prose” —a distinction similar to the micro/macro dichotomy discussed above. Writer-based prose is the simplest transformation of thought to paper and is written by the writer for herself. It is still at the stage of “personal biography” in terms of its anticipated audience. Regarding structure, it tends to lack clear or explicit transitions because the writer knows her train of thought. Free association in the encounter with a subject is common. The language of writer based-prose is characterized by privately loaded terms and implicit meanings. These meanings are so clear to the writer that she does not spell them out in detail. The context of the writing often shifts and remains unexpressed. Effective scholarly writing must be reader-based: it must be transformed so the ideas are appropriate and meaningful for a wider audience. One of the problems that students often face in their writing is that they have submitted a writer-based composition as a final product; it has not undergone sufficient transformation to become reader-based or “audience-sensitive.” Writer-based compositions tend to contain ambiguous references precisely because the writing is still part of an interior dialogue; the context and the references that are obvious to the writer have not been made explicit. The difficulty of writing well is usually a classic sociological problem, namely, insufficient sensitivity to the larger social context in which one lives and works. In order to transform writing from writer-based prose to reader-based, students must do some role taking. Role taking is a critical skill in doing sociology: one must learn to view the world from other perspectives. This is precisely what writers do in transforming and revising their work: making transitions clear, organizing material for easy comprehension by a reader unfamiliar with the ideas, making references explicit, substituting words that are not loaded with private meanings, elaborating ideas that would be vague or incomplete to an outsider, establishing a “voice” so the tone is consistent throughout the piece, and anticipating readers’ prior knowledge and attitudes regarding the topic. Effective writing in the academy and in the public sphere is reader-based. It moves ideas from the intimacy of personal reflection to the public arena, the latter of which is regulated by conventions and structures. Good writing requires movement from the micro to the macro and back again. Conclusion Writing is a profoundly personal experience. Our individual writing processes are often unique. The process of putting our ideas on paper is often private and even seems intimate. We do not want to share our work with the larger public until it is ready. When we write we are constructing reality as we see it, defining the situation for our audience. Although the larger culture profoundly influences how we do that construction
and how we perceive our world, we keep our private work from the view of others until a time of our choosing. Yet despite its privacy, the writing process ultimately is shaped in myriad ways by the larger society in which the writer works: by norms regarding use of language, by influences on our definitions of reality, and by the social context in which we expect our work to be read (the anticipated audience and standards of evaluation). As we write, we move back and forth between considerations of what we know (our own interior world) and considerations about our intended audience (the larger world).Writing is an expression of the sociological imagination. Although Mills did not explore the idea of writing as a sociological experience in quite the way I have developed it here, he does touch on some of the issues I have explored in one section of his appendix to The Sociological Imagination. He discusses the importance of consciousness of audience and describes a process that composition instructors currently call the “communications triangle”: writer, audience, and subject matter in interaction. At one point Mills does come close to exploring the interaction between private biography and public issue as it applies to writing. In discussing the importance of writing to doing sociology, he writes, At first you present your thought to yourself….Then when you feel that you have it straight, you present it to others —and often find you have not made it clear. Now you are in the “context of presentation.” Sometimes you will notice that as you try to present your thinking, you will modify it —not only in its form of statement, but in its content as well. You will get new ideas as you work in your context of presentation. In short it will become a new context of discovery, different from the original one….Here again you cannot divorce how you think from how you write. You have to move back and forth between these two contexts…. (Mills 1959: 222). In this simple statement Mills observes 1) the writer’s fundamental movement back and forth between interior reflection and social context, 2) the connection of writing to critical thinking, and 3) the recursive nature of all writing. The very act of writing, he hints, can be understood from a sociological perspective. My own hope is that by thinking sociologically about writing, students will gain insights and develop strategies that help them become better writers.
Anderson, Leon and Mara Holt. 1990. “Teaching Writing in Sociology: A Social Constructionist Approach.” Teaching Sociology 18: 179-84.Becker, Howard S. 1986. Writing for Social Scientists. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Emig, Janet. 1977. “Writing as a Mode of Thinking.” College Composition and Communication.28: 122-28.Flower, Linda. 1979. “Writer Based Prose: A Cognitive Basis for Problems in Writing.” College English.41: 19-37.Giarrusso, Roseann, Judith Richlin-Klonsky, William G. Roy, and Ellen Strenski. 1991.A Guide to Writing Sociology Papers.2nd ed. New York: St. Martin’s. Lindemann, Erika. 1987. A Rhetoric for Writing Teachers.2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press. Mills, C. Wright. 1959. The Sociological Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press.Richardson, Pamela. 1986. “Risk.” Pp. 108-20 in Writing for Social Scientists, by Howard S. Becker. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Roberts, Keith A. 1993.”Toward a Sociology of Writing.” Teaching Sociology. 21: 317-324.Walvoord, Barbara E. Fassler. 1986. Helping Students Write Well: A Guide for Teachers in All Disciplines.2nd ed. New York: Modern Language Association of America.
What’s one example (from Roberts’s article) of how one’s personal experience of writing is affected by social context? In other words, how is what/how one writes (or feels about writing) a product of a wider social forces?
How does this help to illustrate the sociological imagination? (This requires a brief explanation of the sociological imagination in order to show how Roberts is using a sociological imagination to think about writing.) To the extent possible, show how the example relates to Mills’s specific concepts, using the original terminology (e.g., biography, history, troubles, issues, etc.).
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