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Writing for Research: Logic and Practice

St. Matthew writing his gospel under the inspiration of an angel.

May 21, 2016

Myths and Realities

Two great myths distort our picture of writing – one old, one new. The old myth views writing as simply a matter of genius and inspiration. Someone blessed with the gift sits down on a fine morning with pen in hand, the ghostly Muse whispers in his or her ear, and a brilliant text springs forth. No one understands how. All we can do is gasp in admiration, and hope the Muse will whisper in our ear, next time.

The new myth is less poetic. It arose in the brains of neoliberal managers, reflecting their obsession with competition. In this myth, writing is no more than a marketable product, which dedicated individuals manufacture and sell in their competitive struggle for achievement. The best profits, in terms of prestige and promotion, come from targeting highly-cited journals.

Both myths reflect enough reality to seem plausible – at times. Much writing is actually done by someone sitting alone with a pen or computer and agonizing over their ideas. Increasingly, writing for research is published through a competitive and commercialized industry.

But both myths distort the reality of writing, in dangerous ways. Both treat as individual genius or achievement what is actually a highly social process. Both ignore the fundamental fact that writing is about communication. Both miss the fact that writing for research, in any discipline, is part of a collective process of making and circulating knowledge.

Writing matters, in sociology or any other discipline, precisely because it is central to that collective process. Many features of writing for research that seem arbitrary to young researchers make sense only when we consider the social dimensions of knowledge making.

The politics of writing can only be understood by thinking about the social institutions and structures involved. That includes the impact of “league tables” and the commercialization of journals; the problem of precarious labor among intellectual workers; global hierarchies of recognition, prestige and resources; the uses and risks of the Internet; and the task of democratizing processes of knowledge formation and circulation.

An approach to writing

The key lies in recognizing writing as a form of social labor. It is work – and we can show that it is, even in the most brilliant literary texts. It is useful to apply ideas from industrial sociology to thinking about writing. Among other things, this encourages us to think about the workforce involved: its composition, wages and conditions of employment, technologies and other resources, supervision and autonomy.

Of course writing is a specialized form of labor. It is specifically communicative work, so it is useful to apply ideas from the sociology of communication, too. Among other things, this encourages us to think of the audience for any piece of writing, how that audience is reached, and what the writing does for its readers. It is very important for researchers to think about who they are writing to, as that awareness shapes the writing itself.

Manuscript fragment of James Joyce’s Ulysses.

  Writing for research is a specific form of communication, and that too needs attention. It is part of a collective process of making knowledge, so it is also helpful to apply ideas from the sociology of intellectuals and the sociology of knowledge (as that field is being re-shaped in postcolonial times). A writer’s relations with previous and future workers in the same domain are important; so are the epistemes and knowledge frameworks to which the work relates.

With that background, we can look at writing for research not as a great mystery but as an understandable labor process. Different genres within this labor process involve different audiences and styles. Like other forms of labor, writing involves skills that can be learned and refined. Like other forms of labor, it involves a creative and purposive element, which is all the better for reflection and discussion.

For the last twelve years, I have been running free face-to-face workshops on writing, in many universities and conferences. These are not the kind of workshops that instruct participants how to Deliver A Competitive Product & Target Top Journals. Almost the opposite! The workshops are built on the ideas just outlined: that the making of organized knowledge is an inherently social, cooperative process, and that writing is central to this larger undertaking.

A short guide to writing for research

In the last few months, I have crystallized the ideas from these workshops into a series of blog posts, which I have now re-arranged and published as an e-booklet under a Creative Commons license.

Called Writing for Research: Advice on Principles and Practice, the booklet is 42 pages long (including dramatic illustrations), and can be downloaded free from my website, http://www.raewynconnell.net/p/writing-for-research.html. You are welcome to download this text, and circulate it to anyone who can use it; it is free to reproduce for non-commercial purposes.

The e-booklet discusses background issues about writing and its genres; the practicalities of writing a journal article, drawing on my own practice as a writer; and key issues in the politics of writing. Here is the table of contents in outline:

Part One: About writing
1. The nature of writing
2. Research communication, the social reality
3. The genres in writing for research

Part Two: How to write a journal article – practical steps
Epitome; argument-outline; first draft; revision; presentation; publication

Part Three: The Big Picture
1. Writing programs
2. Why do it? What makes it worthwhile?
3. Some resources

I encourage other experienced researchers to circulate their practices and reflections, to help build our understanding of the trade, and I welcome feedback on this text!

Raewyn Connell, University of Sydney, Australia, and member of ISA Research Committees on Women and Society (RC32) and Conceptual and Terminological Analysis (RC35) <raewyn.connell@sydney.edu.au>

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