Good Writing and Good Thinking
Recently we heard a story from an eminent sociologist about a paper she submitted to a leading journal that got us thinking about good writing.
The story wasn’t all that complicated or, for that matter, unfamiliar. Its basic punch-line was that one of the reviewers recommended rejecting the paper on the grounds that it was very well written and thus more suited for a publication like the New York Times Magazine than a mainstream sociology journal.
To their credit, the editors didn’t take this advice. However, the anecdote is both telling and disconcerting. Too often in our field the appellation “well written” functions as pejorative rather than as praise. This is particularly troubling to us because the overarching mission of this publication—to bring sociological insight to larger public audiences—requires writing that is engaging and accessible. Contexts is nothing if it is not about the quest for good writing.
We’re not convinced reviewers like the one above really understand what good writing is and why it’s so valuable. Good writing can’t be reduced to proper punctuation or grammar. It isn’t just stringing together words that convey other people’s ideas in a more accessible, poetic, or clever way. Good writing is the actual accomplishment and physical embodiment of clear thinking and strong analysis. Good writing is good thinking. And quality written thought comes in many different forms and serves many purposes. In this issue, for example, we have Sharon Hays and Jess Butler’s rip-roaring and devastating critique of Full Frontal Feminism and a clear-eyed, empirical account of declining social ties in America today by Miller McPherson, Lynn Smith-Lovin, and Matthew Brashears. Very different writing styles. Very different purposes. And both, in our judgment, wonderful pieces of writing.
Writing well, like doing good sociology, is also not easy. Our authors spend a great deal of time honing their insights and findings, and we work with them closely to ensure their prose is as clear and compelling as possible. (If you’re interested, we’ve recently updated and revised the innovative two-stage submission and review process developed by Contexts founding editor Claude Fischer to help achieve these outcomes; see contexts.org/submissions).
What’s at stake in defending and cultivating good writing is much larger than Contexts; it involves the future of sociology itself. The written word, after all, is the primary means by which we confirm core knowledge, generate new ideas, and clarify and debate unresolved questions. Good writing may be, as Monte Bute suggested in commenting on George Orwell in our last issue, the most basic and fundamental method of the sociological enterprise, and the key to realizing the promise of our big, broad, synthetic vision of the world. In an increasingly interdisciplinary and yet specialized academic environment, no discipline is better positioned to play a leading intellectual role than sociology itself—if we can formulate and disseminate our ideas properly.
None of this is to suggest the writing that appears in our leading journals is bankrupt or misguided, or even that it is not often very good. Quite the contrary, we believe journal articles (even very technical or dense, theoretical ones) have an indispensable place and purpose, and we both take pride in the work we publish in these venues. The point, rather, is to insist that good writing—clear, purposeful thinking put into words on a page—is crucial to sociology and the task of rendering social life meaningful and intelligible.