Writing for Your Favorite Aunt

C. Wright Mills once said that anyone who writes in a widely intelligible way is liable to be condemned as a “mere literary“ critic or, worse still, a “mere journalist.” If something is readable, he suggested, we tend to think it’s superficial. As we know, for many sociologists, just about the worst thing you can say about an article is that it’s “journalistic”—or “descriptive.”

Of course it’s important to be able to speak in the dialect of our discipline, especially with those who share our interests, methodologies, and ways of seeing. But a lot of the work we do is too interesting and important to be shared exclusively among professional sociologists.

At Contexts, we’re trying to broaden the audience for social research. One of the biggest challenges we face is getting people to write clear, engaging prose. In graduate school, we’re socialized into a world of academic journal publication that demands certain writing conventions. These conventions, while useful for the discipline, do not typically (sorry to say!) make for compelling reading.

Most academic journal writing takes the form of a research report. Potentially interesting insights are shielded in mounds of data. If there is any storyline, it’s usually buried in the footnotes. This format is useful for making claims within a legitimated scientific discourse, and for communicating with other specialists. But it’s not very effective for talking with those who may be outside our professional worlds — like your favorite aunt — who may be well educated and publically engaged, but who’s just not cued into the professional codes. If she picked up the latest issue of the American Journal of Sociology, it’s unlikely she’d get past page one. How, we wonder, can we speak to her too?

Writing for broader audiences is not a simple task, but it’s well worth aspiring to. Since we took over the helm of this publication, we’ve met many people who want to do just that. Recently, when we held writing workshops at two regional sociology meetings, we met many people who want to be a part of a larger intellectual conversation.

The first step in doing so, we’re convinced, is figuring out how to write more clearly and more effectively. So with that in mind, we offer this advice for those of you who wish to write for this magazine:

First, shift your understanding of who your audience is. When you’re writing, think of that educated aunt, or your politically engaged next-door-neighbor. Or curious undergraduate. How would you explain your research to them, and inspire their interest, without dumbing down your prose?

Second, tell a story about your research, and populate it with living, breathing, human beings, who live and interact in the world. If your work focuses on structures and processes rather than flesh and blood people, focus on people, places, and moments to illuminate those invisible forces. To the extent that you can, analyze conflicts and tensions—and try to resolve them.

Third, connect the story to some big ideas. Articulate an angle that defies conventional wisdom and challenges the way we think about a given topic. Be bold, and don’t shy away from controversy.

That’s a tall order, to be sure. But in this issue, we bring you a number of contributions that illustrate this approach to writing. In our cover story, Michael Schudson considers the great civil rights activist Rosa Parks, how the stories we tell about her are partial and incomplete, and what that tells us. (Coincidentally, a book review essay by Nancy Whittier, on the subject of sexual violence, makes mention of Parks as well).

Travis Kong documents the lives of “money boys,” men who sell sex to other men, and what they tell us about getting ahead in the new China. Orit Avishai, Melanie Heath, and Jennifer Randles take us into classrooms where lessons in marriage are taught, and assess their effectiveness. And, Claudio Benzecry examines the cult of passionate opera fans he found in Argentina, and what they tell us about fandom.

With this issue, we’re also pleased to welcome Syed Ali as editor of Viewpoints, a regular feature in this magazine. Syed is a sociologist who works at Long Island University, and who has conducted ethnographic research among Muslims in Hyderabad, India, South Asians in the United States, and migrants in Dubai. With this issue, he brings us “Judging Obama,” in which a number of experts weigh in on the president’s first term in office, edited by Ho-fung Hung.

These pieces will be of interest to professional sociologists and their students, to be sure. We’re hoping, too, that they’ll be read and appreciated by your activist neighbors, your eager students — and your favorite aunt.