Write like you mean it!

photo by pnc
photo by pnc

The Chronicle of Higher Education last week had a very interesting article by Mark Grief, who twelve years ago, as a graduate student, co-founded the magazine n+1 (about the same time Contexts got its start) as a forum for public intellectuals. He reflects on the history of the fabled Partisan Review, a mid-20th century forum for public intellectuals like Hannah Arendt, Susan Sontag, and Saul Bellow; he weaves this story in with that of starting n+1.

The Partisan Review story is fascinating and I suggest you read it. (Hint hint—this kind of writing about historical material and why it’s relevant for us today is very Contexts-like!) Grief’s experience with n+1 though is what interests me. When they started it, Grief and his cofounders thought they would be able to get good content from younger academics—graduate students, junior and recently tenured faculty. They figured that “the languishing professoriate’s reservoir of erudite rage seemed a natural resource waiting to be unlocked.”

He was hugely disappointed. These people didn’t give him work he wanted to publish. He had feared faculty would give him bad, turgid academic writing. Contexts has always had the same fear, so editors have constantly asked writers to write clearly and simply. But It turned out bad writing wasn’t the problem. The writing was clear for the most part. The problem was these brilliant academics were dumbing down their ideas.

Now writing is an issue that’s easily addressed—it’s a simple matter of mechanics. But dumbing down ideas is not something we editors can help. The rationale for doing so is tempting. People won’t understand my complex ideas in the academic jargon I write in, so I’ll leave the difficult stuff out of it. Don’t do that. It’s insulting to the reader. The goal is to write simply, and with nuance and complexity. Remember, simple does not have to be simplistic! Too many people confuse the two.

Also, we sometimes get submissions that are light on data. Don’t do that either. Steven Thrasher, Contexts board member, writer, and veteran journalist currently at the Guardian, told Philip and me a while back that sociologists are relevant because our data is powerful. Commentators on the topic of the day are a dime a dozen, but we do research and collect data. That makes us potentially important.

As we’ve said before, writing for Contexts is a form of storytelling—analytical and empirical. Be clean and clear in your style, be bold and complex with your analytical ideas, and don’t skimp on the empirical details. And send us your good stuff!

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