Learn to Write Badly. How to Succeed in the Social Sciences.
2013, Cambridge University Press, 234 pages.
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“You have to study long and hard to write […] badly.” (p.11)
Michael Billig describes the relationship between the working conditions of academic social scientists and the linguistic nature of their output. He believes the commercial culture of academic work leads to increased competition and subsequently to the need of self-promotion alongside gross and hasty production of texts.
Overall, the usage of big (boast) words has declined due to the expansion of higher education. However, students need to accept the terminology (and its alleged superiority) of their chosen field of study and use it in their own academic writing. While some professionals generally criticize ordinary language for being too imprecise and tinted by common beliefs, Billig assesses its benefits.
Billig also points to the prevalence of nouns and noun phrases and the implications in scientists’ writings. He finds this habit of bureaucrats and natural scientists “disastrous” for social scientists because nouns cannot describe “who does what in the world”. Billig supports his findings with case studies from sociological writing, with conversation analysis as well as with analysis of experimental social psychologists’ writing patterns. In effect, he recommends to use ordinary terms where possible and to revert to the active form of verbs where scientists have replaced them with bulky nouns.
You will be drawn into the book by amusement and curiosity despite the somewhat dry topic.
Reviewed by Eva Dietrich, February 2020