Writing ... and reading about writing
Elżbieta M. Goździak is reflecting on books that help one to become a better academic writer
All members of our team are fully immersed in field research in Poznań and Wrocław but we are also beginning to design conference presentations and journal articles inspired by the preliminary research findings. Our two doctoral students are especially keen to start writing as they have to produce five publishable articles to obtain the coveted doctoral degree. I thought this might be a good excuse to provide some advice on which books helped me in my writing.
Ethnographic data can be overwhelming
Often times when I start looking at my interview transcripts and field notes I get overwhelmed by the sheer amount of data. I wonder how I will ever be able to make sense out of the collected material and start writing... At moments like this, I am reminded of the advice Anne Lamotte's father gave her 10-year-old brother faced with writing a school report on birds. Surrounded by paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, the boy felt immobilized by the sheer size of the task ahead. His father sat down beside him and said, 'Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.' Indeed, issue by issue, taxonomy by taxonomy, and order, slowly, emerges from chaos.
In her book entitled Bird by Bird. Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott dispenses her own advice on on how to write and on how to manage the writer’s life. From “Getting Started," with “Short Assignments,” through “Shitty First Drafts,” “Character,” “Plot,” “Dialogue.” all the way from “False Starts” to “How Do You Know When You’re Done?” Lamott not only encourages and instructs writers, but also inspires. She discusses “Writers Block,” “Writing Groups,” and “Publication.” She is very honest and extremely funny.
While I don't expect my doctoral students to write novels, although one never knows what they might do in the future, I have recommended they read Lamott's book. Writing up ethnographic material is not as different from writing novels as one might expect.
Pearls of wisdom from a journalist
A New York Times editor, Francis Flaherty, is another one of my go-to-authors on how to write succinctly and choose one's words wisely. Flaherty is a wonderful writer himself and clearly enjoys playing with words. Every time I embark on a new writing project, I read a chapter or two before I sit down to write my own journal article. Flaherty taught me how to omit needless words, how to word-smith, and how to show rather than tell.
From field notes to creating engaging narratives
Many anthropologists have written about writing, including James Clifford and George E. Marcus who edited Writing Culture. The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. As much as I love the essays that place ethnography at the intersection of interpretive anthropology, cultural studies, social history, travel writing, discourse theory, and textual criticism, I am drawn to Kristen Ghodsee's From Notes to Narrative. Writing Ethnographies that Everyone Can Read.
Ghodsee reflects on the writing process, editing, and the quality of text, but to me the greatest value of the book are her reflections on participant observation and note-taking in the field. Anthropologists, especially young, emerging scholars, are often unsure what is worth noting in one's field journal to produce rich ethnographic text based on the field research.
If like me you get inspired in your academic wring by great novels, this book is for you. Kirin Narayan, and Indian-American anthropologist, takes the reader on an interesting ride, during which she engages with Chekhov's ethnographic writing. It is a delightful book. It's not a how-to manual, but, at least for me, provided much inspiration.
As a non-native English speaker who writes and publishes mainly in English, I really appreciate the effects of well-written or well-translated fiction on my own abilities to write in English.
So as you embark on a writing project, read about writing, and also read fiction.