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Writing tips you might like too

Writing is incredibly hard. Well, good writing is anyway. I’ve had the fortune to get some writing guidance in person from Karl Weick and in book form from Howard Becker. I thought you might enjoy some of their tips as well. I’ve shared these with my students, and the ones who tried them did write more effectively than those who didn’t. I hope the same is true for me.

Both of the tips in this post aim to limit intellectual laziness in writing. One has to do with passive voice and the other with “to be” verbs. Writing in passive voice (e.g. “The post was tagged.”) and using “to be” verbs (“This blog is an example of social media.”) allow authors to make leaps that are unjustified and intellectually lazy. You may have noticed that passive voice and “to be” verbs go hand-in-hand; let’s see if we can bust ’em up.

By saying, “The post was tagged,” I allow myself to get away without saying who or what tagged the post. Becker (1986, p. 8 ) points out that such a sentence is a theoretical error and not just bad writing. I allow some abstract being to do the tagging, and that means my explanation of events is incomplete. Lazy! Instead, I should say, “I tagged the post.” Sure, it uses the same number of words, but who did the tagging and what was tagged are both clear in that sentence. That sentence avoids implicitly invoking abstract forces.

“This blog is an example of social media,” causes more confusion than it explains. Understanding the sentence requires that we know what a blog is and what social media is. Instead, I should describe what the blog does and how that makes it part of this superclass – social media. This tip – to stop equating things or calling them examples and instead to explain what’s happening – came from Karl Weick during a class in the fall of 2006.

I find doing a “find and replace” search in Word where I replace “to be” verbs with highlighted versions of themselves to be very helpful. I was surprised to find that I’m not the only one who does that – Deborah De Rosa does it too. Highlighting all the places where I use “to be” verbs makes it easy for me to go back to each instance and make sure it’s appropriate. It’s worth a shot if you’re struggling from passivity and/or laziness.

I’m likely to blog about Becker’s book more as I work my way through it. In choosing a grounded theory and actor-network theory approach to my dissertation, I made sure it would be hard for me to write. Tips like Becker’s and Weick’s help keep me careful while writing, and that’s the help I need when trying to be descriptive without resorting prematurely to explanation.


Becker, H. (1986) Writing for Social Scientists. University of Chicago Press.

*Note: Becker’s book is hard to find sometimes.  Thanks, Mom and Dad, for hunting it down in Portland for me!

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