7 tips from Hemingway on how to write social science

Via BoingBoing I have come across this little gem in OpenCulture: “Seven Tips From Ernest Hemingway on How to Write Fiction“. Given that the mediocre-to-appalling quality of academic writing seems to be a neverending concern, I think that it may be useful to consider Hemingway’s tips are actually applicable to how we write in the social sciences.

1: To get started, write one true sentence

Sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say.

I think this particular tip applies perfectly to the task of writing a working paper, opinion piece, or journal article. Begin with a true statement (not a working hypothesis, and certainly not a statement about “the literature”!), and work your way up from there.

2. Always stop for the day while you still know what will happen next

The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day when you are writing a novel you will never be stuck.

Having written a long Ph.D. dissertation I find this to be a crucial piece of advice. I am a planner and outliner by default, but even so I will never stop out of frustration or due to writer’s block. Instead, it is always a personal choice on when and how to resume.

3. Never think about the story when you’re not working

Is there anything to add? Academics and researchers are incredibly prone to obsessing about their work at all times, when this actually precludes the kind of free association and problem-solving that happens on the back of your mind during leisure time. My best ideas always come while watching a movie or listening to a podcast, not when binge-reading or sitting in the library.

4. When it’s time to work again, always start by reading what you’ve written so far

The best way is to read it all every day from the start, correcting as you go along, then go on from where you stopped the day before.

Often what we write seems to make perfect sense as we painstakingly build one paragraph after another, when in fact it may not make sense at all when seen from a more general perspective. We have so much information to process and present that it is difficult to avoid tangential or entirely irrelevant digressions. By re-reading constantly before adding we save ourselves -and our editors!- a lot of frustration and effort.

5. Don’t describe an emotion – make it

To me this is directly applicable to professional social science writing in the way we present our questions and problems of study. All too frequently we describe the importance of an issue or idea by referencing the literature that says it is an important issue or idea, or even worse, the literature that everyone assumes makes it into an important issue or idea.

In fact what we should do in order to make our writing compelling is persuade the reader of the inherent power of our concepts and results, and especially convey to her what makes us so passionate about our research.

6. Use a pencil

If you write with a pencil you get three different sights at it to see if the reader is getting what you want him to. First when you read it over; then when it is typed you get another chance to improve it, and again in the proof. Writing it first in pencil gives you one-third more chance to improve it.

As someone who has recently taken on editorial responsibilities I could not agree more with this suggestion: good prose is the result of iterative writing, much of which could happen before the final product is ever submitted for review. The only way to anticipate and pre-empt a reviewer’s or editor’s reaction is by revising the entire text (and not just the results!) multiple times before it is actually ready to go out.

7. Be brief

It wasn’t by accident that the Gettysburg address was so short. The laws of prose writing are as immutable as those of flight, of mathematics, of physics.

I firmly believe that social science needs to be intuitive and clear in order to be relevant, and this accessibility partly stems from the efficient use of the written word. It is my experience that a 25,000-word chapter can be edited down to 15,000 words, and that a 12,000-word paper is not necessarily better or more informative that a succint but efficient 6,000-word one.

So I wholeheartedly  agree with Hemingway here: be brief. A paper or chapter should never be a data dump, nor a repetition of differently worded statements. The quality of research is never determined by attrition, even if professional academic success often is.

And there you have it: seven tips from a master writer which can all be easily applied to an academic field whose prose has gradually become less and less masterful.

[Originally posted on 20 February 2013]