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Crime, technology and society by Angus Bancroft
Writing tips

Writing tips

Social science writing is a set of conventions or styles. These conventions can be used to create distance on the subject, the impression of an objective standpoint, or to get close in and give the reader a sense of what it is really like to be there. You can learn these conventions and use them where suitable in order to strengthen your writing. 

  1. Learn to use paragraphs. A good technique is to look at each paragraph as a whole and divide it into topic – body – tokens – wrap, as described by Patrick Dunleavy in the LSE’s Writing for Research blog This helps you allocate sentences to the right bits and shorten them, so you wouldn’t have a sentence doing all 4 functions.
  2. Look at two papers/books that describe the same problem in two completely different ways. There’s no single way of writing facts. It appears as if there is because the sources we use (e.g. newspapers, blogs) basically copy each other. Most news reports just write up an Associated Press wire so they all look the same. Not because they’ve all independently arrived at the same framing of the situation. Likewise, the reason a lot of academics write about the same topic in the same way is that we confer and also are a little bit conformist. That’s not necessarily a bad thing but there are times when the first book or article in a field gets to set how it is framed for decades without anyone questioning it.
  3. Read a public document (e.g. from an NGO, government, university strategy etc) and count up the clichés (‘as this report makes abundantly clear’ and such). Note at what points the document ceases to use cliché. Why is that? Is it because those are the parts that matter? Compare the way that document is produced to how we produce research writing.
  4. There are more original things to be said than there are original questions to ask. The four basic questions of science and social science are: what is this? Why is it like that? What effect does it have on others? Can it be different? Say who/what is doing what to whom, and why. What’s real, and what’s not? What matters, and what just appears to?
  5. Don’t homogenise differing points of view
  6. Use the active voice. It’s often said that academic writing uses the passive voice too much but that’s not the problem, the problem is the lack of any subject. Stuff just happens, apparently.
  7. Don’t say what you’re going to say, but do say why you are saying it. This goes against Becker’s advice to map your writing and goes to show there’s no one way of advising people about writing either. If in doubt choose Becker.
  8. Edit other people’s work and let them edit yours. Don’t just ignore comments. One of the biggest frustrations I have is when I give comments on someone’s work and the next version I see there is no evidence of me having said anything about it. If you have addressed it say how. If you haven’t addressed it, say why. Feedback is a dialogue.
  9. Don’t write deferentially e.g. saying ‘I think’ (I do this far too much). It’s the most useless phrase in the language. Of course you thought it when you wrote it. It’s one of a class of phrases that are purely there to cover us if someone takes issue with what we said or wrote. It implies that others are more important in the conversation than you. Do write with due deference to others who have gone before though.
  10. Progress is when writing is more effective, not longer.
  11. Imagine yourself in the world you are writing about. Tell us about it. What’s life like as a drug mule? A border guard? 
  12. Move from the abstract to the concrete and back. For example, ‘flow’ is an abstract metaphor for what is really happening on the ground with global trafficking. To get a handle on it you can look at an actual fentanyl supply chain works. Then look back to the abstract metaphor – does it still work?
  13. Try both complex writing tools (Scrivener, WordPress) and simple ones (emacs, TextEdit). Don’t be satisfied with the tools you are given. You will build your own toolbox for your purpose. You can do amazing things with Excel.

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