A Sociologist's Guide to Style

for authors of essays, memos, theses, and reports1

Mills College Department of Anthropology and Sociology, Fall 2010


As in any field, sociological writing is expected to follow certain norms of style. Most of these are characteristic of good writing in general, but a few are discipline specific. Mastery of these norms is expected as a part of your training in the major and increasing facility with them is expected in each of our courses.

Solid writing skills will allow your written products to provide clearer evidence of the quality of your ideas and progress in your understanding of things sociological. It will permit your readers to engage with you on the level of ideas, logic, and evidence rather than wondering what you mean and whether you actually understand what you are talking about.

Clear writing makes it possible for your audience to recognize that you understand something and to improve their understanding based on what you have written. It also permits your reader to

Critical for human interaction.

It is Better to be Wrong than Vague
I came across this quote in Arthur Stinchcombe's Constructing Sociological Theories many years ago. It is as good advice about writing sociology (or anything else) as you'll find. The only excuse for doing sociology is because we want to better understand how the world works. This is an inherently social endeavor; we

Brian Garner on Plain Language

"Albert Einstein once said that his goal in stating an idea was to make it as simple as possible but no simpler. He also said: "Most of the fundamental ideas of science are essentially simple, and may, as a rule, be expressed in a language comprehensible to everyone." The Evolution of Physics 29 (1938). If that's true of science, surely it's true of most other subjects.

"But there is little reason for hope when so many writers seem to believe that to appear competent or smart, they must state their ideas in the most complex manner possible. Of course, this problem plagues many fields of intellectual endeavor, as the philosopher Bertrand Russell noted:

"I am allowed to use plain English because everybody knows that I could use mathematical logic if I chose… . I suggest to young professors that their first work should be written in a jargon only to be understood by the erudite few. With that behind them, they can ever after say what they have to say in a language 'understanded of the people.' In these days, when our very lives are at the mercy of the professors, I cannot but think that they would deserve our gratitude if they adopted my advice." Bertrand Russell, "How I Write" (1954), in The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell 63, 65 (Robert E. Egner & Lester E. Denonn eds., 1961).

"But the professors have not heeded Russell's advice. Since he wrote that essay in the mid-1950s, things have gotten much worse in fields such as biology, economics, education, law, linguistics, literary criticism, political science, psychology, and sociology."

"Why Bridle Sophisticates?

"Shouldn't learned professionals be allowed complex verbiage? That is, shouldn't they express themselves in more sophisticated ways than nonprofessionals do? The question needs serious answers because it presents the most serious impediment to the plain-language movement. There are essentially four answers.

"First, those who write in a difficult, laborious style risk being unclear not only to other readers but also to themselves. Because writing reflects thinking, if your thinking is obscure and convoluted your prose will be, too. And you'll be less likely to appreciate the problems that are buried under such convoluted prose.

"Second, obscure writing wastes readers' time — a great deal of it, when the amount is totaled. An Australian study conducted in the 1980s found that lawyers and judges take twice as long deciphering legalistically worded statutes as they do plain-language revisions. See Law Reform Commission of Victoria, Plain English & the Law 61-62 (1987). The same is surely true in other fields as well.

"Third, simplifying is a higher intellectual attainment than complexifying. Writing simply and directly is hard work, and professionals ought to set this challenge for themselves. In fact, the hallmark of all the greatest stylists is precisely that they have taken difficult ideas and expressed them as simply as possible. No nonprofessional could do it, and most specialists can't do it. Only extraordinary minds are capable of the task. Still, every writer — brilliant or not — can aim at the mark.

"Fourth, the very idea of professionalism demands that writers not conspire against nonspecialists by adopting a style that makes their writing seem like a suffocating fog. We should continually ask ourselves how the culture stacks up when we consider the durable truth expressed by Richard Grant White: "As a general rule, the higher the culture, the simpler the style and the plainer the speech." Words and Their Uses 31 (1870; repr. 1899)."

Quotation of the Day: "The inability to render in usual language what is going on in a subsystem of the wider community symptomizes more general alienation. Why, when virtually all humans learn to talk quite well, do some become gibberers when they have to talk about what is presumably very close to their hearts, their work? Does the Devil catch their tongue? Since these are people who talk readily to children, dinner companions, bookies, and cobblers, the problem must lie in the style or nature of their work, and not in them." Lionel Tiger, The Manufacture of Evil 187 (1987).

These suggestions are based on general principles of clear and effective writing as well as the style guide of the American Sociological Association.

1. General Style Guidelines

Clarity and concision.

Outlines, Organization, and Topic Sentences.

One paper, one idea. The question, "what's this paper about?" should have a single answer. Your paper is not improved and your reputation as a thinker is not enhanced when a paper manages to mention or hint at all the different papers you could have written. You will, in the process of writing, generate many ideas and identify many different paths you could take with a given project; DURING the process, explore them and see where they lead, compare them in terms of the evidence and theory you have on hand, the assignment you are responding to, and where your passions lie. And then make decisions and cut material so that your text focuses on what THIS paper is about. You aren't wasting good ideas — they will keep for another time and working through them was good for your brain. But you show your reader how smart you are by how well you can construct this paper on this topic, not by subjunctive hints at what might have been.

Claims, Warrants, and Grounds.

Above all, be clear and concise. Your prose style and formatting should be professional rather than academic. journalistic, or polemical.Do not include extra verbiage, even if it seems interesting, elegant, or entertaining.
Target your writing to your main audience (typically, a public-sector agency or decisionmaker) but ensure that your message will also be comprehensible to the interested general public. Limit the use of technical jargon and clearly explain complex topics that must be understood for a reader to follow your argument.
Focus the paper clearly so that it achieves its intended purpose. Define a well-bounded problem or question and address it (and only it). Your treatment of the problem should be comprehensive but within a limited domain. All sections of the paper must build upon and lead into each other, so that the reader is well prepared for your recommendations and conclusion.
Organize your paper to make the material accessible. Readers should find it easy to follow and easy to locate specific topics. Make judicious use of subheadings, bullet points, and other formatting options to provide helpful guideposts to the reader. Base your claims and conclusions on the evidence and analysis you have presented, and make it clear to the reader how you have done so.

2. Style Issues Specific to Sociological Writing

Empirical claims, Theoretical Claims, Moral Claims. Sociology is the science of society; strictly speaking, we deal in evidence and logic, not emotion and ideology. While we accept that nothing is purely objective and no one is ideology-free, our discipline demands that we recognize the difference between an empirical claim (one that can be tested by "finding out"), a theoretical claim (one that can be tested logically), and a moral claim (the "truth" of which depends on one's convictions and beliefs). Avoid writing in a manner that inadvertantly or deliberately blurs the boundaries between these.

Society does not exist. In general, avoid using "society" as the subject of a sentence. Although our stock in trade is the idea that there is a social reality sui generis, it is usually lazy thinking that leads us to say that society has done something. If there was an action, there were actors; say who you think they were.

Percentage Down, Compare Across. Always set your tables up correctly.

2. Specific Points of Style for Public Policy Writing (adapted from APPAM 2006) Active/Passive Voice. The passive voice is weaker than the active, often making sentences wordy and unnecessarily complex. Try to avoid excessive use of "be" as your main verb. Also avoid starting sentences with "There are…" and "It is…"; these structures make reading tedious and
decrease the impact of your work. Feel free to use "we" or "I" in those moments when you are clearly writing in the active voice of the first person.
Acronyms. On first appearance spell out the words the acronym represents, followed by the initials in parentheses; thereafter you may use the acronym alone. Avoid, if at all possible, acronyms that are not widely known. (If more than a few acronyms are necessary in a lengthy paper, consider including them in a table of terms and definitions.)
Footnotes. A substantive idea that seems worth presenting in a footnote is usually worth presenting in the text. When inclusion in the text proves difficult, that indicates a strong argument for dropping the point. If you decide that you must include certain ideas as notes, number them consecutively and place them at the bottom of the page.

Do not use footnotes solely for citations in public policy writing (see Citing Sources below).

Hyphens and Dashes. Properly distinguish between hyphens (used to join words, as in U.S.-British relations), en dashes (used to indicate a range of numbers, as in 2008–09), and em dashes (used to set off a parenthetical thought—like this).

When typing, use two hyphens surrounded by spaces to insert an en dash. Use two hyphens between words with no spaces to insert an em dash.
Tables and Figures. Tables or figures should be used when they can present data or concepts more clearly than plain text. Provide only data relevant to the textual argument, and

never include a table or figure that you do not reference in the text.

Tables and figures must be numbered and titled using a clear, consistent style. Create headings that communicate the argument under discussion. Always cite sources for information in tables or figures.
Widows and Orphans. Avoid leaving single lines of paragraphs stranded at the top or bottom of pages. Ensure that page breaks do not separate headings from the text they introduce. Check your word processor for settings to correct these problems automatically.

3. Writing as a Social Act

Feedback. If you give a draft to a friend or teacher and you receive specific revision suggestions never simply ignore these and submit a subsequent draft to the same reader without explanation. Nothing irritates a reader more than to correct the same thing twice. If you disagree with a correction or suggestion, figure out how to communicate your reasons to your reader if you expect them to read the same manuscript again.

Never blame the reader. If a serious reader of your paper doesn't get the point you are trying to make it is your problem, not hers.

Respect your reader. Make your text as long as it needs to be and no longer. The fact that you wrote them down does not give sentences inherent value in the world. Avoid making reader read a sentence or paragraph that doesn't make any sense. Read your sentences out loud — don't make your reader struggle through tortured syntax trying to ascertain what a sentence means. Use section titles, introductions, and summaries to sign-post your text for the reader. Give the reader the background and context necessary to make sense of the text; never omit information because it is taken for granted in the course or because it was implied in the assignment or because the instructor already knows it.

4. References, Citations, Bibliographies

Among the strongest taboos in academia is that prohibiting plagiarism. No matter how much standards have evolved in other realms (from "mix-culture" to contemporary pseudo-non-fiction to political speech), in this one the rule stands: ideas, evidence and language not your own must be attributed to their author. Failure to do so is a substantive, not merely formal, violation of academic norms that can disqualify you from membership in the academic community.

As a student social scientist you also have a professional obligation to inform your audience of the source the sources of all ideas and evidence used in your paper, including, but not limited to, verbatim quotes and quantitative data. The working rule is that your work should be simple to replicate and verify.

Beginners often feel they have "too many references" in a paper and that this makes it look like "none of the ideas are mine." Simply put, you have to get over this. You are being recognized for the relevance of the questions you ask and the act of synthesis (of theory, evidence, logic) with which you answer them. One might even go so far as to say that your reader is little interested in what YOU feel/think and so more references are better.

In contemporary policy writing, footnotes and legal citation styles have been supplanted by the Author-Date system: a parenthetical reference giving the author’s surname and publication date in short form is included in the text, and a complete list of references is given at the end of the paper. Arrange the list of references in alphabetical order by author; for more than one publication by an author (or coauthors), arrange by publication date with the earliest publication first. Every in-text citation must correspond to an entry in the reference list. Conversely, every entry in the reference list must be cited in the text.
Referencing reputable sources can bolster your argument, allowing you to make claims of fact beyond your direct observation or common knowledge (indeed, you must cite sources for any such claims). However, you should generally emphasize the claim, rather than the source. Don’t say:
A study done in 1998 by Cathy Krop and her colleagues at RAND found that
students were less likely to drop out when they felt they could ask questions outside
of class.
Instead, say: Students who feel they can ask questions outside the classroom may be less likely to drop out (Krop et al., 1998).
(If several studies find this effect, or one very solid study finds it, you may make the stronger statement that students are less likely to drop out.) To cite a direct quote, include the page number:
Students who “feel they can ask questions outside the classroom” may be less likely to drop out (Krop et al., 1998, p. 333).
The reference list would then include an entry for this study like this (in APA Author-Date style):
Krop, Cathy, Stephen J. Carroll, and Randy Ross (1998). Effects of educational environments on graduation rates. Santa Monica: RAND Corporation.
Determining the complete bibliographic information for online sources is often more difficult than for traditional print materials. When citing a web page, you may need to inspect other pages on the same web site to infer the full name of the author (often it will be the name of an organization, rather than an individual), publisher, or even the title of the page. Publication dates may be omitted from references if they are not shown on the web site, but always include your access date after the URL at the end of the full citation.
The specific Author-Date formatting rules of the American Psychological Association (APA) or the Chicago Manual of Style are equally acceptable as long as you follow one style consistently within each paper. See the references below for examples of citation formats and other useful advice:
APPAM (2006). Information on style for JPAM articles. Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management. http://www.appam.org/publications/jpam/stylesheet.asp. Accessed August 1, 2008.
Brians, Paul (2006). Common errors in English. Wilsonville, OR: William, James. http://www.wsu.edu/~brians/errors. Accessed August 1, 2008.
Center for Writing Studies. Citation styles handbook: APA. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. http://www.english.uiuc.edu/cws/wworkshop/writer_resources/citation_styles/apa/apa.htm. Accessed August 1, 2008.
University of Chicago (2006). Chicago-style citation quick guide. http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html. Accessed August 1, 2008.
Young, Eoin and Lisa Quinn (2005). The policy brief. Budapest: International Policy Fellowships Program, Open Society Institute. http://www.policy.hu/ipf/fel-pubs/samples/PolicyBrief-described.pdf. Accessed August 1, 2008.

5. Checklist for proofreading and formatting

Before delivering your paper to an instructor or clients, you must do a final proofread. Nothing makes a reader more immediately suspicious about the quality of a paper as misspellings, grammatical errors, and sloppy formatting. The automatic spelling- and grammar-checking tools of word processors can help but are not sufficient to correct all errors and may inadvertently introduce additional errors.
Spelling, Punctuation, and Grammar
• Computer spell-check finds no unexplained spelling errors
• Acronyms are defined once, when they first appear
• Hyphens and dashes are used properly
• Closing quotation marks come after (not before) commas and periods
• Footnote numbers or symbols, if any, follow all other punctuation
• Non-sexist language is used (applies especially to pronouns)
• Verbs are consistently in the right tense (past/present/future) and voice (active/passive)
• Every sentence is checked again for grammatical sense and spelling

6. Word Processing Issues : Formatting and Layout

• All parts of the paper are included, appropriately labeled, and in the correct order (e.g., Executive Summary, appendices, and references, as specified for the assignment)
• Pages are numbered consecutively
• Italics or underlining (but not both in the same paper) are used as appropriate
• Headings and subheadings are formatted consistently throughout
• No dangling headings or widowed/orphaned lines remain
• Tables and figures are properly numbered and labeled
• Every work cited in the text appears in the reference list
• Every work in the reference list is cited in the text
• All citations follow either APA or Chicago Author-Date formatting rules


Erikson, Kai. "Reflections on Sociological Writing"

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