Book Review: The Craft of Writing in Sociology by Balmer and Murcott

Review by Emma Seddon

Andrew Balmer is currently Senior Lecturer in Sociology at University of Manchester and a member of the Morgan Centre for Research into Everyday Lives. He has taught on Sociology programmes at three universities. His most recent book is Lie Detection and the Law: Torture, Technology and Truth with Routledge. He is currently an editor of Sociology, a journal of the British Sociological Association. 

Anne Murcott is currently Honorary Professorial Research Fellow at SOAS University of London and Honorary Professor, University of Nottingham. For over three decades she taught sociology on a wide range of undergraduate courses and regularly supervised MA and PhD students. Among her recent books are: The Handbook of Food Research (edited with Peter Jackson & Warren Belasco, Bloomsbury), Waste Matters: New Perspectives on Food and Society (edited with David Evans and Hugh Campbell, Sociological Review Monograph/Wiley).  Her textbook Introducing the Sociology of Food & Eating is due out in early 2019 (Bloomsbury). 

The craft of writing in sociology: developing the argument in undergraduate essays and dissertations co-written by Andrew Balmer and Anne Murcott was published in 2017 by Manchester University Press.

The craft of writing in sociology aims to methodologically break down the process of writing a sociology essay. The idea for the book emerged from writing groups set up by both authors addressing the difficulties of academic writing, and from the frustrations of encountering common errors in students’ assignments. This book aims to contribute to the literature on academic writing, such as the well-known volumes by Osmond (2013) and Becker (2007), which tends to relate to the social sciences more broadly and often to more advanced forms of academic writing. Instead, this book provides advice and techniques specific to undergraduate sociology and targeted at the “very doing of an essay” (p. vii). While students hear a lot about producing academic work, there is little out there about how to put pen to paper to create the final product itself. The principle of the book is to help students develop the foundations of good writing practice that they can apply throughout their undergraduate studies and can take into postgraduate education and the workplace.

The motivation for the book is clearly set out in the introduction: the basics of essay writing are rarely written down and taught; and the authors hope to make writing more enjoyable or “at least make it easier” by helping students learn to write well (p. 1). The authors have chosen to focus on essays for two reasons: firstly, most assessments in sociology courses take this form. Secondly, essay writing involves the three basic components necessary to the “craft” of good writing more generally: constructing an argument, collating sources and summarising key points. Once mastered, these techniques can be applied to other types of writing, such as dissertations and exams (p. 2). The authors’ use of the term “craft” sees writing as a holistic process: a means of learning that encompasses reading, note-taking, drafting, editing and proof-reading. This may help reassure students that feel they should be able to produce a perfect essay on their first attempt. Instead, multiple drafts are presented as an essential part of producing a well-argued and structured paper.

The bulk of the book is divided into three parts: part I is the largest section and details the nuts and bolts of writing and developing an argument; part II provides advice on the common pitfalls of essay writing; and part III goes over spelling, grammar and punctuation. In addition, the further reading appendix directs students towards a handful of useful references for the continued development of their skills.

Part I methodically breaks down the focus of the book: learning how to construct and present a clear argument. This begins with a description of the intimate relationship between reading and writing: a dialogical and iterative process that allows arguments to develop. The book avoids handing students an essay template they can simply fill out with the relevant references by encouraging them to engage with texts and think more deeply about writing as a practice and learning process. The techniques detailed to achieve this cover: how to take detailed and critical notes, how to construct different types of argument, and how to identify and make use of objects, concepts and propositions found in the literature. Students are encouraged to practise these techniques in their non-assessed assignments, and, while no specific exercises are given, the book often provides questions to help students identify what they want to do or say with a particular section or paragraph. As a PhD student in the throes of her literature review, I found the guidance on selective, critical reading and detailed note-taking useful and reassuring for completing this mammoth task. The clear takeaway from part I – and this is useful for both undergraduates and postgraduates – is that the bulk of the work that goes into producing a written text is done before you put fingertips to keyboard. 

Part II includes tips and techniques that are useful for essay writing and link back to part I. This contextualises some of the advice given and aids students in refining their essay writing process as a whole, from how to choose an essay question to capitalising on feedback. Central to this section is the importance of timetabling, and, crucially, incorporating reading, note-taking, drafting, editing, referencing and proof-reading into that timetable. The book clearly intends to push students to the highest possible standards of writing, though in doing so it occasionally risks asking too much, such as encouraging students to redraft an essay following feedback. While, in an ideal world, this would be beneficial, it seems unlikely that students would feel they have the time to fit this in. Although some undergraduates may find the suggested volume of work disheartening, the authors do occasionally recognise that they are asking a lot of their readers, helping reduce the pressure. On the other hand, the advice for getting past writer’s block, such as going for a walk or doing other essay-related tasks, will be a comfort to students, further breaking down the intimidating idea some might have that an essay should come forth fully-formed onto the page.

Part III details the basics of spelling, grammar and punctuation, going into some technical detail. Students well-versed in these topics will find this section the least useful. However, for those who struggled with grammar at school, or perhaps were never taught it, this information will help them understand the importance of the finer details in the construction and presentation of a clear argument. Throughout the book, students are reminded of their reader, whether their tutor, lecturer or an examiner. Here, it is stressed that the reader may, whether rightly or wrongly, take these kinds of mistakes as a careless attitude towards the assignment. This section therefore aims to equip students with the knowledge necessary to avoid these errors and make a better impression, which is certainly also valuable beyond university. Part III encourages students to think about clarity and consistency in their writing, and to use the drafting, editing and proof-reading process to avoid mistakes in both their argumentation and their spelling.

In general, this book succeeds in pulling apart the “black box” of essay writing to expose its mechanics. The basic tenets of the book underpin all three parts and tie them together well. While accessible examples are provided, at times, the writing style can be overly formal in a way that seems to jar with the idea behind the book. Its repetitive nature can occasionally feel cumbersome, though this could in fact be useful as it would allow students to dip in and out and still encounter well-rounded advice and techniques. The book contains tips that would be helpful for undergraduates, postgraduates at points, and educators struggling to engage students with essay writing. As one of the convenors for the British Sociological Association’s Postgraduate Forum (BSA PGForum), it was clear to me after working my way through the book that our members might benefit from it as both students and teaching assistants. With this in mind, I contacted the authors and asked if they would be interested in writing a blog post for the BSA PGForum website. They happily obliged and produced a popular post that pinpoints some key ways postgraduate teachers can help their undergraduate students. Overall, this book provides guidance and techniques aimed to help students achieve higher marks, while also presenting critical reading and writing as a transferable skill to be honed and applied beyond university. Readers will therefore take away not only practical advice to develop their writing skills, but also an appreciation of the value of this “craft” and their studies more broadly.

 Review by Emma Seddon, Newcastle University, UK.

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