Category Archives: How to


Why I like typewriters

This is my last post as a guest blogger for Savage Minds. I have enjoyed this experience of connecting with so many anthropologists. I want to thank the Savage Minds team for giving me this opportunity to discuss ethnographic writing, and to everyone who offered their thoughts and comments on my posts. Since this is my final contribution, I thought I would end on a personal note and share a short homage to typewriters.

A vintage German business typewriter from the 1930s.
A vintage German business typewriter from the 1930s.

As you may have noticed, many images of old typewriters accompanied my posts on writing this month. These photos are not culled from the Internet, but are pictures of my own growing collection of European manual typewriters, which I now use to write my fieldnotes and my first drafts. I am not a luddite, nor am I paranoid about the NSA reading my fieldnotes. And although I am old enough to have written many early college papers on a typewriter, my trusty Smith Corona was an electric model. I switched to a basic word processor, and eventually to a personal computer as soon as I could afford one. Writing on a manual typewriter is a newly acquired preference.


Over twenty years after I retired my electric Smith Corona, my partner surprised me with a vintage Skywriter as a birthday present. The Skywriter hails from the 1950s and was Smith Corona’s attempt at a portable machine that itinerant writers could use on airplanes. Last spring, I began writing research notes, letters, and first drafts of my work on that typewriter, mostly because I loved the clack of the keys, and the fact that email, social media, and the lures of the World Wide Web couldn’t distract me while I worked.

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Ethnographers as Writers: Write First Drafts in One Go

Many doctoral students fail to earn their PhDs because they never finish their dissertations. They complete their coursework, pass their qualifying exams, and do all of their research, but writing the thesis proves an insurmountable barrier. Why does the dissertation present such a challenge? Because students can’t push past the first chapter. Too many dissertators start with their introduction and find that they have nothing to say. Or they realize they have no idea what they are trying to introduce.

"How do I cut and paste on this thing?"
“How do I cut and paste on this thing?”

In Anne Lamott’s brilliant book, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, the author advises all would be writers to embrace what she calls the “sh*tty first draft” (SFD). Decide what you’re going to write, and then write it straight through without stopping. If you need an article, spend some time thinking of an abstract that captures the essence of your argument and the data you have to substantiate it. You can take a few days to put together a really good abstract. Once you have it, use it as you introductory paragraph and start writing.

Keep putting words on the page until you reach what you think will be the end. Never go back and read what you have already written. This may seem difficult, but you can learn to let your thoughts flow. If you find yourself stuck at a section or in need of a particular fact or reference not at hand, leave placeholders in your text. Phrases like “insert quote here” or “discuss relevant studies here” litter my first drafts. If I need to stop working for the day, I always type the letters “XXX” in my electronic document. When I come back to the file, I open the document and search for the “XXX,” thus bypassing the text I’ve previously written.

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Ethnographers as Writers: Consider Endnotes

Most students and scholars learn the disciplinary conventions regarding citation and never think about them again. But citation practices vary widely both between and within disciplines, and once you’re past the dissertation, you have far more flexibility in choosing your own citation style than you think. To be sure, academic journals have their own house styles for articles. The 2009 style guide for all journals of the American Anthropological Association states: “All references must be cited in author-date form; all author-date citations must be referenced,” and the guide provides detailed instructions for how to use the author-date format for e-mails, websites, brochures, and other eclectic materials.

Maybe in-text citations were also easier to include when folks used to write on typewriters.  Footnotes must have been a nightmare!
Maybe in-text citations were also easier to include when folks used to write on typewriters. Footnotes must have been a nightmare!

But where did these conventions originate and how did they come to anthropology? The standard of in-text author-date citation derives from something called the “Harvard style,” which originated in the field of zoology. In 1881, the zoologist Edward Laurens Mark published an important paper on the garden slug wherein he included the first parenthetical author-date citation. This system spread out from zoology to other natural sciences where the author’s name and the date of the publication are the two most important pieces of information. Prior to Mark’s invention of the author-date referencing system, footnotes were sprinkled randomly throughout the text and signaled by asterisks and other printer’s marks. The author-date system streamlined citations and favored brevity and clarity.

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Ethnographers as Writers: Theory and Data – Part II

So I’m staring at some fieldnotes and trying to sort out the best way to blend my theoretical analysis with my ethnographic data. Where to start? How to find the right balance? Once again, I decided to contact fellow ethnographers to gather insights about their writing processes. Sociologist Olga Shevchenko also struggles with what parts of her fieldnotes to include:

I almost never know in advance which parts of the field notes will go into the text, because it takes me some time, and a lot of writing, to figure out what it is exactly that I am going to argue! With interviews, it’s different. There are some turns of phrase that seem to leap off the page, and these are usually those that capture experience in a fresh or complex way. I also tend to notice when a turn of phase, or a metaphor emerges more than once. When I heard a third person compare their everyday life with living on a volcano, I knew it was going to be in the book in a major way. But it also got me thinking about what this metaphor accomplished, which sent me right back to the field notes. When I can’t find a place in the text for an evocative image or turn of phrase that I hear from a respondent, this causes me great torments!

Coding your fieldnotes the old fashioned way
Coding your fieldnotes the old fashioned way

Like Olga, I now spend a lot of time reading my fieldnotes and deciding what material I want to include before I figure out my core argument, a process sometimes called “grounded theory,” a way of incorporating theoretical insights that emerge organically from the fieldwork. I also search for great quotes or turns of phrase that capture something about the everyday experience of my informants.

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Ethnographers as Writers: Theory and Data – Part I

There's nothing more intimidating than a blank page.
There’s nothing more intimidating than a blank page.

Every ethnographer must find a balance between theory and data. Our fieldwork and our specific case studies render our work original, but this work fails to be scholarly if it lacks dialogue with larger theoretical concerns. When writing the dissertation the literature review section remains de rigueur, but most acquisitions editors demand that this section be exorcised from the eventual book manuscript. This means that the theoretical insights inspired by your participant observation must somehow be woven into the final text so as to elucidate your original ideas without burying the reader under an avalanche of information about what other scholars, studying other cases, have said before you.

The task of integrating theory proves difficult for even the most experienced ethnographers, and different scholars maintain varying opinions on its importance. In a 1999 article, anthropologist Ruth Behar argues that theory for theory’s sake undermines the potential vibrancy of ethnographic writing:

What I do find tiresome is the habit of using whatever theory happens to be fashionable…as a substitute for really engaging the tough questions posed by those whom we encounter on our journeys as ethnographers. When ethnographers working in far corners of the globe are all citing the same two pages from the work of the latest trendy theorist, without reflecting on the politics of how that theory travels, you can be sure they have killed the life in their ethnography.

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Ethnographers as Writers: Getting Started

Every article, book, or thesis begins with a first word, but getting started feels overwhelming. My worst prose derives from disorganized thinking and writing, and over the years I’ve experimented with different systems to help me get my projects off the ground. When I map out some incremental steps, my projects seem more manageable.

First I ask myself: what do I want (or need) to write? This helps determine the best format for my research results. In some cases the format was predetermined for me – when I was a doctoral student I had to produce a dissertation of a certain minimum length. When I write for a journal, they enforce specific word counts. These days, I have a bit more freedom, but I still struggle to determine if I have a book length argument or if my research is best presented as a series of articles.

Before I write the first sentence, I try to visualize the contours of my project. I once typed up outlines, but now I imagine less formal ways to physically manifest a project. At the outset, I spend hours examining my research, beginning to define the distinct sections or chapters. I need a concrete guide that will help me tackle the writing tasks necessary to get from the first to the last word of the project.

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Ethnographers as Writers: An Introduction

[Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Kristen Ghodsee.]

Ethngraphers as writers - Introduction
A writer’s tool

I am thrilled for the opportunity to write as a Savage Minds guest blogger for this first month of 2015. One of my New Year’s resolutions is to become a better writer, and I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few months poring through style guides and manuals trying to learn the writer’s craft. This is not because I am writing my first book. Unfortunately, I am almost five books into my career, and only now do I feel compelled to improve my prose. As an ethnographer, I privileged the message over the medium.

I’ve taught ethnographies for thirteen years, and at the end of each semester, I survey student opinions of the required books on my syllabi. “Reading [this book] was like being forced to read Facebook’s terms and conditions for class,” a student wrote about one of the texts I assigned. The book in question suited the course subject, and contained field-changing theoretical insights. As a piece of scholarship, the book excelled, winning a major award from a large professional society. As a piece of writing, however, the book failed. My students judged the prose opaque, circular, jargon-laden, and gratuitously verbose. I agreed. I prepared a lecture on the core arguments, and spared my students the headaches induced by needless erudition.

University students, especially at the undergraduate level, despise inaccessible books that use language to obfuscate rather than clarify. I have purged many a smart ethnography from my syllabi after watching students struggle to extract the main arguments from a fog of impenetrable prose. Each year, I explore university press offerings to find well-written ethnographies. The continued production of un-teachable books amazes me.

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Paperpile (Tools We Use)

About a year ago I wrote a long post that discussed both my general approach to working with academic PDFs as well as the specific Apple (OS X/iOS) software I use to manage my own workflow: Sente. I still consider Sente to be a kind of gold standard for reference management software, but there are a couple of things about it that lead me to regularly check out the competition. One is that it only works on Apple products and many of my students are Windows users. The other is that, even on the Mac, it does not work within the web browser itself, but forces you to launch the app and use its own built-in web browser, which always interrupts my workflow. In my last post I mentioned a few other issues and briefly surveyed the competition; however my current work environment has me on a Windows 7 computer and so I decided to look again at the competition, especially cross-platform solutions. The first one I discovered is ReadCube but I found it just didn’t meet my needs. It didn’t do a very good job getting citation information (I had lots of errors in my metadata) and the iPad app was too limited for my needs. However, another service turned out to be more promising: Paperpile, and I thought I’d write a short post about how I’m using that.

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Getting a Job in the Academy: Some Thoughts From the Other Side

This post isn’t just another lament about the sorry state of the job situation in the academy. The US is undoubtedly undergoing a crisis on that front, accentuated by the huge increase in the numbers of people completing  PhDs  in liberal arts subjects and the scale of student debt. The effects of this crisis spill over into what is now a global market in academic jobs. This is clearly evident in the UK where the numbers of applicants for academic posts in anthropology frequently reach well over one hundred, compared to  perhaps fifty or sixty only a decade previously.

The problem is  partly structural- the mismatch between numbers and posts on the one hand, and the impacts of selective shrinkage in the University sector on the other.  But demand is also a factor. People continue to study at graduate level because they are motivated by research as much as anything.  Doctoral study isn’t only about entry into  formal academic employment, in any discipline. And, while the casualization of higher education is a concerning trend, in the US and beyond, it’s not the only issue. It’s hard to imagine under what economic system there could ever be sufficient secure jobs in the university sector for those with higher degrees at a time when it seems that more people than ever are pursuing postgraduate research.

This doesn’t mean giving up and not trying to get a university post, if that’s what you really want. But it does entail a healthy dose of realism combined with the practical career building tips of the sort offered so eloquently by Karen Kelsky aka The Professorisin whose site I wholeheartedly recommend. Having been on the other side of the job process over the past year, as a search committee member and chair of a department, I’m going to offer a few of my own. The first is optimistic, if you are an anthropologist at least.

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Writing Badly, Speaking Better. Practical Books for Doing the Life of the Mind

Rex’s post on back to school books got me thinking. `Doing the life of the mind’, as he puts it, involves lots of different activities. Its not just reading and writing. Talking is a big part of what we do.  And to different audiences, or not , as the case may be. Much of the way that we do our academic presentations gets in the way of wider communication. This might be intentional. In reinforcing the walls of the silos in which we like to situate our knowledge it fosters the aura of complexity and exclusivity which in our social universe renders academic knowledge credible.

A recent book addresses this phenomenon as it applies to writing in the social sciences and,  by extension,  to anthropology.   Learn to Write Badly . How to Succeed in  the Social Sciences   by Michael Billig is not a ‘How To’ book.  Its  a  `How Not To’ book.  But, as the author makes plain, if you don’t write in the way which has become authoritative in your field, even if it entails writing badly, there could be consequences for your reputation if not your career.

Although Billig’s is a book about writing I think that the author’s claims work pretty well for communication in the social sciences more generally. It certainly made me think about how we as anthropologists in academia tend to speak to our audiences whether they are our students or our peers. The formal style of academic presentations in anthropology based on writing rather than on `findings’ prioritizes engagement with other writing over and above engagement with either our audience or our informants. This is quite different to communication in other fields,  within and outside academia. A how to book which you may find useful for engaging with these other fields is Carmine Gallo’s Talk like TED summarized neatly here by Sam Leith of the Financial Times .

Sure,  it’s a manual in self promotion (but lets not kid ourselves that academia is any different). But it also has lots of useful tips about connecting with the audience, making a few key points and giving them something to remember.  And I learned something wholly new, useful and unexpected. That if you press the B or W keys in powerpoint you can suspend the presentation so your audience is focusing on you not the slide until you are ready to show them the next one. Despite the acknowledged allure of  intellectual  posturing sometimes you just cant beat useful practicality.

The Ethnographic “Shooting Ratio”

One of the questions I get asked most often by graduate students doing ethnographic research is about how much data they need to collect. I think this is especially troublesome for those who are doing fieldwork somewhere far away, where limited time and funds mean that they will unlikely be able to make a return trip after they return from the field. But even those doing research closer to home want to know “How much is enough?” In answering this question I draw on my experience as a documentary filmmaker.

A “shooting ratio” is “the ratio between the total duration of its footage created for possible use in a project and that which appears in its final cut.” For a Hollywood film, where the scenes are planned in advance, this might be four to one. That is, shooting four hours of footage for every hour of the final film. Now that films have largely gone digital, producers no longer need to worry about the cost of expensive film stock, but it still costs a lot to have actors and crew out for a day and nobody wants to waste too much time shooting the same scene over and over again.

For documentary films, however, it is different. Continue reading

What the well-dressed fieldworker is wearing this summer (i)

Planning a summer trip to a hot weather field site? Let’s punch up your wardrobe a bit prior to departure.

This is intended as the first in a short series of how-to posts for optimizing your clothing choices for the heat and humidity. The individual posts will be organized around a particular type of garment or gear, such as outwear and footwear. This post will discuss undergarments and headwear and neckwear. Prior to that, a few caveats about the series of posts as a whole:

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Incorporate Now!

Anthropology may be “the worst major for a corporate tool” but that doesn’t mean that anti-corporate anthropologists shouldn’t consider incorporating. In this special pre-tax-day post I will take a break from my usual anti-capitalist blogging to talk about one particular instance where anthropologists might want to incorporate: if you are thinking of making a documentary film it may be just the thing for you.1

Many independent filmmakers register as either an S-Corporation2 or an LCC (a limited liability company) in order to protect themselves if they get sued3 by the subjects of their films. (Or from someone who claims to be harmed by the film or by the process of making the film.) Having a company helps protect your personal assets, such as your house or retirement savings, etc. from being seized if you were to loose the suit. Many independent filmmakers even set up separate LLCs for each film. Doing so, however, is a lot of work, and not without its downsides.

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