Ethnography as a mode of expression: Creative writing tips for researchers

I have been writing for a long time. I started writing just like most of you at school, drawing letters, getting amazed by the magic of words. I wrote journals, letters, postcards, and many stories during my teenage years. To make this long story short, one day I decided to make a living out of writing and went to study Journalism.

After almost 15 years working as a reporter and editor between Porto Alegre and São Paulo, I felt it was time to return to the academic world. I studied Social Sciences and took my Master’s Degree in Anthropology at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul. I am now an Anthropology Ph.D. candidate writing my thesis on family jewels.

Since last year, I have been reflecting more and more about creative writing, stimulated by some classes I took. As a matter of fact, I searched for those classes considering fiction as a parallel activity, as a hobby to take my mind off my thesis. The more I read about it and started making connections with my own previous experience in journalism, the more I started to think it was possible to use creative writing to improve ethnography and help researchers to deal with academic writing.

My goal in this article is to share a few of my thoughts with you about ethnography as a mode of expression. Part of our training as ethnographers is to put our experience of being in the field into words.

Unfortunately, Anthropology programs give little attention to writing as a crucial aspect of doing research.

We spend more time reflecting about issues of representation in ethnographic narrative than learning how to create comprehensible and engaging texts. I’m here to help you do actually that: to apply creative writing techniques to ethnography.

Writing is a process, form, and content. It implies discipline, organization, reading, intentionality, and the ability to observe. It is never oneself who writes. It is not about me; it is about us. After all, We write to be read. Language is a social construction.

By the way, do you remember how you started writing?

Writing also depends on creativity. But how do we learn how to be creative? Is it possible to teach creativity? And, speaking of it, I bet you have already heard of creative writing since it seems to be a fashionable subject (even though it has been around for a while). Anyway, creativity can be thought in technical, poetic, and academic terms. That is why I suggest ethnographers pay attention to this issue.

Creativity is a skill that needs to be exercised. Everyone is creative, whether it’s painting, loving, cleaning the house, driving, cooking, and so forth. Besides, to write creatively is to think of this skill in a sacred universe of words.

So how do we encourage expressiveness in academic writing? The first step is to build textual awareness. It may be shocking, but believe me: all text needs to be reviewed. Writing is also re-reading, reviewing and rewriting.

Based on some simple exercises, it is possible to develop an awareness of what kind of strategies we can use to compose comprehensible sentences, able to convey meaning and context in an engaging manner.

I have learned and practiced these techniques in journalism school and throughout my professional career. Howard S. Becker, an acclaimed American Sociologist, used to challenge his students in a similar way at Northwestern University.

Shall we get started? Well, do you happen to know what your most common writing mistakes are? Just from reading your texts, are you able to identify repetitive words, redundancy, or bad word choices? After doing that, how about getting a dictionary and looking up for synonyms or alternatives? You will be surprised… There are lots of words you already know, but you just do not use.

Here is another tip: a good text does not need to be supported by unnecessary descriptions. You do not have to tell all the details about how you did it. A good text is a set of words and paragraphs that is sustained by its content and form. The reader deserves a finished product. Obviously, a text can always be improved.

Writing means coming into terms with our own vulnerability. The next piece will always be better than the last. We do the best we can at that particular moment in time. However, let’s not allow ourselves to be overly critical about our writing abilities because of that.

Writing is supposed to be pleasant, but also has to make sense. The reader does not wish to fix or correct our essay. A thoughtful and revised text is a sign of deep respect for the audience. This cannot be different when we write ethnography.

However, nobody is creative by only following rules, although rules are useful and needed most of the times. Specialists recommend the observation of a few guidelines — in Western countries, for instance, to make intelligible texts you must connect letters and make sentences from left to right, as Becker recommends.

It is wise, therefore, to learn and pay attention to grammatical rules. From my own experience, have a strong grammar basis helps a lot when we wish to defy rules, to open new paths, and to create different frames to narrate a story.

Usually, when it comes to fieldwork, a satisfactory experience during the research process gives good insight and inspiration for creative writing. Yet, if you have no textual awareness, my friend, it will be hard for you to subvert the form.

However, you do not have necessarily to subvert the form to write good ethnography. Several experienced people tried and failed. The uniqueness of your fieldwork experience and the originality of your research theme speak volumes by themselves. Why not try to focus on describing scenes, details, and scenarios? What about your research subjects? Try to refine the descriptions of your interlocutors as if they are characters by writing good dialogues, and choosing more specific verbs and adjectives. The goal is to compose sentences with good fluidity and rhythm that helps to articulate your analysis.

Ethnographic writing is also a mode of expression.

As James Clifford puts it, the process of writing ethnography must be an experiment. It’s a way to compose and recompose ideas in relation to theory. It helps to have readers to give input during the writing process, it may be colleagues or sensible people who can collaborate with various suggestions and offer guidance when things are not yet so clear on paper.

That usually makes the research experience more pleasurable. Academic production, by the way, loses its meaning if it is not read. Aside from most of the intimate journals (well, that was not Malinowski’s case, I know), texts exist as a form of communication with the world, hence the importance of winning the attention of the reader. Readers nowadays have too many options in front of them.

One last thing: you don’t have to write everything you have in mind at once in one single text. You are going to get frustrated and it will be difficult to move forward. I myself have not exhausted the number of writing tips I tried to put together in this piece (I haven’t, I’m sorry!).

Do not be swallowed by your own writing.

Do not panic. Remove as much excess as you can. Ask for help. Try to commit to a creative routine. Read a lot and do not forget the importance of reading fiction! Challenge yourself. Rewrite. You are going to make mistakes, but you can always get things to straighten out. Writing is a journey. It’s all about the process. Get on board, take a grammar book with you and have a safe trip. Write me a postcard when you get there.


WRITTEN BY

Aline Rochedo

Journalist, anthropologist and storyteller.

Ethnography as a mode of expression:

Creative writing tips for researchers

I have been writing for a long time. I started writing just like most of you at school, drawing letters, getting amazed by the magic of words. I wrote journals, letters, postcards, and many stories during my teenage years. To make this long story short, one day I decided to make a living out of writing and went to study Journalism.

After almost 15 years working as a reporter and editor between Porto Alegre and São Paulo, I felt it was time to return to the academic world. I studied Social Sciences and took my Master’s Degree in Anthropology at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul. I am now an Anthropology Ph.D. candidate writing my thesis on family jewels.

Since last year, I have been reflecting more and more about creative writing, stimulated by some classes I took. As a matter of fact, I searched for those classes considering fiction as a parallel activity, as a hobby to take my mind off my thesis. The more I read about it and started making connections with my own previous experience in journalism, the more I started to think it was possible to use creative writing to improve ethnography and help researchers to deal with academic writing.

My goal in this article is to share a few of my thoughts with you about ethnography as a mode of expression. Part of our training as ethnographers is to put our experience of being in the field into words.

Unfortunately, Anthropology programs give little attention to writing as a crucial aspect of doing research.

We spend more time reflecting about issues of representation in ethnographic narrative than learning how to create comprehensible and engaging texts. I’m here to help you do actually that: to apply creative writing techniques to ethnography.

Writing is a process, form, and content. It implies discipline, organization, reading, intentionality, and the ability to observe. It is never oneself who writes. It is not about me; it is about us. After all, We write to be read. Language is a social construction.

By the way, do you remember how you started writing?

Writing also depends on creativity. But how do we learn how to be creative? Is it possible to teach creativity? And, speaking of it, I bet you have already heard of creative writing since it seems to be a fashionable subject (even though it has been around for a while). Anyway, creativity can be thought in technical, poetic, and academic terms. That is why I suggest ethnographers pay attention to this issue.

Creativity is a skill that needs to be exercised. Everyone is creative, whether it’s painting, loving, cleaning the house, driving, cooking, and so forth. Besides, to write creatively is to think of this skill in a sacred universe of words.

So how do we encourage expressiveness in academic writing? The first step is to build textual awareness. It may be shocking, but believe me: all text needs to be reviewed. Writing is also re-reading, reviewing and rewriting.

Based on some simple exercises, it is possible to develop an awareness of what kind of strategies we can use to compose comprehensible sentences, able to convey meaning and context in an engaging manner. I have learned and practiced these techniques in journalism school and throughout my professional career. Howard S. Becker, an acclaimed American Sociologist, used to challenge his students in a similar way at Northwestern University.

Shall we get started? Well, do you happen to know what your most common writing mistakes are? Just from reading your texts, are you able to identify repetitive words, redundancy, or bad word choices? After doing that, how about getting a dictionary and looking up for synonyms or alternatives? You will be surprised… There are lots of words you already know, but you just do not use.

Here is another tip: a good text does not need to be supported by unnecessary descriptions. You do not have to tell all the details about how you did it. A good text is a set of words and paragraphs that is sustained by its content and form. The reader deserves a finished product. Obviously, a text can always be improved.

Writing means coming into terms with our own vulnerability. The next piece will always be better than the last. We do the best we can at that particular moment in time. However, let’s not allow ourselves to be overly critical about our writing abilities because of that.

Writing is supposed to be pleasant, but also has to make sense. The reader does not wish to fix or correct our essay. A thoughtful and revised text is a sign of deep respect for the audience. This cannot be different when we write ethnography.

However, nobody is creative by only following rules, although rules are useful and needed most of the times. Specialists recommend the observation of a few guidelines — in Western countries, for instance, to make intelligible texts you must connect letters and make sentences from left to right, as Becker recommends.

It is wise, therefore, to learn and pay attention to grammatical rules. From my own experience, have a strong grammar basis helps a lot when we wish to defy rules, to open new paths, and to create different frames to narrate a story.

Usually, when it comes to fieldwork, a satisfactory experience during the research process gives good insight and inspiration for creative writing. Yet, if you have no textual awareness, my friend, it will be hard for you to subvert the form.

However, you do not have necessarily to subvert the form to write good ethnography. Several experienced people tried and failed. The uniqueness of your fieldwork experience and the originality of your research theme speak volumes by themselves. Why not try to focus on describing scenes, details, and scenarios? What about your research subjects? Try to refine the descriptions of your interlocutors as if they are characters by writing good dialogues, and choosing more specific verbs and adjectives. The goal is to compose sentences with good fluidity and rhythm that helps to articulate your analysis.

Ethnographic writing is also a mode of expression.

As James Clifford puts it, the process of writing ethnography must be an experiment. It’s a way to compose and recompose ideas in relation to theory. It helps to have readers to give input during the writing process, it may be colleagues or sensible people who can collaborate with various suggestions and offer guidance when things are not yet so clear on paper.

That usually makes the research experience more pleasurable. Academic production, by the way, loses its meaning if it is not read. Aside from most of the intimate journals (well, that was not Malinowski’s case, I know), texts exist as a form of communication with the world, hence the importance of winning the attention of the reader. Readers nowadays have too many options in front of them.

One last thing: you don’t have to write everything you have in mind at once in one single text. You are going to get frustrated and it will be difficult to move forward. I myself have not exhausted the number of writing tips I tried to put together in this piece (I haven’t, I’m sorry!).

Do not be swallowed by your own writing.

Do not panic. Remove as much excess as you can. Ask for help. Try to commit to a creative routine. Read a lot and do not forget the importance of reading fiction! Challenge yourself. Rewrite. You are going to make mistakes, but you can always get things to straighten out. Writing is a journey. It’s all about the process. Get on board, take a grammar book with you and have a safe trip. Write me a postcard when you get there.


WRITTEN BY

Aline Rochedo

Journalist, anthropologist and storyteller.