To be an anthropologist is to be a writer. An ethnographic writer, to be precise. It is a skill that takes some time to develop, and that can seem daunting when first presented with it.
At SCAJ, one of our goals is to facilitate knowledge exchange. It is with this objective in mind that we have created this extensive list of writing tips. We reflected on our own experiences as anthropology students and thought about what we would have liked to know when first embarking on this academic journey, as well as what we would still like to learn. These tips thus vary widely in their content, in an effort to ensure that every student, no matter their progression and year of study, will be able to get something out of them. Some of the tips provided below are based on our personal experience. Others are plucked from different sources, all of which are noted in the reference list at the bottom of this page.
Our aim is to let this page be a dynamic space - subject to change. Is there a topic that we have missed? What would you like some (additional) tips on? Or do you have writing tips of your own that you would like to share? Our Instagram DMs and inbox are always open.
Getting in the right headspace
There is a saying in Dutch: Een goed begin is het halve werk (a good start is half the work). The same can be said for writing. Preparing to write is perhaps just as important as typing up the words. Here are a few tips that we find useful for getting us in the zone to write.
1) Set aside time to write. It may sound obvious, but blocking out a few hours of your day for writing can help get you in the right mindset. We find that a minimum of two hours and a maximum of four hours tends to be most efficient and manageable.
2) Consider the time of day at which you feel most productive. Some people prefer getting up early and getting work done before the clock strikes 12PM, others are most productive in the evening or at night. Where do you fall on this spectrum? Schedule your writing at that time of the day.
3) A clear space equals a clear mind. Clear your desk of unnecessary items to avoid distraction. The same goes for your online space! If you don’t need WiFi when writing, try turning it off a while. No notifications, no open tabs, just you and your Word document.
4) Similarly, anticipate what you will need in order to get through the next few hours. Grab a tall glass of water, a snack, a cup of tea, a notepad and pen, a charger for your laptop, etc. Minimize the temptation to get up from your desk.
5) Music can help to get you in the writing zone. Here are some of the SCAJ team’s favorite genres to boost your writer’s mind: LoFi hiphop, acoustic music in an unfamiliar language (e.g. Café Africa on Spotify), classical music, instrumental soundtracks.
Tamar: “I once wrote an entire paper by listening to Matthew Wilder’s ‘Break my stride’ on repeat. Vivaldi’s ‘La Follia’ also works wonders, as well as Arturo Márquez’ ‘Danzon no. 2’.”
Miriam: “Saving-the-world-type soundtracks (anything from Marvel, really) always get me motivated to start writing!”
6) Realize that, sometimes, you're just not in the mood to write. You can either force yourself to do it (which, speaking from experience, seldom works), or circle back to it at a later time. If you have the liberty to step back a little bit, it might help to clear your head.
The first words
In our experience, the first set of words are the most difficult to type up. Staring at the empty document, while recognizing the potential it holds, can be very daunting. The first words should grab the reader’s attention. So much pressure on a few assembled letters. Here are some tips to help you bridge those first steps.
1) Realize that the first words that come out of your fingertips do not need to be perfect. When writing, you will find yourself coming back to previous paragraphs, reshaping them, scrapping some of them, adding on to them, and generally improving them. Think of your first words as a rough draft. Something to get the rest of the text going.
2) In light of this, you can try “free writing” to get things started. In essence, this method entails that you set an alarm for 10 to 15 minutes, and write down anything that comes to mind regarding your topic. Don’t worry about spelling, grammar, lay-out etc. When the alarm rings, look at the words before you and begin to structure them.
You can also use free writing prompts, such as “I most hope to write...”, “I’d most want to read...” (Narayan 2012, 6), or “What I already know about the subject is...”
3) If a linear writing process does not work for you: don’t start at the introduction. Start with the paragraph you are most excited about or that you think will be easiest, and build your text around it.
4) Or, if you require more structure: try starting with a writing plan. Once you have a general idea of your subject, start searching for literature and copy-past some interesting and useful quotes from them. Think about the general structure of your piece of writing and start shaping your framework. What do you want to say in the introduction? How do you want to conceptualize your idea further? What theories and concepts do you want to use? How should your piece of writing end? We find that having a clear and structured writing plan motivates us to get to it!
Finding valuable and suitable sources for your topic is often experienced as an intensive and exhausting process. Which sources to use? Where to find those sources? And, how to use them? We have grouped some tips together to help you gather your bibliography.
1) Peer-reviewed, academic (anthropological) sources are best found through search engines such as Google Scholar, Worldcat, and Anthrosource. The university library (UBU) has a paid subscription to many academic search engines that any student can have access to. This means that most of the articles you can find here will be free of charge, openly accessible, and downloadable.
2) Look well beyond the first page of results in your search engine. The perfect source may be tucked away on the sixth page of Google Scholar.
3) In addition, different (non-academic) search engines will give you different results. If Google does not provide you with what you are looking for, try Ecosia, Bing, or Yahoo.
4) If you are engaging in a specific subfield or debate: try to find a review article about that topic. These kinds of articles provide an overview of the most important literature written in that context, as well as some of the ontological branches that emerged from it. The Annual Review of Anthropology journal would be a good place to start.
5) When you have found an article or book that fits your argument or topic perfectly: have a look at the bibliography. Which scholars are referenced here? Who has (or have) been most influential in the debate you are engaging with? Try to get to the source of a concept or theory before applying it to your piece of writing.
6) Don’t limit yourself to academic articles. Search for ethnographies or monographs that support your argument or give you more insight into the topic. You can do so via a Google search (adding ‘anthropology’ to your search may help), or via websites such as b-ok.org, where you can find downloadable ebooks and PDFs, free of charge.
7) Similarly, don’t limit yourself to strictly anthropological sources (unless your professor instructs you to do so). Anthropology is one of those disciplines that thrives on an interdisciplinary approach; many of the key debates in anthropology find their roots in, for example, psychology, philosophy, history, sociology, or even geography. So don't be afraid to branch out a little bit.
“Like life, which writing reflects and refracts in parallel streams of words, the process of writing can drag you down or buoy you up. You can find yourself spinning, unable to move ahead. You can be stuck in the muck by the shore. In moments of grace, you might discover yourself aligned with the current, drawn forward by the words around you. Even during breaks, words and sentences will arrive, as though spoken in your mind—you’ll rush to get back to the writing.”
(Narayan 2012, 111)
Becoming a writer
When starting your academic career, one of the first skills to put in practice is that of writing, especially in the field of anthropology. But how do you go about the process? And what makes for a well-flowing text? Here are some tips to help you along.
1) Realize that writers come in all shapes and sizes. There is no one way to write. Each of us has our own personal style, our preferences, and our specific topics of interest. Finding your style can take some time, but you will get there. Practice as much as you can and want to, whether it be for a blog, a personal diary, for Fieldnotes, or any other textual medium.
2) Take into consideration the type of assignment you are about to write. How lengthy will it be? How much do you know about the topic? Will it be based on literature, empirical data, or a combination of both? These factors, among others, will likely impact your writing strategy. Some assignments (particularly lengthy, more complicated ones) benefit from a structured writing plan, whereas others will be most efficiently and effectively written freehand.
3) Explain your topic to someone else. We find that it helps us to better understand what we are trying to write, and to more easily spot knowledge gaps and elements that need more clarification.
4) Here’s a tip from the editor-in-chief of American Anthropologist, Elizabeth Chin: Establish a vocabulary and stick to it. In other words, when first using a term, make sure to define it before continuing on. Use phrases such as: “When I say [blank], I mean this.” And keep using that specific term so that you and your readers can keep up with your argument.
5) Most - if not all - texts benefit from some explicit structural tactics. Something you might often hear from a thesis supervisor is the phrase “taking the reader by the hand”, also known as signposting. What does this mean? It means to explicitly state your intentions with a particular essay, paper, paragraph, etc, and to sum up or refer back to points made earlier in the text. Sure, the phrase “In this essay, I will…” might be a little boring and overdone, but it is an effective way to announce your argument clearly and structurally.
6) Use active language (Ghodsee 2014, 101). Consider the difference between these two sentences: A) Students are graded on their in-class participation. B) The professor evaluates students on their in-class participation. Sentence B has a clear actor and a strong verb. Sentences like these are often more potent and coherent, which can make your argument come across more explicitly.
7) Don’t underestimate short sentences. In establishing a well-flowing text, a good balance in longer and shorter sentences is essential. While you may want to cram as much information as possible into a multitude of clauses, interweaving shorter sentences can make your text more readable. They can add emphasis. They can indicate an enumeration. And sometimes, complex sentences are just that: complex. If you can find a way to make your argument concrete in a few words, you increase its clarity.
8) To get a good feel of the flow of your text, try reading it out loud to yourself. You will more easily notice spelling mistakes, faulty sentence constructions, unbalanced paragraphs and repetitiveness. Pay extra attention to your intonation when reading. Are there multiple sentences with similar rhythms in sequence to each other? Consider switching up the structure a bit to get some more variety.
9) Don’t be afraid to delete passages from your text. It hurts, but sometimes, it has to be done.
Ethnographic writing: the specifics
Within the discipline of anthropology, ethnographic writing constitutes the pillar on which anthropological readings are built. It informs the reader through narrative immersion by using sensory detail and storytelling techniques. Here are some tips to help you to master or improve your ethnographic skills, along with two examples of passages from ethnographies that we find very engaging.
1) Good field notes provide the basis for good ethnographic writing. They are an anthropologist’s bread and butter; our primary source of data. Write down as much as you can during your fieldwork. Even the things that seem most insignificant might prove vital further down the line.
We recommend writing your initial field notes the old-fashioned way: with a pen(cil) in a dedicated notebook. It allows you to be present in the moment and to easily draw something up if needed. There is also no hassle of having to charge a device in moments when you need it most. Though, on that note, do make sure to bring an extra pen with you.
At the end of the day, have a look at everything you wrote down. If desired, this would be the time to bring out your laptop and digitize your notes. You will have been able to step back from the field a little bit, so your thoughts may now be a bit more organized.
2) When taking field notes, make sure to draw up or collect lots of maps, and take photos or make drawings of the places you visit (Ghodsee 2014, 41-42). In addition, pay attention to your senses. What does this place sound like? Smell like? Feel like? These bits of information will give you a more than sufficient base to write a text rich in ethnographic detail.
Learn more about visual field notes through Carol Hendrickson’s (2008) “Visual Field Notes: Drawing Insights in the Yucatan”.
3) Transcribing interviews is the perfect opportunity to relive the conversation and re-immerse yourself in the topic; to take notice of themes that you hadn’t yet caught. A general rule of thumb is that one hour of an interview equals about four hours of transcribing. So: make sure you keep up with it and don't leave your transcribing to the last minute.
4) Structured, coded field notes allow for structured ethnographic writing. Though it’s a tedious task, having an overview of your data in a code scheme helps you to see the forest through the trees. For a brief explanation of the grounded theory and ethnographic coding, we recommend this helpful website.
5) When writing a vignette or ethnographic passage, try to open it with a detailed description of the space in which that specific interaction took place. It quite literally builds the stage on which your subsequent words will stand. Ideally, you want the reader to be able to vividly envision that space through your writing.
6) The same goes for the people you describe in your ethnographic writing. Are they wearing any notable items of clothing? Do they have any specific mannerisms or features that make them stand out? Do you notice any change in behavior or demeanor when they speak about a certain topic or participate in a certain event?
7) An interesting question to keep asking yourself is the following: How do people relate to the space or event that I am describing? We are anthropologists after all. What makes this space or event important for your interlocutors? How do they interact with it?
8) Embrace dialogue (Ghodsee 2014, 62). The words someone chooses or the manner in which they express themselves often speaks volumes as to who that person is. Dialogue - either between you and an interlocutor, or from a conversation you picked up - allows the reader to imagine the exchange as if they are there, and to create an image of the persons involved.
Passage from Margaret Mead’s (1928, 16-17) Coming of Age in Samoa
“It is high noon. The sun burns the feet of the little children, who leave their palm leaf balls and their pinwheels of frangipani blossoms to wither in the sun, as they creep into the shade of the houses. The women who must go abroad carry great banana leaves as sunshades or wind wet cloths about their heads. Lowering a few blinds against the slanting sun, all who are left in the village wrap their heads in sheets and go to sleep. Only a few adventurous children may slip away for a swim in the shadow of a high rock, some industrious woman continue with her weaving, or a close little group of women bend anxiously over a woman in labour. The village is dazzling and dead; any sound seems oddly loud and out of place. Words have to cut through the solid heat slowly.”
Passage from Marjorie Shostak’s (2011, 224) “Return to Nisa” in Being There
“Towering beside them, I sit awkwardly in the circle of small-boned !Kung San women, shifting often, my body unused to the cross-legged position. The quarter moon drops down toward the horizon, and the stars brighten as it descends. The sounds of a healing dance flood the air. Complex clapping rhythms drive the women’s songs, fragments of undulating and overlapping melodies. Each woman tilts her head toward her shoulder, trapping sound near her ear, the better to hear her part. The women’s knees and legs, loosely describing a circle, fall carelessly against one another – an intermingling of bodies and song.”
We asked our Instagram followers for topics they would like to receive some writing tips on. A few of you mentioned conclusions as something you find yourself struggling with. So we got to thinking. Here are some things that help us when writing conclusions.
1) Use the conclusion to circle back to where you started - and state so explicitly. This might be the introduction of a case study, a personal observation, a vignette, etc. What has been the added value of said paragraph? And how has the rest of your text related to it?
2) Consider different modes of conclusions. Perhaps a ‘discussion’ would fit your text better. A longer text might benefit from a (quick) summary, whereas a short essay may just need an emphasis of your argument.
3) Get inspired by other authors to find unique ways of concluding a piece of writing. Have a look at our editions to discover different ways your colleagues approach this subject.
Tidbits & further resources
And if those weren’t enough tips for you, we have a few final words and resources that we weren’t able to fit under any of the categories.
1) With regard to time management, give the Pomodoro technique a try, to see if it works for you. Set a timer for 25 minutes, during which you will work on your written assignment uninterruptedly. After 25 minutes, take a five minute break. Get up from your desk, check your phone, get a snack, etc. Repeat this cycle. After four pomodoro cycles, take a longer break (20-30 minutes).
2) It is not uncommon to experience feeling inadequate or perfectionistic when it comes to writing. In her article on this topic, Lisa Munro recommends embracing your perceived failures and weaknesses in order to allow yourself to write "imperfectly". All pieces of writing start with a "shitty draft", she says. And desiring to write perfectly might obstruct you from writing at all. When in reality, you are your own worst critic, and others might not even notice those things you deem as flaws.
3) If there is a particular assignment you are struggling with, don’t be afraid to ask for help! The university’s Skills Lab offers free tutoring with writing coaches who can help to sharpen your thinking and give you pointers. You can also reach out to your fellow students, or your professor.
4) You can also reverse the roles and participate in peer-reviewing yourself. Studies show that peer-reviewing extends one’s understanding of the subject matter, and of writing (e.g. Kaufman and Schunn 2011). Ask around to see if you can find a peer-group to review each other’s work. Or join us at SCAJ for the selection committee of our biannual editions.
5) This video was mentioned before, but we wish to highlight it here once more. In this (no longer) live Q&A, Elizabeth Chin, editor-in-chief of American Anthropologist, uncovers the world of academic journals and the peer-reviewing process they employ. What are editors looking for? What makes a good text? What are some of the pitfalls made by (aspiring) scholars? If you are thinking about embarking on a career in the academic world but you are not sure yet what that entails, we highly recommend watching or listening to this talk.
6) The Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) can be quite daunting. To help you demystify academic referencing, you can check out the CMS’s quick guide here.
7) For APA Style, we recommend the university’s LibGuides for an extensive overview of how to utilize this style of referencing.
8) Did you know that a reference list is not the same thing as a bibliography? The former refers to a list of references cited in the body of text (i.e. each entry corresponds to an in-text citation), whereas the latter is a list of all sources consulted, even the ones that are not mentioned in the text itself.
9) In need of some synonyms? thesaurus.com will be able to help you.
10) And finally, to get your creative juices flowing, we leave you with these two Ted Talks that we find inspiring. One by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “The Danger of a Single Story”, and another by Sakina Hofler, “How Creative Writing Can Get You Through Life’s Hardest Moments”.
We hope these tips have been helpful in your journey of becoming an anthropologist and a writer. Remember that writing is very much a personal process. Some of these tips may not work for you. Some of them might push you in the right direction, while others fit your style perfectly. It’s a matter of trial, error, and success.
As mentioned previously, our aim for this page is for it to be a dynamic one. Our student body is full of bright minds, and we are quite certain there are many more writing tips out there. If you want to share your favorite writing tip(s), or you have a specific topic that you often find yourself struggling with and want some tips on: don't hesitate to reach out! We are more than happy to help.
Ghodsee, Kristen. 2014. From Notes to Narrative: Writing Ethnographies that Anyone Can Read. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Hendrickson, Carol. 2008. “Visual Field Notes: Drawing Insights in the Yucatan.” Visual Anthropology Review 2: 117-132.
Kaufman, Julia H., and Christian D. Schunn. 2011. “Students’ perceptions about peer assessment for writing: their origin and impact on revision work.” Instructional Science 39: 387-406.
Mead, Margaret. 1928. Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilisation. New York: William Morrow & Company.
Narayan, Kirin. 2012. Alive in the Writing: Crafting Ethnography in the Company of Chekhov. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Shostak, Marjorie. 2011. “Return to Nisa” in Being There: Learning to Live Cross-Culturally, edited by Sarah H. Davis and Melvin Konner, 224-257. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.