How does one write ethnographic notes? How does one write, and how does one produce a thing: an article, a book? This is what a scholar does: she writes. She writes, and, characteristically, not aimlessly, but with a clear purpose, goal, and structure in mind.
My first lessons on how to write were from the Russian books on the subject. Maxim Gorky’s fragments of letters to young writers were my first, at the age of 11, opening to the realization that writing might and must be perfected. Another book in Russian that I want to mention, I don’t think it is translated, is the Soviet journalist Valery Agranovsky’s book For the Sake of a Single Word (Radi edinogo slova).
Writing is the most potent instrument that you possess even if there are other tools at your disposal. With writing, you can do a lot. You can make people do what you want and to change immediate social reality. It may sound too good to be true, but Austin’s theory of performatives shows this. Word is an extremely powerful instrument. Moreover, it is the only instrument anyone has to make oneself understood.
I compiled a list of books and resources that will propel a writer to a greater precision and quality of their work. These are simple “how to” books. Ethnographic writing should move. It can be suspenseful, it can be creative, and it can be pretty much anything you want. Now that fiction has to compete with the web and social media, in addition to movies, it shrinks in sales and therefore, presumably, in numbers of books that people read. But nonfiction is going surprisingly strong. My guess is, it is promotional books (“how to take 10 steps in 10 steps”), and not prose-leaning narratives that seized the day. But it is also curious to observe how previously marginal genres, like memoirs and collections of short twitterlike notes, have been gaining prominence. Against this backdrop, ethnographic writing and anthropological theory of all sorts have a great opportunity to flourish. Anthropology has many things to offer to the world, particularly if it does not become esoteric but still retains its depth. There are books on how to write ethnography, but here I am going to list the books that simply teach how to write and how to publish. I have always been far less interested in the latter (perhaps not a good thing to admit), so I don’t comment on the soundness of publishing advice. Fiction, nonfiction, academic, and non-academic writing: ethnography can consume the best of all and will still remain hungry for more.
Stephen King, On Writing. A master of suspense-driven novels (not plot-driven, as you’ll learn from this book), King portrays his passion about writing though a personal story and shares the surprisingly not arcane secrets of his mastery. I found his idea of novel as a fossil that remains hidden until you write it, unearth it, compelling. The book is also invigorating because it is a story of success, and if there is something appealing to a broad audience, it is success. Stephen King could have written anything on the subject of writing and still end up with a bestseller after he wrote and sold so many bestselling novels, but he’s making a horror novel out of a how-to book, from the material of his own life. It is an autoethnography of the writer’s life, infused with reflections on writing. I found it funny that there are traces of, what do I call it, regrets or perhaps even shame that the author’s talent was spent on fast-reading, trade-literature books. There is a curious defensiveness about it. But this book is the one that positions Stephen King, if he wasn’t there already, among the classics of the American letters, makes him look very reasonable on a bookshelf somewhere between Kerouac and Joseph Heller.
William Strunk and E.B. White, The Elements of Style. It is one of the books that Stephen King recommends in his On Writing, and by far The Elements is probably most popular and well-known book on how to write in the American culture. It is an acclaimed (and short, like a stub) book that has the strangest history: co-authors, a professor and his student, did not work side by side on a manuscript, but with a distance in 40 years. It is a story behind this book that I find poignant (and also questionable from the point of view of the primate of the authorship) that makes it matter in addition to the quality of advice given there. The passage on the dangling participle made me exclaim: “Yes! Please, make every American / British /Canadian / Australian etc. writer read it!”:
“Sentences violating Rule 11 are often ludicrous:
Wandering irresolutely what to do next, the clock struck twelve.”
Les Edgerton, Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One and Never Lets Them Go. This book makes an important argument: stories told today must accommodate to the quickness with which the reader switches attention. No one has time for lengthy introductions and background stories: throw your character (I’d add, all the more so if your character is a theoretic notion) into a density of events and see how they fare. Make them work around the clock trying to resolve an urgent conflict.
John Ciardi, Ciardi Himself: Fifteen Essays in the Reading, Writing, and Teaching of Poetry. Ciardi Himself is a collection of essay on writing that will be slightly out of this “how to” list. But it is a book that does not concern itself with how to sell the writing, but rather with how to gain a metaphysical victory.
Chandler Bolt, Book Launch: How to Write, Market & Publish Your First Bestseller in Three Months or Less AND Use it to Start and Grow a Six Figure Business. The title of this book sounds shallow, and it makes no secret out of the fact that it is aimed to appeal to the widest audience of forever unsuccessful writers. But this is, surprisingly, one of the clearest and simplest books on the subject that I ever encountered.
Additionally, I want to offer you a list of resources on how to write.
https://jerryjenkins.com/ – tips, in fact, a collection of instructions on how to write things of different genres. My favorite instruction is how to write a memoir, found on the website, downloaded for free, by Jerry Jenkins;
https://academicmuse.org/ – academic writing, explained by Alan Klima;
http://theprofessorisin.com/pearlsofwisdom/ – blog of Karen Kelsky, the author of the book with the same title, The Professor Is In. Karen Kelsky’s has written on a wide array of academic writing, including some of the most daunting ones, like grant proposals and research statements. A must-read for every student of academic writing out there.
The three writers mentioned above, in the Resources section, organize writing seminars providing schedule and systems of accountability, advise and support for those enrolled. These services are paid; I cannot tell if it is worth it because I do my writing on my own. I can write anywhere in any medium (and you can do it too), and I find agglomerations of writers distracting rather than helpful. But it can be a good idea to attend a writing seminar, for many reasons.
Finally, I have written on methods in socio-cultural anthropology, and should the subject be of interest to you, I invite you to read On Methods in Sociocultural Anthropology: Production of Ethnography Through Observation, Recollection, and, Occasionally, Forgetting.
In the photo: the author taking field notes on the shore of Lake Baikal in a company of fishermen in 2006