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  • Writer's pictureDavid R. Goyes

Criminology and Parallelism

“Life is not symmetrical, but symmetry helps us understand its patterns—and rough edges.”
One effective method to hone your writing skills—or, indeed, any other art—is to copy, by hand, the work of established masters. In their podcasting course, writer Laura Joyce Davies and publicist Nate Davies teach that copying out great writing:

“is the literary equivalent of the master study art students have been doing for centuries: by copying a great painting brushstroke by brushstroke, students understand a great work not just with their minds, but also with their bodies.”

Although I have been writing for over a decade, I only commenced studying the craft in 2018. And in 2023, I began to write a trade book about the lives of those in prison simultaneously as my colleague Sveinung Sandberg and I started writing an academic book presenting the findings of the largest criminology project ever developed in Latin America: “CRIMLA.”

As I juggled between trade writing and academic writing, I found solace in the advice to copy the masters. This practice became my pre-writing ritual, a gateway to immerse myself in the genre I was about to tackle, be it popular or academic. Before each writing session, I transcribed passages from two books in my own handwriting. For the trade book, I chose Malcolm Gladwell’s What the Dog Saw, a popular piece of narrative nonfiction. For the academic book, considering our focus on life courses, I selected Laub and Sampson’s Shared Beginnings, Divergent Lives: Delinquent Boys to Age 70, a seminal work in criminology. (For more about the scholarship of John Laub, see my blog Criminology and Boxes.)

Day after day, I transcribed the book that Laub and Sampson published in 2006. In it, they follow, from childhood to their senior years, “500 persons who were remanded to reform school in the 1940s.” While the science and the findings were what attracted me to the text first, my exercise in transcribing it line by line had another goal: to reverse-engineer the strategies they applied to successfully transfer the deep insights derived from one of the longest-ever longitudinal studies in criminology from their minds to the readers’.

The first strategy I identified was parallelism.

The book starts by presenting the biographies of two research participants: Arthur and Michael. Information about them is not randomly thrown in. Instead, the authors curated Arthur and Michael’s life stories, describing them following a carefully designed pattern. Each “character”, for instance, is introduced by presenting their childhood accommodation:  

“Arthur grew up in an Italian neighborhood in a poor section of East Boston. This neighborhood was overcrowded, with more than its fair share of barroms and street gangs.” (Page 1.) [Twenty-nine words that inform about the cultural, economic, and criminal traits of Arthur’s living accommodation.]

“Like Arthur, Michael grew up in a poor section of Boston, an Irish neighborhood in Dorchester south of downtown.” (Page 2.) [Nineteen words that also describe the cultural and economic context in which Michael lived.]

In each sentence, afterward, Laub and Sampson present their characters following the same structure:

·        Housing during childhood.

·        Family of origin.

·        Schooling and cognitive performance.

·        Initial engagement with crime.

Parallelism means using similar words or phrases to discuss similar things or ideas. Parallelism is created by syntactical balance in terms of length of components, number of syllables, and rhythm.

The first use of parallelism is to present lists. By avoiding the random and establishing a parallel structure, the reader will find an order and know that the text contains a list, a catalog, or an inventory.

Second, when a text uses parallelism, reading becomes easier because the mind will – consciously or unconsciously – know what to expect next.

The magic of parallel constructions, however, lies in its third property: it allows giving one element more emphasis and prominence. When the world cannot be forced into a list of exactly symmetrical elements, having parallelism first but breaking it at the end, highlights the last element.

·        Use parallel constructions.

·        Create a pattern.

·        Break the symmetry at the end to give the last word more prominence.

It is here where Laub and Sampson’s brilliance shines. They presented the lives of Arthur and Michael in parallel all throughout their childhood. But then – and even within a symmetrical construction – they break the parallelism:

“When asked to assess his life at age 65, Arthur answered, ‘What am I? What do you look at? Nothing. A piece of shit.’ Michael, at age 63, was asked the same question. He responded, “What I done here is a success story … I think I done pretty goddamn good.’”

It is the initial parallelism, disrupted at the end when Michael declares, “I think I done pretty goddamn good”, that allows the authors to ask, “What accounts for the radically different adult lives of these two men?”

Parallelism allowed Laub and Sampson to pose the question on which they structured their entire book and, in fact, their entire theory.
Poet Molly Brodak used to say, “Symmetry is ugly. Life just isn’t like that, and true beauty has bumps and bruises.” However, parallel constructions allow us to find some order in the messy social reality around us. More importantly, the “bumps and bruises” of life are only visible thanks to parallelism—if we don’t know what is regular, we won’t identify what is extraordinary.
And a bonus:

When I showed this image to a co-author with whom we are writing an article, she asked, “What are the numbers within brackets?”

The explanation was that the numbers allowed me to ensure we followed a parallel construction. By using a symmetrical structure, we could successfully show the reader that each element has the same weight in the analysis. Furthermore, having parallel structures in complex analyses unburdens readers who won’t need to use mental energy to decipher the structure and will be able to focus on the substantial ideas.

(By clicking on the links, you will find further resources on the topics I mention.)
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