On developing stylish academic writing

Every now and again, you come across a book that you wish you had read years ago. Stylish academic writing by a literary scholar and poet, Helen Sword (2012), is one of these. I really wish I had read this when I first went to college. This book would have saved me much heartache, although of course, it was unfortunately unwritten when I went to college decades ago. With the deftness of a medical examiner conducting an autopsy, Sword dissects academic writing to locate problems and pathologies and the numerous ways in which academic writers afflict their audiences with bad writing to the point of killing any interest in reading beyond the first paragraph. Sword spares no one, providing examples of awkward sentences, misleading titles, terrible introductory sentences, and in a chapter entitled “Jargonitis”, texts inflamed with terminology that obscures meaning for all but the few experts in a field. I was greatly relieved not to come across evidence that Sword has read any of my publications and located examples for what not to do! Unless appearing in an exemplary vignette, Sword’s book is one in which any self-respecting academic author would rather not be cited, thank you.

The book is organized in 14 chapters and two parts that discuss both what plagues academic writing, as well as how academic writers can produce texts that exemplify both style and substance. Part 1, encompassing three chapters, explains how Sword approached the task of examining “stylish writing.” She began by asking 70 academic writers from across disciplines what they regarded as “stylish academic writing” (p. 7). These scholars observed that stylish writers:

  • Express complex ideas clearly and precisely;
  • Produce elegant, carefully crafted sentences;
  • Convey a sense of energy, intellectual commitment, and even passion;
  • Engage and hold their readers’ attention;
  • Tell a compelling story;
  • Avoid jargon, except when specialized terminology is essential to the argument;
  • Provide their readers with aesthetic and intellectual pleasure; and
  • Write with originality, imagination, and creative flair (pp. 7-8).

Sword then analyzed the writing of more than 100 exemplary authors who had been recommended by their discipline-based peers (p. 8). She observed that these scholars achieve writing that involves engagement, pleasure, and elegance by deploying specific concrete strategies, including:

  • Interesting, eye-catching titles and subtitles
  • First-person anecdotes or asides that humanize the author
  • Catchy opening paragraphs
  • Concrete nouns and active energetic verbs
  • Numerous examples, especially when explaining abstract concepts
  • Visual illustrations
  • References to a broad range of academic, literary, and historical sources, and
  • Humor (p. 8).

Sword went on to examine 1,000 academic articles from across disciplines to locate both “engaging and appalling academic prose” (p. 9). Finally, she then analyzed 100 recently published writing guides. After contrasting how writing varies across various disciplines, and how various guides to writing style provide conflicting advice, Sword launches into the second part of the book on “the elements of stylishness.” Chapters engage with issues of voice, sentence construction, titles, how to hook audiences members into reading on, use of stories, how to incorporate technical language, structure, and citation styles. Each chapter includes one-page vignettes that provide examples of stylish writing from scholars across the disciplines and concludes with a list of things to try. These activities provide a useful means to analyze one’s own writing, as well as activities that might be integrated into teaching.

One of the more surprising chapters to me was “Points of reference”, in which Sword reviews how different citation styles require writers to think carefully about how to write. Having at various points in my academic career been required to use Harvard, Turabian, Chicago, and APA styles, I found it illuminating to think about how each of the style guides harbors different assumptions about scholarly work. For example, citing psychologists (Robert Madigan, Susan Johnson, and Patricia Linton), Sword notes that the APA style preferred in my own field of study serves to

recast a “complex human story” as a “sanitized, rationalized account of the research”; to challenge other researchers’ findings by focusing on “empirical details rather than personalities”; to buffer their conclusions with hedging words such as tend, suggest, and may: to cite other authors by paraphrasing their arguments rather than quoting them directly; and to regard language not as a complex medium but as a “somewhat unimportant container for information about phenomenal, data, and theories” (Sword, 2012, pp. 136-137).

Why had I not recognized this sooner? This provided another way to think about the challenges faced by students struggling to master the various genres of academic writing (including use of APA!). This chapter also discussed the use of footnotes and endnotes. Who knew that footnoting could be so funny?

In a short afterword, Sword re-emphasizes what all stylish academic writers have in common: they all value communication (respect for audiences), craft (respect for language) and creativity (respect for academic endeavor). To this, she adds concreteness (“words that engage the senses and anchor your ideas in physical space”, p. 173), choice (intentional decision making with respect to writing, rather than rigid rule-following), and the courage to take risks (pp. 173-175). Sword concludes her book with encouraging words that I will leave for you to discover yourself.

I highly recommend this book to both novice and experienced scholars seeking to make an impact in their field of study. For the former, Sword unlocks some of the mysteries as to why some scholars’ works engage in ways that make them well-read and much-cited. For the latter, it encourages us to re-examine our writing and work to engage with our audiences in ways that inspire them to read on.

Kathy Roulston

Reference

Sword, H. (2012). Stylish academic writing. Cambridge, MA & London: Harvard University Press.

 

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