Review of Stylish Academic Writing by Helen Sword
It’s no secret that many readers, both inside and outside academia, view academic writing as stodgy, tedious, and often incomprehensible. Facing this criticism head on, Helen Sword is on a mission to revolutionize academic writing. Sword, Professor and Director of the Centre for Learning and Research in Higher Education at the University of Auckland, aims to diagnose why so much academic writing is plagued by “serpentine syntax” and “lard-laden” descriptions and how we can fix it (5-6).
In her slim volume, Stylish Academic Writing, Sword makes three main arguments. First, that “elegant ideas deserve elegant expression” (vii). Second, that experimentation, versus conformity, is the key to intellectual creativity. And third, that our options are not as limited as we might believe, that academic writing doesn’t have to be stuffy, bloated, and indecipherable (vii). Rather than addressing why academics write the way they do, she explores how that writing may be improved and she does so quite systematically.
Stylish Academic Writing is split into two main sections. Part I: Style and Substance, is further divided into three chapters: “Rules of Engagement,” “On Being Disciplined,” and “A Guide to the Style Guides.” In these chapters, she explains her methodology and research design. First, she asked seventy academics from various disciplines to describe “stylish academic writing” (7). She then analyzed books and articles from one hundred authors recommended by their peers and tallied items like instances of first-person anecdotes, catchy hooks, concrete nouns, and clarifying examples (8). Third, she compiled a data set of one thousand academic articles from the sciences, social sciences, and humanities. From this data set she pulled writing samples and tallied how many articles in each discipline used different elements of engaging writing. Finally, Sword analyzed one hundred writing guides to track down what advice is being doled out to emerging scholars (9).
Sword’s research highlights compelling insights. For example, although many emerging writers believe they need to shun the pronouns “I” and “we,” Sword’s analysis reveals that in medicine, evolutionary biology, and computer science, these pronouns are used 92, 100, and 82 percent of the time, respectively. Researchers in higher education use these personal pronouns 54 percent of the time and writers in the humanities engage them 40 percent of the time (18). Clearly, there is no hard and fast rule when it comes to personal pronouns. As she explains, using “I” and “we” can be one of the easiest ways to bring your research writing to life, to help your readers connect with not only your words, but with your research story. In Sword’s words, they show “the human side of academic endeavor” (90).
In Part II: The Elements of Stylishness (hat tip to Strunk and White), Sword dives deep into various elements of writing including “Smart Sentencing,” “Tempting Titles,” “Jargonitis,” and “The Creative Touch.” Throughout this section, she encourages academic writers to take cues from fiction writers, to show versus tell, to create an overarching narrative experience for readers, and to make use of literary devices like metaphors, similes, and allusions. Sword includes “Spotlights on Style,” sample passages with explanations of precisely why they work and work well. (Brief aside: I did note that of the 29 spotlights, 20 were from male scholars. This imbalance was obvious enough to distract this particular reader.) The book ends with a brief afterword, an appendix highlighting research methodology, notes, and a bibliography.
Perhaps the most useful sections of this book are the lists of “Things to Try” that follow most chapters. Here Sword offers sets of exercises to help writers analyze the strengths and weaknesses of their own writing. Examples include taping a list of five real people to your workspace to help you keep your audience front and center (46), highlighting every bit of jargon in a piece of writing (120), and scanning your text for “be” verbs that you can replace with vivid verbs (60). One exercise recommends pasting a sample of your writing into the online Writer’s Diet test (available at www.writersdiet.com). This site and its accompanying diagnostic tool stem from an earlier book by Sword, The Writer’s Diet: A Guide to Fit Prose (now in its second edition). I submitted a sample of my own (published) writing from a meat and potatoes thesis paragraph. Diagnosis? “Flabby.” Prepositions were in the “heart attack” zone and my nouns needed “toning.” Determined to be a star student, I submitted a second sample, this time from an unpublished seminar paper. This selection was deemed “fit and trim.” Perhaps tellingly, I never planned to submit this paper for publication. Rather, I simply wanted to deliver an engaging, captivating read to my professor. Maybe Sword is on to something with her advice to keep your reader in mind and take creative risks.
As an emerging scholar, I very much want to believe Sword. I dream of crafting gorgeous sentences, sprinkling my research with personal anecdotes, and inserting clever bits of humor. On the other hand, I also fear that editors will likely take me to task if I fail to include long lists of authors in my parenthetical citations. There is a certain pressure to sound very grown up and a desire to be taken seriously. So, while I enjoy the samples Sword highlights as elegant and noteworthy, I also recognize that this creative luxury is more often afforded to established scholars. What works for Oliver Sacks and Richard Dawkins might not work for a graduate student.
However, that is precisely what Sword hopes to change with her call to reimagine academic writing practices. Stylish Academic Writing would be a wonderful text in a graduate-level research class, but early career academics will also find it motivating and helpful. Focused on her research findings and coming in at only 175 pages of content, this text is not a one-stop-shop for writing advice. Rather, it is meant to complement books like Peter Elbow’s Writing with Power and, for a more creative tack, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott.
Review of Stylish Academic Writing by Helen Sword. Harvard University Press. 2012. 220 pp.