Stylish Academic Writing

June 19, 2013 — 5 Comments

978-0-674-06448-5-frontcoverOn advice from a friend, I picked up Helen Sword’s “Stylish Academic Writing published by Harvard University Press in 2012.

This is a timely book as academic writing has for too long become stuffy and obscure. She states her argument in the preface:

Elegant ideas deserve elegant expression; intellectual creativity thrives best in an atmosphere of experimentation rather than conformity; and that, even within the constraints of disciplinary norms, most academics enjoy a far wider range of stylistic choices than they realize.

As she says, her agenda is a transformative one.

She works at dispelling the myth that you cannot get published without writing wordy, jargon filled, impersonal prose. In fact journal editors and readers welcome work that avoids excessive jargon and abstraction.

Sword analyzes more than a thousand peer-reviewed articles across a wide range of fields documents a startling gap between how academics typically describe good writing and the turgid prose they regularly produce.

Sword covers issues such as the use of personal anecdotes, putting some passion into the prose, and even different types of titles (paratexts) that draw readers in. She also examines first paragraphs and says

An effective first paragraph need not be flashy, gimmicky, or even provocative. It must, however, make the reader want to keep reading…If you decide to start with an attention-grabbing hook, however, make sure it speaks to the content and purpose of your article or chapter.

Some of the best parts of this book are found in the “Things to Try” at the end of each chapter. Here, academics will find ideas that may spur their writing onto new heights.

  • Make a list of potential characters in your research story, including nonhuman characters such as theories and ideas. For each character jot down a physical description, a personality profile, an obstacle faced by the character, a transformation of the character.
  • Just for fun, choose a favorite book or movie, distill its plot into a single sentence, and imagine what would happen if you plotted your research story along the same lines.
  • If you use colons frequently in titles, try crafting a colon free title.
  • If you seldom use colons in titles, try out the catchy description trick. Have something interesting one side of the colon and then descriptive on the other side.
  • If you suspect you suffer from jargonitis, start by measuring the scope of your addiction. Print out a sample of your academic writing and highlight every word that would not be immediately comprehensible to a reader from outside your own discipline. Do you use jargon more than once per page, per paragraph, per sentence? Retain only those jargon words that clearly serve your priorities and values.
  • “Read like a butterfly, write like a bee.” Novelist Philip Pullman exhorts writers to read widely and voraciously, without necessarily worrying a given book or article will be useful to their current research. Later you can make a conscious effort to integrate ideas drawn from your outside reading into your academic writing.

Some of the information in the book is standard fare for better writing books. Use active voice. Don’t use adjectives too much. Don’t use abstractions. Vary sentence length. The more specific chapters for academics were on jargon, citation styles, and structural designs.

The book is aimed at throwing the door open for academics.

As my supervisor always says, “Woman, thou art loosed.”

The table of contents are below.

Stylish Academic Writing


Patrick Schreiner

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I teach New Testament at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon. I am married with three children. This blog, against all wisdom, includes anything I am interested in. That includes movies, music, theology, culture, hermeneutics, the Gospels, and politics. Feel free to comment and let me know you are reading or that you have found something helpful. I reserve the right to delete unhelpful or rude comments. Many of these posts are simply things I find interesting and therefore I am not asserting I agree with everything I link to.

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  1. Professors, We Need You! | Ad Fontes - February 27, 2014

    […] As Kristof points out some of this can be attributed to the prose they write in. For a good book trying to overturn this see Stylish Academic Writing. […]

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