Stylish Academic Writing

Helen Sword, Stylish Academic WritingNo, the title of this post is not an oxymoron. Academics can write with style. Some of us do. All of us should. In Stylish Academic Writing, Helen Sword offers advice for all who aspire to write with grace and economy. The book is smart, funny, and — even better — applicable beyond academe.

Many of us write the way our disciplines taught us to write, but, as Sword points out, there’s a good degree of variance within any given discipline. People don’t write articles all the same way. In every discipline, there’s room for creativity, space for departing from the formula. Writing bland, jargon-y prose is not the only way to get published. To quote Sword, “academic writing is a process of making intelligent choices, not following rigid rules” (30). That’s the key advice here. You can write well and get published in any discipline; the path to publication involves smart choices, not the strictures of jargon.

Here are six pieces of advice from her book:

  1. Open with something catchy: As Sword puts it, “recount an interesting story, ask a challenging question, dissect a problem” (8).
  2. Prefer active verbs to passive ones: no one likes sentences that erase human agency.
  3. As Richard Lanham famously asked, “Who’s kicking who?” That should be “Who’s kicking whom?,” but the point is sound: nouns and verbs form the backbone of a strong sentence. If your sentence construction obscures cause-and-effect, then rewrite it.
  4. Jargon for its own sake is lazy. Use it when it serves your purpose — as Sword notes, it’s a “highly efficient form of disciplinary shorthand” (117). That’s great. But don’t use it as a substitute for thought. Draw upon the insights of critical theory, philosophy, medicine, and any relevant discipline, but express those insights in clear, concrete prose.
  5. You don’t need to use long sentences all the time. Short ones are nice. Varying sentence lengths works well, too.
  6. Avoid extraneous words and phrases. As Sword writes, “Avoid using that more than once in a single sentence or about three times per paragraph, except in a parallel construction or for stylistic effect. Sentences that rely on subordinate clauses that in turn contain other clauses that introduce new ideas that distract from the main argument that the author is trying to make . . . well, you get the idea” (62).

From my earliest days as an academic, I’ve aspired to write clear sentences. So, in part, Sword’s book has (for me) affirmed what I’ve always tried to do. I know of course that (despite my efforts) I have written sentences that fall short of this goal.  For that matter, I know that I will never be as deft a stylist as Martha Nussbaum, Louis Menand, or Robin Bernstein (to name a few academics who are also graceful writers), but I also know I can be better.  Sword’s book can help us all be better.

This is why, since I started reading the book, I’ve been recommending it to my fellow academics.  (To give credit where it’s due, Robin Bernstein’s Facebook post of the video below alerted me to Sword’s work.)

The Humanities need scholars who can communicate well. Our professional lives and the futures of our disciplines depend upon our ability to convey our ideas with clarity and grace to legislators and to the general public. The Humanities are not a luxury. As Adam Gopnik wrote so eloquently earlier this week, “We need the humanities not because they will produce shrewder entrepreneurs or kinder C.E.O.s but because [...] they help us enjoy life more and endure it better. The reason we need the humanities is because we’re human.”

Stylish Academic Writing has renewed my commitment to writing well.  If more of us take Sword’s advice to heart, perhaps over time, we can help our governments renew their commitments to the Humanities, and to a way of living that puts human beings first — rather than putting first, say, corporate profits, easily quantifiable utility, expensive surveillance, or lethal technologies.  Perhaps.

Even if we fail, it will have been worth the effort.


Bonus: a video on zombie nouns.

Another bonus: some links.

  • Stylish Academic Writing: Harvard University Press’s page, featuring many links.
  • The Writer’s Diet Test: Sword’s automated feedback tool asks “Is your writing flabby or fit?” and invites you to “Enter a writing sample of 100 to 1000 words” and find out.

7 Comments »

  1. Robin Bernstein Said,

    August 29, 2013 @ 3:55 pm

    Thanks for the shout-out, Phil! I’m glad it is thought by you that the scholarship that I am doing has often been characterized by a tendency toward excellence in its stylization and also in its execution upon publication. OK, that sentence hurt. Seriously, though: thanks for spreading the Gospel of the Sword (and for the record, I think you are a graceful and stylish writer!). And thanks for the link to the animated short. I added it to my “For Grad Students & Other Academics” webpage.

  2. Philip Nel Said,

    August 29, 2013 @ 4:59 pm

    Robin: You’re welcome! Thank you! The mellifluous linguistic expression that your academic stylization implements and that should be emulated by all who employ scholarly verbiage and strive to realize impactful critical engagement has been heretofore articulated by others who theorize(d) experiences both lived and un-lived. But, yeah, I thought I’d mention it again.

    And that “For Grad Students & Other Academics” page is a valuable resource. So, I’m going to link the relevant words in the previous sentence (and your sentence) to it.

  3. Robin Bernstein Said,

    August 29, 2013 @ 5:15 pm

    Heh heh heh. If only it didn’t ring so true…

    Thanks for the link to my webpage. I’ve recently expanded it, especially with regard to resources for junior faculty (which I did because of your inspiration, by the way).

    Hurrah for clear prose!

  4. Philip Nel Said,

    August 29, 2013 @ 10:21 pm

    Robin: Incidentally, I also found my “bad” sentence challenging to write. I kept thinking of a good sentence and then finding ways to break it (hey, let’s link the ideas with a series of “thats” instead of with a good verb!).

    And thanks kindly for linking to my attempts to offer advice on this blog. An advice-giving gene (Gene? who is this Gene?) runs on one side of the family. Since I’ve clearly inherited it, I figure I may as well try to put it to good use!

  5. Clémentine B Said,

    December 8, 2013 @ 2:35 pm

    Thanks for the recommandation. I’ve just finished the book. I really enjoyed reading it, and it’s very motivational (it’s made me want to rewrite my whole book tonight, which is impractical). That said, I’m keeping some critical distance. It’s quite (-sorry!-) American in its conception of ‘style’ – sometimes what she means by ‘stylish’ is close to what I’d call ‘snazzy’ or ‘sexy’… And I don’t agree that everything has to ‘tell a story’. I think this idea cultivates undesirable reading reflexes (‘please entertain me’ rather than ‘I’m here to learn something new and potentially incorporate it into my work’; an academic article is not infotainment).

    Fighting and struggling with a text to understand its meaning isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It can lead you, the reader, to *create* part of that meaning. Clear, limpid scholarship leaves little to the imagination. At its most lyrical and obscure, scholarship forces you to pick up on undeveloped allusions, and to think of what they evoke, to wonder where is the meaning (and therefore to give you co-authorship). Transparent meaning, however stylish, doesn’t always allow you to take the theorisation any further.

  6. Clémentine B Said,

    December 8, 2013 @ 2:35 pm

    urhg, sorry, French spelling of recommendation.

  7. Philip Nel Said,

    December 8, 2013 @ 3:58 pm

    Hi, Clémentine: I’ve not heard that criticism of this book before. Last fall, at a conference in Europe, one person did make that criticism of me. When I began my presentation, this person said, she thought it was very American — lots of style, little substance. However, as she began to listen to it, she found it quite thoughtful and generative (despite my “American” style). A classic backhanded compliment, in other words. I mention that to acknowledge my own cultural and personal bias.

    You write of scholarship that, at “its most lyrical and obscure,” challenges the reader to be a co-author of the meaning. That sounds (to my American ears) like poetry or Walter Benjamin, a genre I love and a critic I admire. I rarely encounter criticism that offers the lyricism you describe because, I suspect, few academic writers are capable of that level of writing. Obscurity, ideas clouded by jargon, reliance on clichés are always already embedded in our discursive practices — and, yes, I’m using passive voice, “always already,” and “discursive practices” with a bit of a wink (both literally and ironicaly, because they’re academic clichés). I don’t think scholarship needs to be entertaining, but I also don’t think that entertaining prose is an adversary of thoughtfulness. Clearly articulated ideas can challenge us.

    That said, as with all advice, borrow the bits that strike you as useful and jettison the rest. I know that I’m not capable of lyricism, and I don’t enjoy struggling through (for example) opaque or vague book proposals and cliché-ridden chapters. So, given my own tastes and limited abilities (to say nothing of limited time), I figure that I can at least strive for clarity. But, at the same time, I acknowledge that there’s more than one way to write well!

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