Hey, Academic Writers, You Can Have Style and Substance

Stylish Academic Writing

Stylish Academic Writing, Helen Sword. Harvard U. Press

 

Hey, Academic Writers, You Can Have Style and Substance

Sword, Helen. Stylish Academic Writing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard U. Press, 2012.

Available from Harvard University Press; April 2, 2012; $21.95

A Book Review, by Julie Dalley

I have always been interested in the ways in which scholarly writing seems to tangle meaning with a flurry of important-sounding words. I’ve done it often in my own writing, partly because I thought it was required to establish authority and credibility, and partly because I didn’t have the training to be more creative in my academic writing. So when I came upon Maria Popova’s blog piece on the blog Brain Pickings, titled, “The Power of Simple Words,” I was intrigued. Accompanying the brief essay – composed to remind writers to keep it simple – was a two-minute TED Ed video also called, “The Power of Simple Words.” The message concerns simplifying your prose, and knowing your audience, illustrated through the comic re-arrangement of pop culture sound bites: “”No coordinates exist like one’s domicile” for “there’s no place like home” or “ambulate this direction”, for “walk this way.” Its message is important for all writers, professional or academic, student or teacher.

Students and practitioners like myself confuse big words with good writing or sound argument. The brevity of the video imparts its message forcefully: we don’t always have to “sound smart” in order to leave a huge impression. Sometimes the simplest of words or phrases, a subtle and delicate metaphor, or a brief but powerful story, can capture a broader audience.

Likewise, in Stylish Academic Writing, Helen Sword argues that academic writers don’t need to write in jargonistic hieroglyphics that require readers to decode their meaning. Instead, they should be open and willing to soften their writing to make meaning more concrete and knowledge more accessible. Sword’s central argument is that, by falling into the habit of writing rigid academic texts without concern for style, we are failing to connect to our own agency and voice. We alienate readers beyond our disciplines, and sometimes even within our field of study.

Dense academic writing – with few exceptions – is by definition that which takes a meandering path to come to a simple point. It is often exclusionary with its complex disciplinary jargon, muddling clear ideas and inhibiting authentic meaning-making. And yet, there are academic writers whose work echoes far beyond their disciplinary domains, whose writing reaches beyond their fields, beyond academia, and into the larger audience of the public, while contributing to our body of knowledge in significant ways.

Sword structures her book with a series of case-studies of these breakout authors, using “Spotlight on Style” portraits of those who have broken the mold without threat to their disciplinary expertise or authority – and who infuse their writing with style and voice that engages the reader and delivers thoughtful, insightful, authoritative, but most of all, accessible, knowledge. Examples include Nathaniel Mermin, physicist (38); Ruth Behar, anthropologist (45); Stephen Greenblatt, literary critic, author, and scholar (p. 83); and Robert J. Connors and Andrea Lunsford, English scholars and researchers, writing as “Ma and Pa Kettle” (128). Alongside these exemplars of stylish writing, Sword presents a guide to crafting stylish prose in a book that is short, concise, and replete with tips and tricks (Things to Try found at the end of each chapter – extremely useful for writing instructors). The author demonstrates with concrete examples and suggestions that “…the most engaging writers are almost invariably those who pay the closest attention to the real people – specialists and non-specialists, colleagues and strangers – in whose ears their own words will echo” (44).  We forget that our audience needn’t be limited to a select few academics; we should write as though our ideas have resonance beyond our disciplines, and as far as the layperson with a curious mind.

Stylish Academic Writing contains a list of specific and transferable skills for improving anyone’s writing and this guide will become a well-thumbed resource every time you begin crafting your own stylish writing piece. The list includes some basic advice: create catchy titles, use anecdotes and stories, begin with a strong opening sentence or paragraph, provide lots of examples (concrete over the abstract), and more. This is practical advice for those who believe they must compose to achieve membership in their disciplinary field: fling the lingo, obscure the simple, flaunt your mental prowess through the anguished manipulation of language and the doors to academia will swing open. There’s a better way.  Scholars have long been making the case for better academic writing, going back to the classic article (which Sword references on pages 6-7) by Patricia Nelson Limerick, “Dancing with Professors: the trouble with academic prose,” (New York Times Book Review, 1993). Limerick famously critiqued the academic snobbery that favors impenetrable, jargonistic papers that few understand, and that even fewer still will admit they cannot understand.

But what is good writing? And what does bad writing look like?  In addition to spotlighting accomplished academic writers, Sword peppers her chapters with snippets of badly written prose plucked from numerous (one thousand, to be precise) articles and essays from a broad swath of disciplines: science, math, history medicine, law, psychology, anthropology, philosophy, education, literary studies and more. She also takes aim at style guides, and their conflicting messages that can lead a writer to constrain or even limit personal voice at the expense of their scholarship. Sword isn’t alone is arguing for better writing. She pays tribute to authors and scholars such as Peter Elbow, William Zinsser, Strunk and White, and Howard S. Becker, who have championed the stylish writing cause (6).

Sword consulted seventy academics from across the disciplines who gave her a list of ideal characteristics of good academic writing: elegant, carefully crafted sentences, energy, intellectual commitment, passion, engaging prose, a compelling story, avoids jargon, aesthetic and intellectual pleasure, and originality, imagination, and creative flair (8).  She dismisses the mythological tenet that individual voice and personal agency should be eliminated from academic writing. Rather, she insists, it is through the use of personal pronouns that we connect more intimately with our audience and attach our expertise more closely to our work and immersion in our discipline: “Academic writers strive to convey a completely neutral perspective; as merchants of truth rather than fiction, we see it as our job to inform our readers, not to play with their expectations or their minds. Yet that neutrality, when closely examined, turns out to be something of a myth” (94).  Why do we research and write if not to establish our own authority in the field?

Sword’s strongest argument comes in Chapter 10: Jargonitis, a term often used as a pejorative to describe text that is “obscure and often pretentious language marked by circumlocutions and long words” (112). Here she sways the reader by pointing out the exclusionary nature of jargon in academic text (i.e., “I belong, you don’t”), how academese has reduced the writer to ostentation, obfuscation, and obscurity, and how jargon can become a substitute for legitimate thought, a placeholder for fully developed and creative ideas.

Struggling with meaning and difficult and complex ideas has long been considered an integral part of academic training; our style and authority is formed and informed by the literature we review and the research we build upon in our own work. Is it necessary? Mostly not, Sword says, “Sometimes, however, the line between technical precision and intellectual pretension becomes a fine one.” (117). Sword points to the invocation of Michel Foucault by numerous scholars, many who appear to never have engaged directly with his body of work.  “Foucauldian” references in humanities and social sciences scholarship are a straw man of academic writing, according to Sword: in most of the cases she reviewed for her study, the authors engaged with Foucault through the work of others. This twice-to-three-times removed jargon diminishes the scholarship, becomes exclusionary for the general public, and contributes nothing to a dialogue on Foucault. Ironically, Foucault’s work, per Sword, was “rhythmically compelling, relentlessly concrete, and almost entirely jargon-free” (119).

Sword concludes her book with two chapters that deal with the more intangible elements of good writing: passion, persuasion, playfulness, making the abstract concrete, challenging the reader, engaging the reader’s imagination, abiding in elegance; in other words, “paint a big picture on a small canvas” (Chapter 13: “The Big Picture” and Chapter 14: “The Creative Touch.” 147-172).  She shares the following advice from evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, which neatly packages her argument:

Do not talk down. Try to inspire everybody with the poetry of science and make your explanations as easy as honesty allows, but at the same time do not neglect the difficult. Put extra effort into explaining to those readers prepared to put matching effort into understanding. (qtd. on 157).

Noticeably lacking in this otherwise comprehensive book is any reference to the emerging trend of digital writing and the new literacies that govern those writing forms.  Some literature exists that suggests that writing online offers us a more relaxed platform, even an agency and space where voice and self become prominent, while still reflecting academic rigor (cf. Elbow, P (Nov. 2007). “Voice in Writing Again: Embracing Contraries.” College English, Vol. 70, No. 2, pp. 168-188). As our writing worlds collide with digital worlds, any guide or work on academic writing should include some discussion on this movement and where academic writers stand when confronting style and format online. Sword does discuss augmenting text with images (108), however, that is as close as she comes to addressing multimodal academic writing.

Will this book, and other movements to redefine “writing” and literacy instruction, become influential in loosening the rigid disciplinary confines of academic writing and make academic text more appealing and available to a broader public? It’s not as though ponderous academic writing is a secret or hasn’t long been thought unnecessary; academia itself suffers from a deep-seated tradition of exclusive and territorial scholarship, and there is an intrinsic fear of diminished intellectual perception or agency that comes with making academia more accessible and less lofty. In addition, academic writing, and the research that feeds it, is the merit badge of belonging to the academy.

This is the core of the resistance to change in American education. If we do move to more stylish academic writing, Sword’s work is a informative and useful place to start: it provides foundational instruction on how to write clearly, the license to write freely, and the motivation to make the leap.

Sword’s lesson comes down to courage on the part of the scholar: you must choose if you want your writing to stand out from the crowd or conform to the disciplinary academese that both confounds and confirms you. This book gives you license to take some risks with your academic writing, and provides solid evidence of other scholars who have gained world-wide acclaim, in some cases became household names, for daring to step outside the writing box and be stylish.

Helen Sword is Associate Professor in the Centre for Academic Development at the University of Auckland.

To find out how stylish your own writing is, take Sword’s WritersDiet Test: http://writersdiet.com/WT.phph

 

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