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Stylish Academic Writing

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Elegant data and ideas deserve elegant expression, argues Helen Sword in this lively guide to academic writing. For scholars frustrated with disciplinary conventions, and for specialists who want to write for a larger audience but are unsure where to begin, here are imaginative, practical, witty pointers that show how to make articles and books a pleasure to read and to write.

Dispelling the myth that you cannot get published without writing wordy, impersonal prose, Sword shows how much journal editors and readers welcome work that avoids excessive jargon and abstraction. Sword s analysis of 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.

"Stylish Academic Writing" showcases a range of scholars from the sciences, humanities, and social sciences who write with vividness and panache. Individual chapters take up specific elements of style, such as titles and headings, chapter openings, and structure, and close with examples of transferable techniques that any writer can master.

220 pages, Hardcover

First published April 1, 2012

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Helen Sword

7 books18 followers

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 114 reviews
Profile Image for Michael Meeuwis.
315 reviews1 follower
May 10, 2015
Under the guise of writing advice, this book recommends things that I have been taught to be bad intellectual practice. One of these is flat misrepresentation. The summary of Jonathan Culler's defense of Judith Butler's prose on pg. 156, for example, completely misrepresents what Culler is saying: he doesn't say that Butler presents a "merry-go-round," prosodically, but rather tries to help the reader with abstruse concepts by repeating them several times. There are a number of other serious problems here. Many of the writers Sword cites are public intellectuals on the Richard Dawkins or Stephen Greenblatt level; simply put, these are writers who are trying to engage a broader public, and are as a result writing in their recent work in a less rigorous style. Which is exactly the point, maybe, about scholars at that point in their careers--although Greenblatt in particular is a much more nuanced and (yes) jargon-creating writing than Sword gives him credit for being. This is to his credit, not to his detriment.

Saying that academic writing is bad isn't even shooting fish in a barrel--or if it is, it's doing so with orbital missile systems. Part of the reason for this is that 90% of all writing is bad; if anything, academics are more reflective about this than other writers. With that nevertheless as given, Sword recommends many things--jokes, overly-personal anecdotes, elaborate figurative language--that reviewers have told me to specifically remove from my journal articles. By citing figures at the peak of their careers, she is citing people whose work is often edited in different ways.

With that said, there are good points. Derrida and Foucault tend to be clearer and cannier than those who cite them excessively; this might be why they were the two most-cited academics of their generation. Why we need someone else saying this is beyond me.

The most useful points of this book, its occasional listing of concrete suggestions for improving writing, would most usefully have been printed on a two-sided laminated sheet of paper, which might be pinned up by one's computer. There is a lot of verbiage, star-fucking, and a kind of curdled distaste for people trying to do new things--which often relates in awkward prose, often the site of the unformed but fascinated idea--getting in the way of this laminated sheet. This twaddle is coupled with a lack of genuinely new ideas. Telling someone to ask what the "main point" of their article is is something I learned around the third grade; although it is nice to be reminded to do this from time to time, it is not pleasant to do so in prose this high-handed and, frequently, cliched ("clarity and complexity are bedfellows, not rivals," "An effective first paragraph...must...make the reader want to keep reading," "captures our imagination," etc. etc. ad infinitum.)

The hell of it is: if you skim this like a Florida airboat, you will probably become aware of three or four categories of writing improvement that might help you. Write these down, pin 'em to your desk, and forget how Stephen Greenblatt wrote his articles. You have your own ideas to struggle with, and your own voice to find. You're not going to find that in this Whitman's Sampler of cack-handedly obvious cliches.
Profile Image for Craig.
66 reviews19 followers
June 17, 2022
On the one hand, a lot of this is nothing new. The book encourages writers to peek over the disciplinary fences and draw from what scholars are doing in other fields. It tells its readers that their academic work can be both complex and also clear and concrete. It grants permission to use the personal pronoun. It celebrates the short, forceful phrase as an alternative to the long, turgid, labyrinthine sentence. It suggests titling things in eye-catching ways and working hooks into openings. It promotes the frequent use of examples. It proposes the sparing and judicious use of jargon. It encourages a lightly experimental approach to structure and form. Its six “ideals,” its “Cs”—communication, craft, creativity, concreteness, choice, and courage—are straightforward.

On the other hand, one thing that sets the book apart is the extent to which its research foundation, the set of hand-selected, discipline-exemplary journals from which Sword draws both qualitive and indeed quantitative evidence for her writing analyses, is thorough, detailed, and made helpfully explicit in an appendix. There’s a firm grounding in specifics and illustrative examples throughout (Sword often takes her own advice, to her credit), though these can also lead to significant problems with a kind of audience confusion. One of the strongest chapters in the book, the one on abstracts of various kinds (“The Big Picture”), does acknowledge the importance of fitness for purpose and venue, but the rest of the book’s advice seems at times to work with an unhelpfully lazy definition of “academic writing” and its individual and institutional audiences. Does a famous, popular public intellectual like Richard Dawkins have the same audience as a scholar publishing in a narrowcast specialist academic journal? How transferrable are the insights from the former to the latter context really? Is “do what works for the widely published, internationally feted, and award-winning” actually good, practicable advice for anonymous early-career scholars buying writing guides on their nearly-maxed-out credit cards?

Speaking of audience, it seems to me that if you follow Sword’s advice about including personal narratives, anecdotes, poeticisms and other creative flourishes in your scholarly work, a lot of the time what you’ll produce will at best be simply cut and at worst be grounds for a rejected submission. I can’t help thinking that like so much writing advice, this all seems written mainly for the one audience that doesn’t ultimately need it: in this case, academics who are already successful enough and have advanced far enough that their bold moves might be published with a degree of editorial lightness and generosity that would be unreasonable for a rookie to expect.

And some of the advice just seems mad to try to follow. Should we lay bare the “methodological prejudices [that] lurk just below the surface of any academic text” (135) by, for example, “disrupt[ing] normative elements such as citation styles” so that we can “send those unspoken assumptions scurrying out into the light” as we write and submit articles with our fingers crossed for publication and career advancement? How big will this kind of thing really go over with the editors over at the Journal of Finicky Traditionalist Studies brandishing their copies of the house-style guide? Sword waves away concerns about institutional gatekeepers, but they’re real, and we seem to have to take them ever more seriously the more unforgivingly, relentlessly competitive the professional bloodbath of academe gets.

I don’t know that this will leave you as inspired as some of the other reviews here suggest, or that feelings of inspiration will long survive some of the responses you’ll get when you start doing what Sword suggests. But the book urges you to consider that there are other ways of writing for a scholarly audience than the ones you tend to see in action, that it’s worth being on the lookout for creative opportunities and having the courage to take them, and that academic prose should be a lot more pleasurable than it usually is to write and to read. Given what most academic writing is like, these things are inspiring.
Profile Image for Chris.
213 reviews46 followers
March 2, 2016
As a longtime part-time graduate student and employee of a university research center (often in an editing or writing capacity), I found that this book 1) confirmed and affirmed my (negative) perceptions of much scholarly writing, and 2) provided lots of evidence from many fields of how it has been and can be done better. (Really!) Sword raided journals from a wide spectrum of disciplines and found even more problems than I've seen, and but also many examples of concrete, specific, engaging scholarly writing. She uses those to illustrate her many tips for better scholarly writing. To be a scholar is to care deeply about one small corner of the world, and all of us want to inspire others to care about it, too. It's impossible to read this book and not get at least a dozen ideas for how to do that better.

Other reviewers have noted that they plan to share it with their grad students--I plan to tell my graduate adviser about it. :)
Profile Image for Tara Brabazon.
Author 23 books324 followers
January 30, 2020
What a truly remarkable book. Further, this is is an incredibly courageous book. Any academic - every academic - will think differently about scholarly writing at the conclusion of this book.

Importantly, assumptions are not allowed to stand. Analyses of refereed journal articles in a great diversity of disciplines shows that - wait for it - scientists use "I" or "we" more frequently than humanities cholars in their research.

For PhD students in particular, this is an empowering book. This book offers a way to be different and to write differently. Outstanding.
Profile Image for Jennifer.
1,619 reviews53 followers
November 23, 2014
E. F. Schumacher once wrote that any intelligent fool could make things bigger and more complex, but that it took a touch of genius and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction. Helen Sword's Stylish Academic Writing displays just the genius necessary to inspire academics to get up their courage to free their writing of the jargon-heavy passivity choking the life out of it (and their readers).

Unlike other guides, Sword brings massive research to bear on the 'problem' of academic writing: the first part of her work describes how she analyzed one thousand academic articles across ten different disciplines, as well as books and articles by one hundred academic writers recommended by their peers for the quality of their writing, and one hundred recently published style guides for academic writers in order to draw her conclusions. When was the last time you read a writing guide that devoted three full chapters to methodology?

From there, Sword goes on to explore eleven techniques displayed by stylish writers across the disciplines she studied, and each chapter contains both specific examples, good and bad, and simple directives for practices readers can use to improve their own writing. It's all so elegant that Strunk and White (who do get name-dropped several times throughout) would weep with joy.

Sword acknowledges that academic writing concerns itself with difficult, sometimes abstruse topics, and that sometimes jargon and nominalizations are appropriate to the task at hand. But smart, she argues, doesn't have to mean stultifying. Here's hoping publishing academics find her as persuasive as I did.

16 reviews
May 11, 2013
This was only okay. The best parts are the exercises at the end of each chapter, really. The text itself is unfocused. The author can't seem to use an example to demonstrate fewer than three different points, two of them inevitably off-topic for the chapter. She tries to do too much with each one, and the result is that they seem carelessly selected. She also fails to transition between topics; most of the text reads like a list of descriptions of stylistic features and is often long-winded, using lots of unnecessary metaphor and colourful language that doesn't add to the meaning or pleasure of reading. She also makes the ridiculous choice to devote an entire chapter to discussing snappy titles and another to snappy section headings. Use Stylish Academic Writing to point you in the direction of some great writers from different fields of study, but otherwise it's a pass.
Profile Image for Lectus.
1,029 reviews30 followers
December 20, 2013
Unfortunately, the book is exactly what Sword criticizes scholarly writing is about but shouldn't be: "stodgy, jargon-laden, abstract prose that ignores or defies most of the stylistic principles outlined" (p. 3). Her own book is "a compulsive proclivity for discursive obscurantism and circumambulatory diction" (p. 3).

In other words, the books is confusing; I was just lost, and didn't get anything from it. Sword did superb research of other people's writing. Maybe too much research. She got lost in the same thing she was trying to teach us to avoid.

In fact, I hated doing this, but I returned the book and asked for a refund.
83 reviews2 followers
October 22, 2013
Pretty good. Sword writes clearly -- if she didn't, she'd be like a dentist with bad teeth -- and challenges the reader to write whatever they're writing with readability as the ultimate goal. Depending on the field you work in, you might be more or less able to try her many suggestions for writing more stylish academic prose.

I feel she under-emphasizes one important tool for creating better writing: rewriting. A piece should go through revisons, and perhaps many revisions, before being considered fit for public consumption. Sword doesn't give the reader a good sense of just how much blood, sweat, and tears should go into an article about hematology, excerise physiology, or romantic poetry.

Overall, though, if you're fed up reading awfully-written articles and don't want to be producing such articles, "Stylish Academic Writing" will give you some good ideas.
Profile Image for Beth Sullivan.
70 reviews
November 5, 2022
It was a well-researched book. I’ll give it that.

And I did agree with her apt descriptions of academic writing. As an academic editor, I found myself nodding and agreeing with her descriptions.

However, the book was a bit of a slog for me. And as her book is about writing engagingly, it’s ironic to me that it did not keep me engaged.
Profile Image for U Recife.
122 reviews12 followers
June 18, 2018
The title gives you little doubt on what this book is about. If you picked it up, you already know what you are looking for and what you might expect from reading it. However, this is not exactly a manual on how to do it. It’s more of a survey of what others have done (or are doing) as a way to entice you to break from the oftentimes dogmatic pressure to keep in line with the untold stylistic rules of academic production that seem to govern your discipline.

Helen Sword does a great job in covering the many aspects of academic text production with insightful comments and very enlightening examples. Every bit of text quoted here serves exactly the function it purports to do, i.e., to back up what is being proposed, or criticized, with what is being practiced by the many academic authors in the different fields surveyed in this study of hers.

It’s also important to point out that Helen Sword doesn’t just limit this work to a theoretical critique of the many academic stylistic writing practices, good or bad, but also offers good advice on how to achieve better results with one’s own academic written production. On the second part of this book, aptly titled The Elements of Stylishness, Sword finishes all the chapters with an interesting practical section of Things to Try. Here you’ll find all sorts of good ideas on what you can do try out and achieve the same good stylistic results analyzed on the chapter that you have just read. This is immensely useful if you really need to break from all the old habits that prevent you to get the best results with your academic writing.

From all that has been said above, and given that this is a very targeted book (its readers have a clear idea of what to expect), to recommend it is a futile exercise: If you need it, you know you should read it. Your skills as a more versatile, enticing, and clear academic writer will definitely improve.
Profile Image for Andrew.
Author 16 books37 followers
February 26, 2014
Helen Sword rips the veil off one of the worst kept secrets in all of academia: Most academic writing is just plain awful. Jargon-filled, abstract, impersonal, sleep-inducing.

What makes Sword's Stylish Academic Writing different is that she has data to back up her claims. She studied five hundred recent articles from academic journals evenly spread over ten different disciplines. For example, she actually counted first-person pronouns (historians being culpable for using the fewest) and abstract nouns (e.g., nominalization--those in higher ed being most guilty of this infraction).

The good news is--the news is not all bad! Science writers actually used the pronouns "I" and "we" quite a bit. Historians rarely used abstract nouns.

There was hope on another front. Sword not only studied journal articles but also the advice found in the guidelines for writers issued by the journals. They all tended to advocate:

The three C's--clarity, coherence, conciseness
Including some short and some long sentences
Plain English
Active verbs
Telling a story

There was, however, less consensus on:

Personal pronouns
Careful use of jargon
Personal voice
Creative expression
Non-standard structure
Engaging titles

In another twist, she analyzes the writing itself in the guidelines for writers the journals created. Again, on the one hand we get a mix of creative use of metaphor, humor, word play and other engaging techniques, while on the other hand we find styles of writing that are, yes, academic and stodgy.

Conclusion: yes, convention remains a powerful force that shapes most academic writing. But within every discipline there is latitude for and actual published examples of good, interesting, stylish writing.
Profile Image for Carmen.
22 reviews
July 25, 2021
The negative reviews are an absolute mystery to me. This book offers:

1) enlightened and detailed analyses of excellent and bad writing throughout various disciplines
2) concrete and original advice and prompts for your own writing
3) all of which is based on a study of the writing style in academic journals that the writer herself conducted *plus* on an analysis of the advice given in a number of writing guides.

At the same time it's extremely well written, creatively structured, and in itself an example of the same good writing habits that the author pleads for. I have to add, it took me much longer to finish it than I had expected, because it's so dense in input.

If you're thinking about getting a guide for academic writing: get this book instead.
Profile Image for Garrett.
6 reviews2 followers
August 1, 2017
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. As a graduate student in biology, I'm constantly struggling to find my voice in an objectively driven writing world. Sward does a great job at highlighting the how stylish academic writers can still be engaging and educational at the same time. It was actually difficult to get through the book because ideas for my own research writing kept bubbling up. The tips and tricks at the end of each chapter are often simple exercises to help expand your own writing style.

I recommend this book to any academic writer —especially those in the hard sciences— looking to add voice, substance, or inspiration to a typically dry writing style.
Profile Image for Jules.
92 reviews62 followers
December 24, 2019
The Sword is mightier than the pen.

Helen Sword demystifies the rules around academic writing and shares thoughts on how those assumptions have come to be. Sword has a beautiful way of coaching the reader to understand the intention of their writings. The book begins with some digestible research across multiple disciplines. She share some clear metrics to help the academic writer see the trends in their silo. I was moved by her arguments for accessible writing as a way of bringing the academy together.

The chapters flow from academic culture to how writing resources are informed. Sword does an excellent job showcasing the conventions and offers some opportunities to innovate. I was impressed by the spotlights that demonstrate how to assembly of stylish academic writing. A fantastic book with lots of great resources.
Profile Image for Yassir Morsi.
Author 4 books56 followers
August 10, 2022
Helen Sword claims Stylish Academic Writing is “at best an oxymoron and at worst a risky business”. So why should academics accessorise their "research with gratuitous stylistic flourishes?" In Stylish Academic Writing, Sword defends the claim “that elegant ideas deserve elegant expression”. And “intellectual creativity thrives best in an atmosphere of experimentation rather than conformity”.

I enjoyed the book, as an academic who long resisted both the “Academese” and “Westernese” that crippled my discipline (politics). These two terms capture how too often, social scientists are expected to use approved Western secular jargon as advertising both their brand and entry into an intellectual club.

This book showcases the work of academic writers from across disciplines who stretch and break disciplinary moulds. Highly recommended for any academic who struggles with writing in an inauthentic voice.

Profile Image for Alex Kissling.
9 reviews1 follower
December 5, 2019
3.5- some good examples but a lot about rejecting conventional structure that I didn’t necessarily agree with. However, I really liked her examples of how to explain abstract ideas in more concrete ways.
Profile Image for Marleen.
34 reviews
July 22, 2019
Wonderfully written with lots of examples and suggestions. Loved the "things to try" at the end of the chapters.
Profile Image for Shane Williamson.
148 reviews34 followers
February 25, 2023
2022 reads: 25

Rating: 3.5 stars

Helen Sword’s Stylish Academic Writing is concerned with the dry, dreary and dull prose that a lot of academic writing is unfortunately known for. The book details her own research into various journals and articles across a variety of disciplines, seeking to expose patterns of language use, both good and bad. Sword dedicates a chapter to several ways in which academic literature can and should be ‘stylish’, that is, elegant, creative, and experimental. Her critiques center on typical academic behaviors: the passive voice, clunky sentences, jargon, and a lack of human experience, just to name a few. These critiques are contrasted with exemplary models, showcasing how academic writing can engage its readers with craft and creativity.

Sword’s fairly brief ‘how-to’ accomplishes her purposes in inviting authors to improve their academic writing. A real strength of the book is its obvious research across many fields of inquiry. Again and again the evidence points to this reality: good writing is achievable no matter which discipline. Another great strength of the book is its critique of long-held beliefs in academia that neutrality is achievable, that objectivity is our goal, and that creativity and critical thinking are at odds. Stylish Academic Writing could perhaps have some chapters combined so as to shorten its length and further its rhetorical force.

I greatly enjoyed this read and was challenged in my own writing right away. I saw myself in many of her critiques, and so will use this resource again and again in seeking to sharpen my writing skills. I personally tend toward the passive voice, avoid anecdotes, and do not utilize narratives as I ought. Sword’s tone was also encouraging and inviting, further making its argument worth indulging. As those who hope to speak gospel truths in academia, why would we not want to incarnate our words with pictures, experience and creativity?  

[Read for the Graduate Research Seminar at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary]
Profile Image for Joe.
532 reviews
July 20, 2012
An intriguing blend of research, advice, and cheerleading. Sword is interested in the range of stylistic choices open to academic writers—and why they so seldom take advantage of them. She conducts four kinds of research: (1) a survey of what colleagues see as stylish writing in their fields, (2) an analysis of about 100 books mentioned by them as stylish, (3) an analysis of 1000 typical articles across disciplines, and (4) an analysis of the advice given by authors of style manuals. Oddly, though, this ambitious research program only gets about 1/3 of the pages in her book; the rest is devoted to fairly familiar advice about writing concrete, jargon-free prose. Too bad. But still, a much more interesting book on style than usual. I read it in a single sitting.
Profile Image for Olivier.
69 reviews9 followers
September 29, 2012
This is not really an academic style manual. Rather than presenting a list of "tips" and recommendations, it presents examples of "good" writing by writers from all areas of science. The author, a researcher in higher education, has indeed compiled a huge database of articles from dozens of fields of science and tried to appraise their stylistic canons. The book is structured in short and engaging chapters each dealing with a specific issue (the title, the structure, creativity,...) and followed by a few "exercices" to improve one's style. After finishing this book, writing an academic paper seems more pleasurable as I am tempted to apply all I learnt from this book.
Profile Image for Naeem.
384 reviews228 followers
June 24, 2012
First, just read it. It is very well written (has to be, right?) and short.

Second, I think Sword is trying to free us to explore the gap between our daily persona and our academic self. You know: that self that is naturally vibrant, humorous,and gleeful vs. the academic drone we academics become. She frees us to inject a sense of fun and passion in our prose by providing examples, exercises, and arguments. And, she shows us the technical requirements of good writing. I hope to read this book every six months.

Good stuff.

Profile Image for Elizabeth.
938 reviews
September 11, 2012
This is one of the best writing guides I've ever read, not only for usefully chronicling the trends of academic writing in several disciplines, but for its useful and pragmatic suggestions (compiled at the end of each chapter) for how to incorporate the author's lessons into writing practices. The suggestions range from the pragmatic to the creative, but all are practical ideas that, if implemented, would greatly contribute to the quality of writing in the academy. Do I think this will happen? Never. Do I hope to try it myself and encourage students to do the same? Absolutely.
Profile Image for Jennifer.
165 reviews30 followers
April 24, 2019
Engaging and helpful, filled with examples that illustrate both the suggested techniques and possible pitfalls Sword discusses.
Profile Image for Scott Pearson.
532 reviews18 followers
January 15, 2022
Academic writing has a reputation for being a bit dry and only interested in the dissemination of abstract information. Concreteness, style, and vivacity often fall to the wayside. As Sword points out, much of this dryness is due to social structures, not deliberate mastery of the craft. This book teaches how to bring a sense of style to academic writing without compromising its informational purposes.

By examining 1,000 academic papers in ten different fields, Sword compiles a list of examples of good and bad practices. The style of writing is often dependent on one’s field of study. This style, in turn, is enforced culturally by educators and institutionally by editors of journals. Fortunately, by Sword’s analysis, many journals allow and encourage a lucid style. Why then does such a dry style persist among so many writers? People have been told, over and over again, that “this is just how it is.” Or they have been discouraged from taking risks by one or two people on dissertation or tenure committees.

Sword hopes to free us writers from those shadowy shackles by showing little ways to make communication more effective. There’s no inherent rule that academic writing has to be dry, and overly abstract writing is simply ineffective and bad, not helpful. Not every writer will feel freedom to try every suggested tool, but every reader should be able to come away with some new approach to try out. The biggest obstacles cited are fear and anxiety. The ten very different fields examined demonstrate style can be found everywhere – if we only would have the verve to use it.

The biggest shortcoming of this book lies in its format. I listened to it as an audiobook and found myself wanting to consult the examples visually. Many tangential pericopes fill the text – usually a good feature – but these were hard to follow audibly. I suspect reading the print version would solve this problem squarely.

Obviously, this book seeks to address communicators across many fields who write for academic audiences. Those who write for popular journals or newspapers may find this book of limited use. By using abundant examples, Sword’s study seeks to be relevant to basic sciences like medicine as much as the social sciences or even the humanities. When not used to excess but still not eschewed, style facilitates communication and makes academic studies full of more intrinsic impact. Though immensely important, academic words can lose lingering power by becoming drier than they have to be, but Sword teaches how to resuscitate them back to life.
Profile Image for Colin Cox.
422 reviews7 followers
May 2, 2019
A spectre is haunting academia—the spectre of clarity. All the powers of the old Ivory Tower have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this specter: Editor and Department Chair, Tenure-Track Professor and Ph.D. Candidate, yadda yadda yadda.

Stylish Academic Writing is a fine book even if far too much of it seems obvious. Funnily enough, the obviousness of Sword's book is precisely her point: academia knows it writes poorly and encourages poor writing, yet it fails to act. Swords offers several explanations for academia's lack of action: stale traditions, stubborn gatekeepers, and myopic individual interests, just to name a few. But as I read it, Sword believes that academia's inability to reflect, self assess, and evolve further exacerbates many of these problems. There are reasons to challenge Sword here. My department, for example, is riddled with self-assessment opportunities. My experience, like anyone's, is limited, but I cannot think of an academic who yearns for more self-assessment opportunities. Plus, disseminating academic writing to large audiences is hard. While sites like Academia.edu allow academics to distribute their work freely, paywalls are a cumbersome obstacle that reinforces certain divisions between scholars and the public, which in turn, might reinforce certain poor-writing practices.

Chapter 8, "The Story Net," is easily my favorite chapter in the book. Here, Sword encourages her reader to think of academic work as "a favorite book or movie" and to "distill its plot into a single sentence, and imagine what would happen if you plotted your research story along the same lines" (97). It's interesting to imagine "two seemingly incompatible theoretical concepts...brought into a single conceptual space" as a research project version of Pride and Prejudice (97-98). There is nothing new about pitting two conflicting ideas against one another, but Sword's framing of this process feels new. Plus, it potentially promotes interdisciplinary relationships. Would an economist or sociologist find clarity in thinking of their work as a non-fiction, researched-based appropriation of Pride and Prejudice? Sword seems to think so, and it undoubtedly cuts the other way.

There are moments to skip and skim in Stylish Academic Writing, but it's short and worth an afternoon of any academic's time.
Profile Image for Anson Cassel Mills.
562 reviews8 followers
June 17, 2019
Sword’s advice for writing better academic prose isn’t novel, but it’s sound. As have other writing manuals, she urges scholars to reduce their adverbs, passives, “be” verbs, abstractions, nominalizations, prepositional phrases, and demonstrative pronouns. Her online diagnostic tool, “WritersDiet,” is an amusing way of becoming more aware of one’s own participation in the leaden style authorized by the academy.

Sword’s book also provides examples of good scholarly prose, some truly stylish and others at least acceptable, if not rousing. Sword herself writes well enough, though many of her sentences might be tweaked and tightened. For instance, the following paragraph (112) is both clear and amusing:

“Every discipline has its own specialized language, its membership rites, its secret handshake. I remember the moment when, as a PhD student in comparative literature, I casually dropped phrase “psychosexual morphology” into a discussion of a Thomas Hardy novel. What power! From the professor’s approving nod and the envious shuffling of my fellow students around the seminar table, I knew that I had just flashed the golden badge that admitted me into an elite disciplinary community. Needless to say, my new party trick fell flat on my nonacademic friends and relations. Whenever I solemnly intoned the word `Foucauldian,’ they quickly went off to find another beer.” (106 words)

Still, it could be tightened:

“Every discipline has its own specialized language, its secret code. When, as a PhD student in comparative literature, I casually dropped the phrase “psychosexual morphology” into a discussion of a Thomas Hardy novel, the professor’s approving nod and the envious shuffling of fellow students revealed that I had been welcomed into an elite academic community. Needless to say, the same trick did not work with non-academics. Solemnly intoning the word `Foucauldian’ sent them off after another beer.” (77 words)

As a historian, I think my real problem with this book is that I don’t want to write stylish academic prose. I want to write like David McCullough and Ron Chernow.

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