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Stylish Academic Writing

4.05  ·  Rating details ·  710 ratings  ·  93 reviews
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 wr ...more
Hardcover, 220 pages
Published April 2012 by Harvard University Press
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Average rating 4.05  · 
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Michael Meeuwis
Feb 21, 2014 rated it it was ok
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 pro ...more
Tara Brabazon
Jan 29, 2020 rated it it was amazing
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 o
Jan 22, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
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 scho ...more
Nov 23, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2014-reads
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 writin
Apr 08, 2013 rated it liked it
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, usi ...more
Aug 06, 2013 rated it liked it
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 consider
Mar 24, 2013 rated it did not like it
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 los
Feb 26, 2014 rated it really liked it
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
Jessica Zu
Jan 07, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: leisure, howtowrite
Strongly recommend to any academics who wants real people to read and care about their research.
Henrique Maia
Jun 17, 2018 rated it liked it
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 coveri
Dec 23, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: leadership
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 t
Alex Kissling
Dec 05, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: writing
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.
Nov 21, 2018 rated it liked it
Yes! Why can't academic texts be readable! ...more
Wagner Floriani
Jan 14, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Excellent guidance. Beautifully expressed. Will revisit often!
Jul 21, 2019 rated it really liked it
Wonderfully written with lots of examples and suggestions. Loved the "things to try" at the end of the chapters. ...more
Jul 19, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: writing
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, thou ...more
Jul 05, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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 ...more
Sep 29, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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 ...more
Jun 24, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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 ev
Sep 11, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 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? N ...more
Apr 24, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Engaging and helpful, filled with examples that illustrate both the suggested techniques and possible pitfalls Sword discusses.
Colin Cox
May 02, 2019 rated it liked it
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 sever
Anson Cassel Mills
Jun 17, 2019 rated it really liked it
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 ot
Jul 22, 2019 rated it did not like it
I started this book and had to stop 5 chapters in. It is rife with poor linguistic analyses. Moreover, the author does not seem to have the training or skill to about language objectively and accurately.

As an example, the author continually bemoans the use of the copular verb "to be." At one point, they admonish the sentence "Nondeterminacy is a fundamental notion of computing with many important roles" for lacking an agent. Not all sentences need agents, or else every sentence would necessarily
Oct 02, 2020 rated it really liked it
For a professor, reading journal articles is like eating your vegetables - good for you, but not always a lot of fun. When I write journal articles, I always dread the possibility that I might add to the pile of unreadable scholarship out there. Fortunately, Helen Sword’s Stylish Academic Writing shows us that we don’t have to settle for boring articles.

Though I really like this book, it gets off to a slow start. In the first few chapters, Sword provides a mildly-interesting overview of the qual
James Korsmo
Oct 02, 2018 rated it really liked it
This book is definitely targeted at academic authors. But it is full of careful advice. Sword has done extensive research in to the writing practices of academics, as reflected in journals as well as books. And she points out that academic writing, though it is often almost impenetrable, doesn't have to be. The best writing isn't. And academics too often feel like their discipline requires a writing style that is dense and unwelcoming. But she shows writers (and editors) how to seek clarity with ...more
Calum Best
Apr 14, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Helen Sword forcefully lays out her prescriptions for academic writing. She is warm and useful, an expert at ripping apart the pedantic drudgery of lesser writers. Lest you think your personal writing will escape a good roasting, let me assure you that it will not: You are a bug under the sun; the author is a magnifying glass.

If you’re not careful, you will come away from this book with scores of readily applicable methods with which to shred the old, bad you, and put in that pretender’s place a
Jan 29, 2021 rated it it was ok
If you're considering this book, I highly recommend reading Eric Hayot's The Elements of Academic Style: Writing for the Humanities instead, especially for those in literary/cultural studies. Sword wants to banish shoddy prose – a worthy goal – but her book does not explore the epistemological and political issues this entails in sufficient depth. Her survey of style guides is useful, but incomplete: if Sword situated her intervention in a longstanding conversation about college writing pedagogy ...more
Yohannes Fassika
Oct 23, 2018 rated it really liked it
The concepts in the previous book by the author "The Writer's diet" remain intact in this book. The overall purpose is to convey the message that stylish academic writing is not an oxymoron but rather something that can be applied if academic writers strive for clear and "lean" writings that are clear and understandable. A great read recommended as a reference to anyone interested in honing their writing skill. ...more
Joshua Reichard
Dec 22, 2018 rated it liked it
Sword does a decent job at communicating effective and polished writing in the academic world. But along with most books about writing, this one is much too long and full of example after example after example. This book could be boils down to 5 pages a chapter with two or three example at the end of each chapter. If that was the case then I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to improve their writing. But again because of the length it’s boring and much to repetitive.
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“academic writing is a process of making intelligent choices, not of following rigid rules.” 1 likes
“Stylish scholars, my colleagues told me, express complex ideas clearly and precisely; produce elegant, carefully crafted sentences; convey a sense of energy, intellectual commitment, and even passion; engage and hold their readers’ attention; tell a compelling story; avoid jargon, except where specialized terminology is essential to the argument; provide their readers with aesthetic and intellectual pleasure; and write with originality, imagination, and creative flair.” 0 likes
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