26 Jun 2012

Stylish Academic Writing - Helen Sword (Review)

When writing a review of a book about elegant expression it is difficult not to feel instantly self-conscious of your own stylistic weaknesses, which are all too readily picked out by the fine-tooth comb of Helen Sword’s Stylish Academic Writing. However, thankfully the author’s analysis is not so much concerned with highlighting the flaws of others, but rather in raising the question: if convention should not constrain academic thought, why should it be allowed to dictate the style of academic writing?

Of course, this is not to suggest that authors should start overloading papers with creative and colloquial language, but perhaps to keep in mind that for everything, there is a time and a place. Sword likens this idea to the contrast between a researcher explaining an idea over coffee, perhaps sketching out diagrams loosely on a serviette, and listening to a monotonous PowerPoint presentation. The difference is clear: engagement. It is true that a more creative, stylish approach may not appeal to every reader, or indeed play to every writer’s strengths. However, it should not be the case that research is not taken seriously unless expressed in passive, dry and esoteric tones. The argument that “I write that way because I have to” should not be the reason offered, Sword argues.

Her survey of the relative frequency of various stylistic attributes across disciplines may be enough to make some historians (the use of first-person pronouns!) or medics (engaging title!) shut their eyes and plug their ears. Style, after all, is a subjective attribute. However, Sword also draws on three key principles which are pretty much universally accepted as being hallmarks of good writing: using concrete nouns and vivid verbs rather than abstract terminology, keeping both close together within the sentence, and avoiding weighing down sentences with needless “clutter”. Tight writing is something I always enjoy reading, and I believe there is great beauty in the efficient use of language. However I often forget this when writing myself, and Sword’s book serves as a useful reminder in this context: Do I really need that adjective? What is the value to the reader in using such an abstract noun?

Spotlight on Style callouts highlight the approach of selected researchers who are noted for their engaging prose. These examples tend to be largely drawn from the broad spheres of the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, where it is perhaps ‘easier’ or more acceptable to be more creative in your expression; it is disappointing that there are limited examples from more technical or scientific disciplines. The importance of paying attention to your audience – a hidden but essential component of stylish writing – is openly addressed throughout. Some of her tips - like using imperative verbs or the second person pronoun, you, to establish a bond with your readers, or penning more imaginative titles to make your papers attract an audience - are useful take home points which are easy to pick up on and incorporate. A Things to Try section at the end of each chapter challenges readers to consider how they currently write, and how they might change their approach in the future. The tone is very much ‘try it and see, you can always go back’. Good writing is a continuous learning process, and one with no right (write? :)) answer.

There is an awful lot to digest here - perhaps too much; it is not the kind of book that is easy to read from cover to cover. Even a few lines can provide much food for thought and demand re-reading to fully absorb the stylistic nuances and contrasts imbued within. There is great subtlety in good writing. Indeed arguably the best writing should never make you think about how it was written, and so to force yourself to deconstruct vivid and effortless prose can be extremely challenging at times. Fortunately however, Sword generally practices what she preaches. A book about academic writing should not, by convention, be particularly entertaining, but by peppering the text with illustrative anecdotes she lights up the dull task of reading about writing. It is this which makes the struggle at times ultimately worth the effort.

Stylish Academic Writing by Helen Sword is published by Harvard University Press, April 2012, £16.95. Helen Sword also maintains the Writer's Diet (resources for writers) website.


Post a Comment