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Stylish Academic Writing

Stylish Academic Writing

Helen Sword
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Harvard University Press
Pages: 238
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  • Book Info
    Stylish Academic Writing
    Book Description:

    Elegant ideas deserve elegant expression. Sword dispels the myth that you can’t get published without writing wordy, impersonal prose. For scholars frustrated with disciplinary conventions or eager to write for a larger audience, here are imaginative, practical, witty pointers that show how to make articles and books enjoyable to read—and to write.

    eISBN: 978-0-674-06509-3
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Education

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. Part I: Style and Substance

      (pp. 3-11)

      Pick up any guide to effective writing and what will you find? Probably some version of the advice that Strunk and White offered more than half a century ago in their classic book The Elements of Style: always use clear, precise language, even when expressing complex ideas; engage your reader’s attention through examples, illustrations, and anecdotes; avoid opaque jargon; vary your vocabulary, sentence length, and frames of reference; favor active verbs and concrete nouns; write with conviction, passion, and verve.¹

      Pick up a peer-reviewed journal in just about any academic discipline and what will you find? Impersonal, stodgy, jargon-laden, abstract...

      (pp. 12-22)

      To enter an academic discipline is to become disciplined: trained to habits of order through corrections and chastisements that are “assumed to be salutary” by one’s teachers. Scholarly commentators have variously alluded to the academic disciplines as “silos,” “barricades,” “ghettos,” and “black boxes,” using metaphors of containment that implicitly critique the intellectual constraints imposed by disciplinary structures.² Yet disciplinarity remains a robust and even sacred concept. University of California chancellor Clark Kerr is said to have described the mid-twentieth-century research university as “a series of individual faculty entrepreneurs held together by a common grievance over parking,” and his censure still...

      (pp. 23-32)

      Academic writing, like university teaching, is what sociologist Paul Trowler calls a “recurrent practice,” one of the many routine tasks that most academics perform “habitually and in an unconsidered way,” with little thought as to how or why things might be done differently: “It is simply taken for granted that this is what we do around here.”¹ In recent years, with the advent of Preparing Future Faculty programs in the United States and faculty teaching certificates elsewhere, pedagogical training for academics has become something less of a novelty than it used to be. However, many early career academics still experience...

  4. Part II: The Elements of Stylishness

      (pp. 35-47)

      Think of an academic writer whose work you particularly admire. Most likely you will choose someone whose words convey passion and commitment, whose writing engages you in a direct and visceral way; you feel as though this person is chatting with you over a cup of coffee, perhaps sketching diagrams on a napkin to illustrate a point, rather than lecturing to you in a monotonous voice from a computer printout or PowerPoint screen. Now think of an academic whose writing you find hard to digest, even if his or her ideas are perfectly sound. In nine cases out of ten,...

      (pp. 48-62)

      A carefully crafted sentence welcomes its reader like a comfortable rocking chair, bears its reader across chasms like a suspension bridge, and helps its reader navigate tricky terrain like a well-hewn walking stick. A poorly crafted or uncrafted sentence, on the other hand, functions more like a shapeless log tossed into a river: it might or might not help you get to the other side, depending on how strong the current is and how hard you are willing to kick. And sometimes the reader of an academic text has to kick very hard indeed:

      These deconstructive and theorising inputs to...

      (pp. 63-75)

      Like a hat on a head or the front door to a house, the title of an academic article offers a powerful first impression. Is the title dry, technical, straightforward? Most likely, the author’s main goal is to transmit research data as efficiently as possible. Does the title contain opaque disciplinary jargon? Perhaps the author unconsciously hopes to impress us, whether by appealing to a shared expertise (“You and I are members of an exclusive club”) or by reminding us of our ignorance (“If you can’t even understand my title, don’t bother reading any further”). Is the title amusing, intriguing,...

      (pp. 76-86)

      If the drug trip described in the opening lines of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas had transported Hunter S. Thompson beyond the California desert to the even more bizarre and alien landscape of academe, his account might instead be titled Hallucinogen-Induced Anxiety Disorders and Revulsion Responses in a Southwestern Gambling-Oriented Locality: A Qualitative Study, and the first few sentences would read something like this:

      It has been suggested that frontal brain asymmetry (FBA) is associated with differences in fundamental dimensions of emotion (Davidson, 2002). According to the directional model of negative affect, the left prefrontal cortex is associated with...

      (pp. 87-98)

      A carefully woven opening paragraph will catch no readers if, on the very next page, you slacken the net and let all the fish go. Stylish writers know the importance of sustaining a compelling story rather than merely sprinkling isolated anecdotes throughout an otherwise sagging narrative. A book or article that supplies no suspense, no narrative arc, and no sense of moving from A to B will not hold the reader’s attention nearly as effectively as an article plotted, even at the most subtle level, like a good thriller (“What will happen next?”) or a mystery novel (“What clues will...

      (pp. 99-111)

      “Show, don’t tell” is the mantra of the novelist, dramatist, and poet. Creative writers learn to convey key emotional information by means of physical details: the storyteller invokes primal terror by spinning a tale about a child alone in a dark forest; the poet represents the whole history of human grief with “an empty doorway and a maple leaf.”¹ “Show and tell,” in contrast, is the mantra of the stylish academic writer, who illuminates abstract ideas by grounding theory in practice and by anchoring abstract concepts in the real world.

      As a starting point, nearly all stylish academic writers ply...

      (pp. 112-121)

      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 the 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...

      (pp. 122-134)

      Essayist Annie Dillard describes writing as an architectural endeavor, a continuous cycle of design, demolition, and rebuilding. Sentences are the bricks; paragraphs are the walls and windows:

      Some of the walls are bearing walls; they have to stay, or everything will fall down. Other walls can go with impunity. . . . Unfortunately, it is often a bearing wall that has to go. It cannot be helped. There is only one solution, which appalls you, but there it is. Knock it out. Duck.¹

      Dillard’s metaphor strikes at the emotional heart of the writing process, which involves destruction as well as...

      (pp. 135-146)

      What do citation styles have to do with stylishness? Everything. How we cite influences how we write, from the minutiae of bibliographic forms to the big picture of how we respond to and acknowledge other people’s work. Academic authors do no favors to themselves or their readers if they neglect to give credit where credit is due. At the same time, however, a book or article weighed down by awkwardly placed parenthetical citations and ponderous footnotes will probably be less readable, less engaging, and ultimately less persuasive than a piece of writing that wears its scholarly apparatus lightly.

      Many commentators...

      (pp. 147-158)

      If you ask a roomful of academics to characterize stylish academic writing, at least a few will inevitably reply that the authors they most admire are those who “express complex ideas clearly.” Some might embellish the point, noting that stylish academic writers express complex ideas clearly and succinctly, clearly and elegantly, clearly and engagingly, or clearly and persuasively. Others will propose variations, stating that stylish academic writers express complex ideas in language that aids the reader’s understanding or challenges the reader’s understanding or extends the reader’s understanding. Central to all these definitions, despite their differing nuances, is the elusive art...

      (pp. 159-172)

      Take a gamine teenager, dress her in a sheath frock and elbow-length gloves, thrust a cigarette holder into her hand, and still she will not look like Audrey Hepburn. Some elements of stylishness defy definition or imitation, no matter how hard we try. As novelist Willa Cather puts it:

      The qualities of a first-rate writer cannot be defined, but only experienced. It is just the thing in him which escapes analysis that makes him first-rate. One can catalogue all the qualities that he shares with other writers, but the thing that is his very own, his timbre, this cannot be...

    (pp. 173-176)

    Disciplinary styles constantly shift and evolve: half a century from now, perhaps historians will have embraced personal pronouns and evolutionary biologists will have rejected them, rather than vice versa. Yet some principles of good writing remain timeless. In the preface, I note that all stylish academic writers hold three ideals in common: communication, craft, and creativity. Communication implies respect for one’s audience; craft, respect for language; creativity, respect for academic endeavor. In closing, I would like to add three further Cs: concreteness, choice, and courage. Concreteness is a verbal technique; choice, an intellectual right; courage, a frame of mind. Together,...

    (pp. 177-182)
  7. NOTES
    (pp. 183-198)
    (pp. 199-212)
    (pp. 213-216)
  10. INDEX
    (pp. 217-220)