Helen Sword: Stylish Academic Writing
Harvard University Press, 2012 £16.95
This is a guide for the willing. If you seriously want to make your thesis, dissertation, paper or journal article more readable, you'll find plenty of inspiration here.
“Elegant ideas,” says Helen Sword in the preface, “deserve elegant expression.” She subscribes firmly to the style-and-substance view of language, established by Aristotle with his distinction between logos (a text’s content) and lexis (its style), and Quintilian with his separation of res from verba. Erasmus would feel at home with this book.
Style, according to this approach, clothes ideas.
Ms Sword may be writing diplomatically. She carefully distances herself from any hint that poor writing might be a symptom of poor thinking. Academics, we infer, often have elegant ideas, but their efforts to communicate them clearly are sometimes thwarted by dark forces: the pressures of time, convention, tribalistic code-grooming within disciplines.
A few pages later, she adjusts her ambition. The book, she suggests, serves two types of writer: those who want to write engagingly and accessibly all the time; and “those who opt to cross that bridge only occasionally.”
Academic writing, then, doesn’t have to be stylish. Indeed, she tells us towards the close that writing stylishly can only begin with the writer choosing to write better.
Ms Sword’s book is welcome principally because it’s based on quantitative research. It adds to the work of Rudolf Flesch, Jakob Nielsen and others in seeking to establish objective, measurable criteria of readability.
Ms Sword took a four-stage approach.
First, she asked more than seventy academics to identify the characteristics of stylish academic writing. Their responses were surprisingly consistent: complex ideas expressed clearly and precisely; elegant, carefully crafted sentences; a sense of energy and intellectual commitment; the ability to hold the reader’s attention and tell a good story; and a disciplined approach to jargon.
Interestingly, in the second stage of her work, Ms Sword found that the writers who fulfilled these aims – some of them hard to measure or evaluate – used a relatively small number of specific techniques. In about 100 books and articles recommended to her, she found frequent instances of:
- eye-catching titles;
- first-person anecdotes;
- catchy opening paragraphs;
- concrete nouns;
- visual illustrations;
- lots of references to other work; and
Stage three: Ms Sword analysed one thousand articles from a wide range of disciplines, counting instances of these techniques.
Some of her findings are fascinating. Scientists, contrary to received opinion, often use the pronouns I and we – and are encouraged to do so by many journals in their fields. Historians, perhaps less surprisingly, used them more rarely. Top of the pack for abstract nouns? Higher education. And so on.
Finally, she examined one hundred writing guides, most of them aimed at PhD students and above. They tended to agree almost completely on the virtues of short sentences, active verbs, storytelling, plain English, precision, clarity, coherence and concision. They agreed less on the use of jargon, creative expression, engaging titles, non-standard structures or – that strain again – whether to use personal pronouns. Perhaps the most depressing insight about all these style guides is that most academics seem never to have read a single one of them. (Check out the records of withdrawals from your local university library.)
The rest of her book offers ways of improving our competence in each technique. Ms Sword suggests ‘Things to Try’ at the end of each chapter and, interspersed through the text, intriguing examples from writers she likes.
Two chapters in particular stand out – both, as it happens, on initially unpromising subjects.
The chapter on titles reminds us that academics often write, not to be read, but to be cited. Titles belong to what one theorist calls ‘paratext’: the zone of transition between text and non-text. Titles sell academic papers: by making a paper easily retrievable, they increase its chances of being referred to by others, and thus of increasing the author’s measurable reputation. In the economy of research references, what incentive does any academic have to write well?
But it's the chapter on citation systems that contains the real bombshell.
Sword quotes from an article by psychologists Richard Madigan, Susan Johnson and Patricia Linton, who declare that the American Psychological Association citation style “encapsulates the core values and epistemology” of the discipline. APA style teaches students, they say, to recast a complex human story into a “sanitized, rationalized account of the research”. As a result, in their words, language becomes a “somewhat unimportant container for information”.
All of which would seem to reinforce style-and-substance.
But then comes their final, shocking revelation: a student mastering APA citation style, they say, “comes not only to write like a psychologist but to think like one as well.”
With these words, the gaff is well and truly blown. Style-and-substance is a chimera. Thinking happens in language; the style of our expression delineates the very contours of our ideas.
Who’d have thought that something as innocuous as a citation method could reveal this truth so powerfully?
And that, finally, is why Stylish Academic Writing matters so much. An intellectual who can't write or speak clearly is an intellectual who can’t think clearly. And what kind of intellectual is that?