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Career Advice

Academic writing: stylish, not sloppy

Express complex ideas clearly and elegantly.


My new colleague and I are in the office, enthusiastically talking about how much we love to read. John, an undergraduate student we are supervising, overhears our conversation and asks, “Journals?” His expression reveals that he’s not kidding. So, instead of rolling my eyes or making a snarky remark, I simply reply, “No, novels”.

Had I not been mentoring John as an undergraduate research student, I might have been more honest with him about my dislike of academic writing, the bulk of which I find dull, impersonal, and jargon-laden. Plus, it irks me that most academic writing violates even the most fundamental stylistic principles generally endorsed in books on effective writing.

You don’t agree – or you do, and want ammunition to back your claim? Then, I urge you to read Stylish Academic Writing (2012). In this well-researched, beautifully written, and often amusing book, Helen Sword draws from interviews, books and articles by exemplary writers from across disciplines, and writing guides, to make the case that “there is a massive gap between what most readers consider to be good writing and what academics typically produce and publish”. After effectively proving this to be true in Part 1, Sword offers, in Part 2, practical advice which focuses on elements of stylish writing, such as “tempting titles,” “show and tell,” “jargonitis” and “the creative touch.”

Instead of attempting to summarize Sword’s work, I will share with you several ideas, from this book that I particularly appreciated. Stylish academic writers, she says:

  • “Look beyond their disciplinary barricades and learn what colleagues in other fields are up to.” Sword urges us to read texts from outside our discipline so that we may “question, vary and augment” the style that dominates our field. When we cross disciplinary boundaries, we may learn other ways of writing, and choose to deviate from existing conventions. But doing so takes courage.
  • Experiment and are creative. Though writers should construct sentences that are clear, coherent and concise, they should not feel obliged to follow rigid rules. Sword, who analyzed 100 recently published writing guides, found that these guides offer unanimous advice on six points of style (such as clarity and varying sentence length), but have inconsistent recommendations on six others (like the use of the personal voice or jargon). These findings have prompted me to interrogate existing “writing rules” and encouraged me to be more imaginative in my writing.
  • Read about writing. I like this advice because it entitles me to claim, proudly, that I’ve done one thing right! Ever since graduate school, I have been fascinated, and somewhat baffled by academic writing and the push to publish. As a result, I have read a number of books on writing. In addition to Sword’s book, my favourites include: Bird by Bird (A. Lamott); How to Write a Lot (P. Silvia) and; Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day (J. Bolker).
  • Convey excitement for their research. Academic writers are, of course, individuals who are deeply committed to and excited about their work. Stylish writers transmit this enthusiasm to their readers by using vivid vocabulary, compelling stories, memorable metaphors, and effective illustrations. They use engaging and informative titles that may provoke or amuse their audience. They do not succumb to writing dreary, incomprehensible prose, teeming with never-ending sentences and jargon.
  • Remember their purpose. As researchers, we often seek to effect change by communicating new knowledge to our audience. As stylish writers, we keep this purpose in mind as we concoct ways to persuasively and effectively advance our argument and present our study findings. We use the personal voice to connect with our readers because we know that one of most powerful communication tools at our disposal is the human touch.

I have a long way to go in my pursuit of stylishness; yet every step I take towards reaching that goal brings me a sense of satisfaction. Sword’s book is an excellent reference guide for academics who aspire to enhance their writing. Not only is it full of sage advice and enlightening examples from across disciplines, but every chapter ends with “things to try”, a punchy list activities and ideas that are fun and doable.

I’ll close this plug for writing well in academia with a quote by Rachel Toor, who observed that, “Complaining about bad academic prose is like discussing the weather: talk, talk, talk, and no one does anything.”

If you would like to do something, I enthusiastically recommend Stylish Academic Writing by Dr. Helen Sword.

Isabeau Iqbal is an educational developer in the faculty of pharmaceutical sciences at the University of British Columbia.

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  1. SC / February 18, 2014 at 16:49

    Short, simple sentences. Minimal use of adjectives. Limited jargon. Bullet points over over long-winded sentences.

    Keep it short, simple and snappy…. and that’s often enough! Just my opinion.