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Helen Sword's brilliant little volume is in many respects the ideal companion to Stephen J. Pyne's equally brilliant Voice and Vision: A Guide to Writing History and Other Serious Non-Fiction (Harvard) and equally deserving of a wider audience than its target group, which in this case comprises those academics who either write or have to put up with "impersonal, stodgy, jargon-laden, abstract prose." As Sword writes: "Elegant data and ideas deserve elegant expression." Featuring oodles of ideas and tips backed up by lashings of original research and bursting to the seams with case studies exemplifying the good, the bad and the ugly of academic writing ("via a symbolic interactionist lens" is one such monster), this is a must for writers in any discipline.
— William Yeoman
[Sword's] counsel is wise, efficiently written, and infectiously winsome. She advises academic writers to use anecdotes and carefully chosen metaphors, and to write opening sentences that encourage readers to keep reading. She has drawn from a massive array of academic articles (more than a thousand) and given particular attention to authors known for writing readable material...Helen Sword's book contains much wisdom...Stylish Academic Writing contains superb counsel for academics who want to write with greater clarity and skill.
— Barton Swaim
[A] practical and useful book.
— Colin Steele
Chapter 7: Hooks and Sinkers
We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like “I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive...” And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: “Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?”
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:
[Medicine] 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 the approach-related emotion, anger, whereas the right prefrontal area is associated with the withdrawal-related emotion, anxiety.
Of course, we all know that scientific researchers are supposed to be concerned with serious, sober matters such as frontal brain asymmetry, not with drug-fuelled road trips and hallucinated bats. (The actual title of the article quoted above, by the way, is “Anticipatory anxiety-induced changes in human lateral prefrontal cortex activity”). All the same, academics who care about good writing could do worse than to study the opening moves of novelists and journalists, who generally know a thing or two about how to capture an audience’s attention.
Not every engaging academic book, article, or chapter begins with an opening hook, but a striking number of them do. Stylish writers understand that if you are still reading three pages later, they have probably got you for the long haul. By contrast, nothing sinks a piece of prose more efficiently than a leaden first paragraph. In the sciences and social sciences, researchers frequently follow a four-step rhetorical sequence identified by John Swales as “Creating a Research Space,” or CARS:
• Move 1: Establish that your particular area of research has some significance.
• Move 2: Selectively summarize the relevant previous research.
• Move 3: Show that the reported research is not complete.
• Move 4: Turn the gap into the research space for the present article.
Part I Style and Substance
1 Rules of Engagement 3
2 On Being Disciplined 12
3 A Guide to the Style Guides 23
Part II The Elements of Stylishness
4 Voice and Echo 35
5 Smart Sentencing 48
6 Tempting Titles 63
7 Hooks and Sinkers 76
8 The Story Net 87
9 Show and Tell 99
10 Jargonitis 112
11 Structural Designs 122
12 Points of Reference 135
13 The Big Picture 147
14 The Creative Touch 159
Afterword: Becoming a Stylish Writer 173