Elegant data and ideas deserve elegant expression, argues Helen Sword in this lively guide to academic writing. For scholars frustrated with disciplinary conventions, and for specialists who want to write for a larger audience but are unsure where to begin, here are imaginative, practical, witty pointers that show how to make articles and books a pleasure to readand to write.
Dispelling the myth that you cannot get published without writing wordy, impersonal prose, Sword shows how much journal editors and readers welcome work that avoids excessive jargon and abstraction. Sword’s analysis of more than a thousand peer-reviewed articles across a wide range of fields documents a startling gap between how academics typically describe good writing and the turgid prose they regularly produce.
Stylish Academic Writing showcases a range of scholars from the sciences, humanities, and social sciences who write with vividness and panache. Individual chapters take up specific elements of style, such as titles and headings, chapter openings, and structure, and close with examples of transferable techniques that any writer can master.
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About the Author
Helen Sword is Professor and Director of the Centre for Learning and Research in Higher Education at the University of Auckland.
Read an Excerpt
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.
Table of Contents
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
What People are Saying About This
Occasionally the tedium of reading an unending supply of poorly written manuscripts is upended by a cogent, well-written, piece. Helen Sword details why this is so prevalent and offers sage advice to beginning—and even senior—researchers on how to avoid dulling academic prose. I take her advice to heart. I hope to change my numerous bad habits and I dearly wish those submitting manuscripts would read this book.
Rick K. Wilson, Editor, American Journal of Political Science
Stylish Academic Writing challenges academics to make their work more consequential by communicating more clearly—and provides helpful hints and models for doing so. This is a well-crafted and valuable contribution that combines substance with style.
Arne L. Kalleberg, Editor, Social Forces
As an academic—staff or student—wouldn't you like people to enjoy reading your work? In Stylish Academic Writing, Helen Sword offers dozens of suggestions as to how you might improve your work, get your argument across in a more appealing manner, and attract more readers. We can all learn something useful from this book, and it won't involve a lot of effort.
Malcolm Tight, Editor, Studies in Higher Education