Keeping It Simple

Helen Sword, Stylish Academic Writing

Harvard University Press, 240pp, £16.95, ISBN 9780674064485

reviewed by Gareth Carrol

Everyone who has studied at university level will be aware that academic writing can, at times, be incredibly dense, esoteric and generally quite hard to read. This can present quite a challenge to students making their way in a field, but it also has implications for academia more generally. Over-formal, stodgily written reports, theses and journal articles can make individual disciplines quite closed, with the potential result that important research and findings that deserve a wide audience may instead be restricted only to those willing or able to wade through the quagmire of over-complex syntax and artificially imposed objectivity. In Stylish Academic Writing Helen Sword has a simple aim: to demonstrate that academics don’t have to be shackled to the conventions of particular disciplines, and that writers who have elegant ideas should be free to express themselves in a way that makes their work accessible, inspiring, and, above all, enjoyable.

As both a linguist and a fledgling PhD student myself, I approached this book with a real intrigue as to how my own writing could benefit from the tips, and more likely the pitfalls, that the author highlights throughout. She takes a rigorous approach to the subject, conducting an extensive analysis of articles from a wide variety of subjects and attempting to identify trends that characterise them. The results are surprising, in that they demonstrate probably more variety than might have been predicted. Still, they provide a valuable starting point from which to address a number of problems that can render any piece of writing unnecessarily effortful for the reader.

A lot of the advice that follows is reassuringly simple and easy to apply. For example, Sword outlines the merits of allowing authorial voice to come through in your writing. This can be achieved through the simple technique of not eschewing the personal pronoun as many academic writers seem to do, often contriving quite awkward ways to do so by utilising passivised or nominalised sentences and abstract subjects (such as ‘An experiment was conducted’ rather than the simpler and more striking ‘I conducted an experiment’). Personal engagement can also be achieved through more imaginative means, for example by using well-chosen anecdotes to exemplify complex ideas, or even directly addressing the reader using provocative questions and statements.

Sword offers simple advice on sentence composition: for any sentence you construct, just ask yourself, in the words of expert on style and rhetoric Richard Lanham, ‘Who’s kicking whom?’ If you can’t answer that question easily, you can’t expect your readers to unravel it either. She also offers advice on inventive and evocative titles (Chapter 6: Tempting Titles) and engaging, personality-laden openings (Chapter 7: Hooks and Sinkers) that help draw in a reader in the same way as a good novel would. Other advice is equally straightforward and easy to implement, such as using concrete examples wherever possible to help ground abstract concepts and avoiding the overuse of jargon where it is likely to act more as a barrier than a useful source of specialised descriptive vocabulary.

For all that is good about this book, however, it’s hard to fully agree with some of its underlying principles. While no-one could argue with some of the advice outlined above, the assumption that academics should strive to produce work that is accessible to everyone, no matter what their discipline or level of expert knowledge, is questionable. As Sword’s research shows, stodgy and over-complex academic writing is by no means the norm. Still, she does provide a good example early on of a very fruitful collaboration between an F1 pit team and a surgical unit, where the engineers were able to offer some valuable insights into more efficient procedures and methods of communication, so there is no doubt that an open mind to how others approach their work can potentially be of great benefit. In the main, however, the advice offered might be of most use to anyone wanting to traverse the gap between academia and more widespread non-fiction: witness, for example, the impressive growth of the popular science market in recent years.

One prevailing concern is addressed in the final chapter. As Sword points out, for many truly great writers, style is an intangible; it is not something that is taught or that can be learned easily, but is rather a level of creativity and imagination that few people are naturally blessed with. To talk of ‘stylish’ academic writing, therefore, is a different thing than to talk of clear, well-constructed, accessible writing. Tidying up bad habits is one thing, but how many academics would be able to (or necessarily want to!) imbue their work with the sort of vividness and imagination described here is a different question entirely. Still, there is much to admire in Helen Sword’s work; many of us will have experienced the type of dense, impersonal academic writing that she rightly condemns, but, as the author’s own analysis shows, there is significantly greater variation across all disciplines than might have been expected. For academic writers who feel obliged to employ overformal constructions and long, complicated sentences simply because they feel that this is how things are done in academia, Stylish Academic Writing provides a useful corrective, demonstrating that clarity of expression and just a hint of inventiveness and flexibility can go a long way.