No, the title of this post is not an oxymoron. Academics can write with style. Some of us do. All of us should. In Stylish Academic Writing, Helen Sword offers advice for all who aspire to write with grace and economy. The book is smart, funny, and — even better — applicable beyond academe.
Many of us write the way our disciplines taught us to write, but, as Sword points out, there’s a good degree of variance within any given discipline. People don’t write articles all the same way. In every discipline, there’s room for creativity, space for departing from the formula. Writing bland, jargon-y prose is not the only way to get published. To quote Sword, “academic writing is a process of making intelligent choices, not following rigid rules” (30). That’s the key advice here. You can write well and get published in any discipline; the path to publication involves smart choices, not the strictures of jargon.
Here are six pieces of advice from her book:
- Open with something catchy: As Sword puts it, “recount an interesting story, ask a challenging question, dissect a problem” (8).
- Prefer active verbs to passive ones: no one likes sentences that erase human agency.
- As Richard Lanham famously asked, “Who’s kicking who?” That should be “Who’s kicking whom?,” but the point is sound: nouns and verbs form the backbone of a strong sentence. If your sentence construction obscures cause-and-effect, then rewrite it.
- Jargon for its own sake is lazy. Use it when it serves your purpose — as Sword notes, it’s a “highly efficient form of disciplinary shorthand” (117). That’s great. But don’t use it as a substitute for thought. Draw upon the insights of critical theory, philosophy, medicine, and any relevant discipline, but express those insights in clear, concrete prose.
- You don’t need to use long sentences all the time. Short ones are nice. Varying sentence lengths works well, too.
- Avoid extraneous words and phrases. As Sword writes, “Avoid using that more than once in a single sentence or about three times per paragraph, except in a parallel construction or for stylistic effect. Sentences that rely on subordinate clauses that in turn contain other clauses that introduce new ideas that distract from the main argument that the author is trying to make . . . well, you get the idea” (62).
From my earliest days as an academic, I’ve aspired to write clear sentences. So, in part, Sword’s book has (for me) affirmed what I’ve always tried to do. I know of course that (despite my efforts) I have written sentences that fall short of this goal. For that matter, I know that I will never be as deft a stylist as Martha Nussbaum, Louis Menand, or Robin Bernstein (to name a few academics who are also graceful writers), but I also know I can be better. Sword’s book can help us all be better.
This is why, since I started reading the book, I’ve been recommending it to my fellow academics. (To give credit where it’s due, Robin Bernstein’s Facebook post of the video below alerted me to Sword’s work.)
The Humanities need scholars who can communicate well. Our professional lives and the futures of our disciplines depend upon our ability to convey our ideas with clarity and grace to legislators and to the general public. The Humanities are not a luxury. As Adam Gopnik wrote so eloquently earlier this week, “We need the humanities not because they will produce shrewder entrepreneurs or kinder C.E.O.s but because […] they help us enjoy life more and endure it better. The reason we need the humanities is because we’re human.”
Stylish Academic Writing has renewed my commitment to writing well. If more of us take Sword’s advice to heart, perhaps over time, we can help our governments renew their commitments to the Humanities, and to a way of living that puts human beings first — rather than putting first, say, corporate profits, easily quantifiable utility, expensive surveillance, or lethal technologies. Perhaps.
Even if we fail, it will have been worth the effort.