Stylish Academic Writing

Stylish Academic Writing January 1, 2015

Screen Shot 2014-12-28 at 10.41.21 AMPutting those two words before the word “writing” creates for many an impossibility or a rarity so infrequent one need not bother. Yet, Helen Sword, in her book Stylish Academic Writingcontends page after page that the two ought to be combined and that academics with a desire to be more stylish and elegant in their writing can do so.

So let’s start 2015 with this commitment: more stylish academic writing.


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This is a splendid book and ought to be read by every PhD student every year, and at least once by every professor who writes.

Who are the models for me of stylish and academic writing? C.S. Lewis, D. Sayers, C.H. Dodd, G.B. Caird, C.F.D. Moule. Each, by the way, far more known for short elegant books rather than doorstoppers. The best-written academic book I’ve ever read is C.H. Dodd’s According to the Scriptures. I lay down this: no book over 500 pages can be stylish, however well written it may be.

What is the reality? Sword:

Pick up any guide to effective writing and what will you find? Probably some version of the advice that Strunk and White offered more than half a century ago in their classic book The Elements of Style: always use clear, precise language, even when expressing complex ideas; engage your reader’s attention through examples, illustrations, and anecdotes; avoid opaque jargon; vary your vocabulary, sentence length, and frames of reference; favor active verbs and concrete nouns; write with conviction, passion, and verve. Pick up a peer-reviewed journal in just about any academic discipline and what will you find? Impersonal, stodgy, jargon-laden, abstract prose that ignores or defies most of the stylistic principles outlined above (3).

What are the demonstrable features of stylish academic prose? Sword, who has a chp on each:

*interesting, eye-catching titles and subtitles;

• first-person anecdotes or asides that humanize the author and give the text an individual flavor; [SMcK: those who think they should write disinterestedly become uninteresting because their prose yields to the impersonal and impersonality reveals a kind of personality, not the absence of personality.]

* catchy opening paragraphs that recount an interesting story, ask a challenging question, dissect a problem, or otherwise hook and hold the reader;

• concrete nouns (as opposed to nominalized abstractions such as “nominalization” or “abstraction”) and active, energetic verbs (as opposed to forms of be and bland standbys such as make, find, or show);

* numerous examples, especially when explaining abstract concepts;

* visual illustrations beyond the usual Excel-generated pie charts and bar graphs (for example, photographs, manuscript facsimiles, drawings, diagrams, and reproductions);

* references to a broad range of academic, literary, and historical sources indicative of wide reading and collegia! conversations both within and outside their own fields. * humor, whether explicit or understated (8).

Assignment: Pick two authors, one you love to read and would read if you had the time and one whom you read because you have to. Now read 2 pages and see where they fit on this list. 

Helen Sword reveals that, in spite of the inertia of bad patterns of writing, each academic discipline has it share of stylish writers. “Scientists can choose to use active verbs. Social scientists can choose to introduce a personal voice. Humanities scholars can choose to eschew disciplinary jargon. Informed choice is the stylish writer’s best weapon against the numbing forces of conformity and inertia” (30). And what about jargon, the blight of academic books? Sword:

Academics turn to jargon for a wide variety of reasons: to display their erudition, to signal membership in a disciplinary community, to demonstrate their mastery of complex concepts, to cut briskly into an ongoing scholarly conversation, to push knowledge in new directions, to challenge readers’ thinking, to convey ideas and facts efficiently, and to play around with language. Many of these motivations align well with the ideals of stylish academic writing. Wherever jargon shows its shiny face, however, the demon of academic hubris inevitably lurks in the shadows nearby. Academics who are committed to using language effectively and ethically—as a tool for communication, not as an emblem of power—need first of all to acknowledge the seductive power of jargon to bamboozle, obfuscate, and impress (120).

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