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How to make your academic writing stylish?

By Yang Min | 2013-08-02 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)
  Helen Sword
Elegant data and ideas deserve elegant expression, argued by Helen Sword in her lively book named Stylish Academic Writing published by Harvard University Press recently. In her new book, she gives some suggestion to those scholars frustrated with disciplinary conventions, and to specialists who want to write for a larger audience but are unsure where to begin. Here, Helen Sword shows us how to make articles and books a pleasure to read and to write.
Chinese Social Sciences Today: Your new book, Stylish Academic Writing has been published in April and it arouses many public attentions and could you tell me why did you write this book?
Helen Sword: Many academics publish dull, wooden, unreadable prose -- not because they want to but because they believe they have to. I hope to inspire academics to communicate with their chosen audiences more clearly and engagingly.
Chinese Social Sciences Today: This book is a lively guide for academic writing. So what is the most special thing differs itself from other academic writing books?
Helen Sword: My book is based on research, not just opinion.  Also, my goal is to inspire change, not to teach hard-and-fast “rules” or to preserve the status quo.  Most academic writing guides teach people to write within disciplinary conventions; I urge my readers to question conventions and to emulate the very best writing they can find. 
Chinese Social Sciences Today: How long did you spend in writing this book and Have you done some researches such as questionnaires or interviews on academic writing when completing your book? What’s the most interesting thing in the whole process?
Helen Sword: The book took me about 4 years to research and write.  I examined at more than 1000 academic articles and hundreds of academic books, and I asked colleagues from across the disciplines to recommend to me their favorite authors, books and articles. The most interesting part of the process for me was getting to see how academics think and work all across the disciplines, not just in my own field.
Chinese Social Sciences Today: Have you come across an article or a book which impressed you a lot? Give me an example.
Helen Sword: My book includes 33 ‘spotlights on style’ in which I showcase examples of work by engaging authors from a wide range of different disciplines.  Some of the best known examples are Richard Dawkins (evolutionary biology), Steven Pinker (cognitive psychology) and Marjorie Garber (literary studies), but there are many other less well known authors mentioned in the book as well.
Chinese Social Sciences Today: How do you think of “Elegant data and ideas deserve elegant expression”?
Helen Sword: In mathematics, an ‘elegant’ solution is one that solves a complex problem in the most direct way possible.  In academic writing, an elegantly expressed argument is one in which the author employs exactly the right words to explain a complex idea. 
Chinese Social Sciences Today: Your book provides many suggestions for scholars to help them make articles and books more enjoyable, would you like to share those suggestions with Chinese scholars?
Helen Sword: My book includes examples and suggestions for writing lively sentences, well-structured arguments, interesting titles, compelling opening paragraphs, and more.  All of these techniques will help make any academic’s writing more readable and engaging.  But my most important advice is this: write like a human being!
Chinese Social Sciences Today: “The most important advice is to ‘write like human being’”—it’s really fresh and could you explain it more to me?
Helen Sword: I read so many articles that sound as though they were written by a robot that lives on the moon! The sentences are impersonal, convoluted, and difficult to understand because the author is trying so hard to stay out of the writing.  Here’s an example from a paper I’m in the middle of reviewing:  “This paper will therefore problematise the ways in which OER [Open Educational Resources] implies particular notions of freedom and independence in the advancement of its educational agenda.”  “This paper” and “OER” are both personified as though they were intelligent entities.  What about the author of the paper and the people who promote a certain understanding of OER?  A more human sentence would read, “In this paper I will analyze the ways in which supporters of OER ... ”
Chinese Social Sciences Today: Your book showcases a range of scholars from the sciences, humanities and social sciences who has great writing skills. In your opinion, how to make articles or books in social sciences more enjoyable and attract more audiences?
Helen Sword: I describe and explain many specific techniques for writing more vividly and engagingly. Writers who study these techniques and practice them one at a time will slowly build up their skills in writing well. Becoming a better writer requires time, hard work, and patience – but it’s time well spent.  Well-crafted articles attract wider audiences and more citations; and writing well is much more pleasurable and satisfying than writing badly!  
Chinese Social Sciences Today: How did you get many good examples of academic writing?
Helen Sword: I asked academics from across the disciplines and around the world to tell me the names of the writers they admired most; then I looked for examples of their work and analyzed the specific techniques that they use to communicate clearly and engagingly. 
Chinese Social Sciences Today: After analyzing thousand peer-reviewed articles and according to your educating and writing experience, what is an excellent academic writing? What is the essence of academic writing?
Helen Sword: The very best academic writing is the product of creativity, craft, and a desire to communicate clearly.
Chinese Social Sciences Today:  What roles should an academic article play?
Helen Sword: An academic article should convey new research findings or ideas as clearly and engagingly as possible.  If you are a superb researcher but are incapable of communicating the importance of your work to the world, what is the point of doing the research in the first place?
Chinese Social Sciences Today:  Did you make some specific suggestion to scholars in social science in your book?
Helen Sword: Social scientists often believe that they have to ‘sound scientific’ in order to be respected.  But that does not mean that they have to write impersonal, boring prose. Social science is all about people! I encourage social scientists to focus on the human stories that run through their work, rather than burying human beings under mounds of data.
Chinese Social Sciences Today: Like a human being? Could you please show me a good example of focusing human being?
Helen Sword: I did not mean to imply that social scientists should focus on human beings and NOT on data.  Ideally, they should do both.  A good example might be an article on higher education in which the author begins with a specific scenario or anecdote that illustrates the situation being analyzed.  The data analysis itself then becomes much more meaningful, because we can see how it’s relevant to a real world situation. 
Chinese Social Sciences Today: How do you think the role of vision and voice in academic article writing? Do you think it necessary in academic articles or books?
Helen Sword: I have read some very good academic articles that do not employ personal pronouns (I/we).  However, those articles are usually less engaging and readable than the ones in which the authors write in a conversational yet authoritative voice. See my example above. The personal pronouns (I/we) immediately make us feel as though a real person is present behind the argument.
Chinese Social Sciences Today: Do you agree that a valuable academic article should be understood not only by experts in related field but also by ordinary people beyond the researching field?
Helen Sword: It’s a matter of choice. If you want to write an article that will only be understood by 20 people in the world, that’s your decision. Academics who follow the suggestions in my book will find that their research is accessible to a much wider audience yet still valuable to experts as well.
Chinese Social Sciences Today: In one of your article posted online named “Yes, Even Professors Can Write stylishly ”which said “Of the estimated 50 million academic articles at large in world today, all too many of them contain prose as weary, stale , flat as a black gown with matching mortarboard”. How do you think of the current academic writing?
Helen Sword: So many academics are passionate about their research, but that passion is not communicated in their writing.  I would like to see more energy and joy in academic writing.
Chinese Social Sciences Today: In your opinion, why are some articles are weary, stale and flat and hard to be understood by larger audience? Is it related to the educational system or academic system?
Helen Sword: The academic system mostly, I think.  In my experience, undergraduate students often write much more clearly and energetically than graduate students, who have picked up the mistaken belief that they are supposed to write long sentences and use big words. Their writing becomes more and more unreadable over time, when it should be getting better and better.
Chinese Social Sciences Today: There are many different publishing standards for different academic publishers, how to meet diversified needs of numerous academic publishers? Do you think it necessary to make a unified academic writing standard or style around the world in the future?
Helen Sword: It can be frustrating for academics to have to cope with the different editorial standards imposed by different publishers.  However, I think it would be a terrible thing if we had a unified academic writing standard. Language is a living entity; it grows and changes as we do.  Rather than pushing for more consistency in academic writing, I think we should push for more diversity, variety, and experimentation.
Chinese Social Sciences Today: Would you like to comment on the global hegemony of English and do you think only using English is more convenient for academic communication or is the academic language should be diversified?
Helen Sword: I have very mixed feelings about this issue. On the one hand, it is very convenient to have a single global language that all academics share– and English currently plays that role.  On the other hand, this situation creates a world in which some academics –native English speakers and those from European countries where the languages have a structure and vocabulary similar to English– have a clear advantage over others in their ability to communicate their research.  Many EAL colleagues have told me that, to succeed internationally, they have had to put a huge amount of time and energy into learning to speak and write fluent English. 
Chinese Social Sciences Today: In order to make academic articles more enjoyable and stylishly, what contribution does education system can make?
Helen Sword: I think it’s important for students to be taught how to be flexible, creative thinkers.  An education system that focuses on conformity and rote learning will produce academics who all think and write the same way –and that is not how new knowledge is created or how research moves forward.
Chinese Social Sciences Today: What are you working on at the moment? And do you have other plans in the future?
Helen Sword: My current research explores academic productivity and the role of education, habits, and emotions in academic writing.  So far I have interviewed more than 80 academics from across the disciplines and around the world – all of whom write and publish in English – and I have gathered questionnaire data from hundreds more.  I have run workshops all around the world on topics including “Stylish Academic Writing” and “Habits of Highly Successful Academic Writers” – most recently in Thailand and Hong Kong, next year in the US, Canada, Australia, the UK, Switzerland, Denmark, and Singapore.  I love talking to academics about their writing and hearing all about the challenges and struggles that they face.  My next book will be aimed at helping academics write not only more productively but with greater pleasure! 
Helen Sword is Associate Professor in the Centre for Academic Development at the University of Auckland, New Zealand.