Stylish Academic Writing 1: Good News, Bad News

Helen Sword rips the veil off one of the worst kept secrets in all of academia: Most academic writing is just plain awful. Jargon-filled, abstract, impersonal, sleep-inducing.

What makes

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Sword’s Stylish Academic Writing different is that she has data to back up her claims. She studied five hundred recent articles from academic journals evenly spread over ten different disciplines. For example, she actually counted first-person pronouns (historians being culpable for using the fewest) and abstract nouns (e.g., nominalization–those in higher ed being most guilty of this infraction).

The good news is–the news is not all bad! Science writers actually used the pronouns I and we quite a bit. Historians rarely used abstract nouns.

There was hope on another front. Sword not only studied journal articles but also the advice found in the guidelines for writers issued by the journals. They all tended to advocate

  • The three C’s–clarity, coherence, conciseness
  • Including some short and some long sentences
  • Plain English
  • Precision
  • Active verbs
  • Telling a story

There was, however, less consensus on

  • Personal pronouns
  • Careful use of jargon
  • Personal voice
  • Creative expression
  • Non-standard structure
  • Engaging titles

In another

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twist, she analyzes the writing itself in the guidelines for writers the journals created. Again, on the one hand we get a mix of creative use of metaphor, humor, word play and other engaging techniques, while on the other hand we find styles of writing that are, yes, academic and stodgy.

Conclusion: yes, convention remains a powerful force that shapes most academic writing. But within every discipline there is latitude for and actual published examples of good, interesting, stylish writing.

Author: Andy Le Peau

I've been an editor and writer for over forty years. I am passionate about ideas and how we can express them clearly, beautifully, and persuasively. I love reading good books, talking about them, and recommending them. I thoroughly enjoy my family who help me continue on the path of a lifelong learner.

3 thoughts on “Stylish Academic Writing 1: Good News, Bad News”

  1. This is an interesting subject. As a member of the editorial review team for a prominent national medical journal, I often find myself wishing I could suggest stylistic changes to the articles I review. Alas, barring actual “errors,” such changes are not within the purview of my role. (Physicians and other medical folk are often brilliant . . . but their literary skills are hit and miss.)

  2. Rob, it sounds like this is a book you could recommend to the editorial team.

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