The Magazine

Smart Writing

It’s good to be published, and better to be understood.

Sep 3, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 47 • By BARTON SWAIM
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Academia, if I can give Sword’s observation the sting it deserves, encourages the worst kind of conservatism: a conservatism that values correctness over creativity, and sameness over originality. 

But although her mission may be doomed, she acquits herself well. Her counsel is wise, efficiently written, and infectiously winsome. She advises academic writers to use anecdotes and carefully chosen metaphors, and to write opening sentences that encourage readers to keep reading. She has drawn from a massive array of academic articles (more than a thousand) and given particular attention to authors known for writing readable material.

I was not impressed by her conscientiously balanced criticisms of academic jargon. Sword seems to think of jargon as the overuse of technical language or, at worst, the pretentious use of big words, whereas I think it’s always and only the use of stock verbiage to camouflage the absence of thought—the academic equivalent of political talking points. But I interpret this as Sword’s need to speak to academics as they are, not as they should be, and her emphasis is on clarity and the simple expression of complex ideas. 

Like most, or all, guides to writing, this one sometimes gives the impression of trying to teach the unteachable. Sword suggests, for instance, that her readers can “bring intangible concepts to life by pairing abstract nouns with animating verbs.” Her example, drawn from an actual academic article, is this sentence: “Substantive differences also lurk in this confusion.” Well, okay. But while it’s probably true that “pairing abstract subjects with animating verbs” can put life into an otherwise lifeless sentence, that’s the sort of thing a writer either knows without being told, or not at all. 

Still, Helen Sword’s book contains much wisdom. Leaving aside her irritating use of the word “stylish”—surely no good writer wants to be thought of as “stylish”—Stylish Academic Writing contains superb counsel for academics who want to write with greater clarity and skill. 

Too bad there are so few of them.

Barton Swaim is the author of Scottish Men of Letters and the New Public Sphere: 1802-1834.