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Stylish Academic Writing

35 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0674064485
ISBN-10: 0674064488
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Editorial Reviews


As an academic―staff or student―wouldn't you like people to enjoy reading your work? In Stylish Academic Writing, Helen Sword offers dozens of suggestions as to how you might improve your work, get your argument across in a more appealing manner, and attract more readers. We can all learn something useful from this book, and it won't involve a lot of effort. (Malcolm Tight, Editor, Studies in Higher Education)

Stylish Academic Writing challenges academics to make their work more consequential by communicating more clearly―and provides helpful hints and models for doing so. This is a well-crafted and valuable contribution that combines substance with style. (Arne L. Kalleberg, Editor, Social Forces)

Occasionally the tedium of reading an unending supply of poorly written manuscripts is upended by a cogent, well-written, piece. Helen Sword details why this is so prevalent and offers sage advice to beginning―and even senior―researchers on how to avoid dulling academic prose. I take her advice to heart. I hope to change my numerous bad habits and I dearly wish those submitting manuscripts would read this book. (Rick K. Wilson, Editor, American Journal of Political Science)

Helen Sword's brilliant little volume is in many respects the ideal companion to Stephen J. Pyne's equally brilliant Voice and Vision: A Guide to Writing History and Other Serious Non-Fiction (Harvard) and equally deserving of a wider audience than its target group, which in this case comprises those academics who either write or have to put up with "impersonal, stodgy, jargon-laden, abstract prose." As Sword writes: "Elegant data and ideas deserve elegant expression." Featuring oodles of ideas and tips backed up by lashings of original research and bursting to the seams with case studies exemplifying the good, the bad and the ugly of academic writing ("via a symbolic interactionist lens" is one such monster), this is a must for writers in any discipline. (William Yeoman West Australian 2012-06-19)

[Sword's] 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...Helen Sword's book contains much wisdom...Stylish Academic Writing contains superb counsel for academics who want to write with greater clarity and skill. (Barton Swaim Weekly Standard 2012-09-03)

[A] practical and useful book. (Colin Steele Australian Book Review 2012-10-01)

Sword has produced a sleek and, yes, nicely written guide based on the principle that "elegant ideas deserve elegant expression." Aiming to be useful to writers in almost any discipline, Sword defines stylish academic writing in the broadest terms. (Jennifer Howard Times Literary Supplement 2012-12-21)

Surely it's time to declare war on terms such as postsemioticist, flip-flop gates and feature theory, terms Orwell would surely have included under his definition of obscurity as a cuttlefish defensively spurting out ink. Anyway, let's hope this excellent new book is a sign that things are about to change. (Bradley Winterton Taipei Times 2013-02-26)

Stylish Academic Writing offers pithy, thoughtful, and concrete guidance on ways to improve writing about scholarly research (or anything else for that matter) so that it is engaging to others...Teachers of writing at the college level will want to read the book so as to help stem the tide of overly formal, dry-as-dust term papers that are still standard fare in many classes.
(Dana S. Dunn Psychology Today 2013-07-18)

About the Author

Helen Sword is Professor and Director of the Centre for Learning and Research in Higher Education at the University of Auckland.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (April 2, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674064488
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674064485
  • Product Dimensions: 8.6 x 5.8 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (35 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #78,212 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Helen Sword is a scholar, award-winning teacher, and poet who has published books and articles on modernist literature, higher education pedagogy, digital poetics, and academic writing. Born and raised in Southern California, she received her PhD in Comparative Literature from Princeton University and is now Professor and Director of the Centre for Learning and Research in Higher Education at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. Her popular academic writing workshops for faculty and doctoral students have taken her to universities in North America, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australasia.

Visit Helen Sword's Writer's Diet website at

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

13 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Jennifer Grey on November 23, 2014
Format: Hardcover
E. F. Schumacher once wrote that any intelligent fool could make things bigger and more complex, but that it took a touch of genius and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction. Helen Sword's Stylish Academic Writing displays just the genius necessary to inspire academics to get up their courage to free their writing of the jargon-heavy passivity choking the life out of it (and their readers).

Unlike other guides, Sword brings massive research to bear on the 'problem' of academic writing: the first part of her work describes how she analyzed one thousand academic articles across ten different disciplines, as well as books and articles by one hundred academic writers recommended by their peers for the quality of their writing, and one hundred recently published style guides for academic writers in order to draw her conclusions. When was the last time you read a writing guide that devoted three full chapters to methodology?

From there, Sword goes on to explore eleven techniques displayed by stylish writers across the disciplines she studied, and each chapter contains both specific examples, good and bad, and simple directives for practices readers can use to improve their own writing. It's all so elegant that Strunk and White (who do get name-dropped several times throughout) would weep with joy.

Sword acknowledges that academic writing concerns itself with difficult, sometimes abstruse topics, and that sometimes jargon and nominalizations are appropriate to the task at hand. But smart, she argues, doesn't have to mean stultifying. Here's hoping publishing academics find her as persuasive as I did.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By James Donelan on October 9, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Helen Sword's perspective on academic writing is both timely and helpful. For at least fifteen years, discussion of academic writing style has either deplored it or defended it, without really figuring out what was wrong. The Bad Writing Contest and the Sokal Hoax showed us just how tangled up academic style had become, but failed to distinguish between a stylistic problem and outright fraud. The other side simply defended the indefensible: jargon for jargon's sake. What Sword had done here is point a way forward. Useful advice on how to make academic prose interesting and readable, along with fine examples from many fields, will undoubtedly send scholars in the right direction. An excellent, if brief, book, and what I hope will be the beginning of a positive direction in writing, especially in the humanities.
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16 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Anson Cassel Mills on May 24, 2013
Format: Hardcover
Sword's advice for writing better academic prose isn't novel, but it's sound. As have other writing manuals, she urges scholars to reduce their adverbs, passives, "be" verbs, abstractions, nominalizations, prepositional phrases, and demonstrative pronouns. Her online diagnostic tool, "WritersDiet," is an amusing way of becoming more aware of one's own participation in the leaden style authorized by the academy.

Sword's book also provides examples of good scholarly prose, some truly stylish and others at least acceptable, if not rousing. Sword herself writes well enough, though many of her sentences might be tweaked and tightened. For instance, the following paragraph (112) is both clear and amusing:

"Every discipline has its own specialized language, its membership rites, its secret handshake. I remember the moment when, as a PhD student in comparative literature, I casually dropped phrase "psychosexual morphology" into a discussion of a Thomas Hardy novel. What power! From the professor's approving nod and the envious shuffling of my fellow students around the seminar table, I knew that I had just flashed the golden badge that admitted me into an elite disciplinary community. Needless to say, my new party trick fell flat on my nonacademic friends and relations. Whenever I solemnly intoned the word `Foucauldian,' they quickly went off to find another beer." (106 words)

Still, it could be tightened to good effect:

"Every discipline has its own specialized language, its secret code.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on June 12, 2013
Format: Hardcover
In academia, everyone prefers reading good writing but believes that everyone else wants tedious writing---a classic case of what social psychologists call "pluralistic ignorance." Helen Sword's book aims to motivate people to try an earthier, more human sound and to give them a sense of possibility and permission. After describing the sad state of writing across different fields, she offers advice and provides examples for academics who want to write well.

This is a good book: I enjoyed it and got much food for thought from it.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Rebecca Mugridge on December 23, 2014
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Author Helen Sword read and analyzed 1,000 articles published in academic journals in 10 disciplines to determine what constitutes stylish academic writing. She also studied 100 recently-published style guides to see where they agreed and differed on points of academic writing style. In Stylish Academic Writing she shares what she's learned about what makes a good article. In fourteen chapters she discusses voice, sentence construction, titles, hooks, jargon, article structure, citation style, creative academic writing, and more.

Two of the chapters speak most to me: the one on voice, and the other on citation style. They both speak to pet peeves of mine. The first is when an author has to mangle their writing to avoid using the first person. Much of the writing in library science is reporting on a project or case study, in which the author is simply telling a story about how a project was launched, carried out or successfully completed. It makes no sense to not be able to use the first person when telling this story. But if you look at much of the library science literature, you'll see many of these stories told in a way that puts a distance between the reader and what's being shared. This makes the article harder to read, and less interesting. Articles should be written in a way that conveys all of the important information that the author is trying to share, but in a way that will increase readership. Writing in the first person can help with that goal. Sword advocates for the use of the first person when possible.

My second pet peeve has to do with citation styles that require the author to put names, dates, and sometimes page numbers in parentheses right in the text.
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