The Study Dude – Stylish Academic Writing

Study Tips From a Semi-Anonymous Friend

There is nothing more that The Study Dude wants for you than for you to understand that when your eyes glaze over and confusion bemoans you while reading academic articles, chances are it is because the academic’s writing sucks.

Well, in these articles, as The Study Dude, I’ll try to give you the study tips you need to help make your learning easier. I’ll also give you straight and honest opinions and personal anecdotes?even the embarrassing ones that you wouldn’t ever dare read about from any other study tip guru.

This week’s focus is on a well-researched, entertaining book titled Stylish Academic Writing by Helen Sword.

Overview of Strategies for Effective Writing
Why don’t you just go ahead, do as Helen Sword (2012) recommends, and enter the Writer’s Diet Website to see if your writing is lean or flabby. The site tests to see if you overuse prepositions, if you overload your writing with passive verbs, if you overdo the adjectives, and so forth. I just entered some of the writing on this page, and it scored a high “lean” grade, although another of my articles generated a slightly lower grade of “fit”.

Sword (2012) argues that, although the renowned grammarians Strunk and White advocate lean writing, most academics renege these standards. Why? Because universities adequately prepare their professors for neither teaching nor writing.

As a case in point: When I was a T.A., the institution hurled me into a teaching role without preparation. I learned that I was to lead class discussion, end of story. No allowances were made for me to use PowerPoint or cue cards, my preferred methods of teaching. Forced to communicate ad hoc in front of a crowd of disenchanted students, I yearned to curl up and shiver unrelentingly under my desk.

Sword (2012) rages that this lack of preparation also applies to professors and graduate students? writing abilities. Sure, they can write a stuffy, oblique paper, but can they write a book that will actually sell? Why not write a paper like they would write a bestselling fiction book, only spiced with an academic bent?

Sword (2012) overflows with ideas for transforming your academic writing into a craft:

– Create an opening hullabaloo through strategies such as a compelling quote, a thought-provoking question, an anecdote (a true, entertaining story), and other tactics.
– Whenever you are tempted to use “was”, “is”, “are”, and other forms of “to be” or passive verbs (such as to “to have”), combine the “was” and the following verb into a single, tighter verb or put the subject at the beginning of the sentence. This course of action leads to punchier, more energized verbs and sentences. (Of course, the occasional passive verb seeps into everyone’s writing, but those blasé verbs are best avoided.)
– Use concrete nouns versus abstract nouns wherever possible. A concrete noun is something you can sense; for instance, if the noun possesses a color, a scent, a taste, a texture, or a sound, chances are, that noun is concrete. Readers love concrete nouns.
– Always follow up abstract ideas with plenty of examples. This takes the leaden piece of text and enlivens it.
– Sprinkle in your particular blend of humour, whether it be dry, innocent, off-the-wall or what have you.
– Keep your sentences short or mix up the lengths?and even go as far as to concoct a cadence with a surprise sentence length thrown in if you so dare.
– Use elements of professional storytelling in your own academic writing. (For instance, describe elements of a setting, turn abstract ideas into menacing or lovable characters, use stylistic elements such as metaphor…)

Make Your Sentences Sparkle Like Red Bull
When going to graduate studies, I thought there needed to be a profound shift in my writing style. I didn’t mean a perusal of a grammar book to get back to speed; I meant a complete overhaul of how I communicated and wrote.

When reading academic articles, I found that they were written in highfalutin, stilted prose that put my writing to shame. One professor even went as far as to show me her clearer, simpler language to demonstrate that writing need not be stifling. I scoffed at her gesture, certain that she was an imposter trying vehemently to lower my standards to hers. Yet, her writing was interesting, down-to-earth?and, most importantly, readable.

Helen Sword (2012) has some advice for making your sentences clear, comprehensible, and, well, even downright entertaining:

– Give oomph to all your sentences with an agent and an action.
– Fend off spineless verbs that are laced with abstract nouns.
– Ward off sentences oozing with preposition.
– People fondly read biographies for a reason. Try to make your subjects real people or real titles or roles of people to spice up your writing.
– Keep nouns and verbs close together in proximity. Separating the noun from the verb by more than twelve words poses a definite case for a rewrite.
– “[E]mploy plenty of concrete nouns and vivid verbs, especially when discussing abstract concepts” (p. 49).
– If you have lots of abstract nouns, try to offset them with appeals to the senses.
– Avoid overreliance on adverbs and adjectives as they stifle the flow.
– Resist implementing jargon, especially that which is exclusive to a particular academic discipline and inaccessible to the masses.
– Prepositions that rope together an overload of abstract nouns are tiresome to read.
– don’t give into the temptation to use “it,” “this,” “that,” “those,” and “there” (note my use of “that” in the above bullet point. Not the best read, is it?) If using “this”, “that”, or “those” be sure to directly follow any of these words with the referent (as in “this book is readable” versus “this is readable”).
– The word “?that? often encourages writers to overload their sentences with subordinate clauses, driving nouns and verbs apart” (p. 58). Also, “avoid using that more than once in a single sentence or about three times per paragraph, except in a parallel construction for stylistic effect” (p. 62).
– You can break the code of conduct and use bits of jargon blended with colloquial. In other words, mix up the vocabulary level.

Reel them In with Your Titles and Hooks
When I was a T.A. for a classroom, I came across an essay with a brilliant title. Further to this, the essay was written compellingly, and I thought it deserved at least an A. When I reported my thoughts on the grade to the professor, she pooh-poohed the idea. In fact, whenever I reported a high grade, her face inflamed, and she would downgrade the mark by at least one letter grade. She wanted me to argue on the student’s behalf, but memorizing the content of over thirty presentations and exams was not an easy task. Her motto was “hammer them”.

Yet, reflecting on that experience after reading Helen Sword, I confess that a brilliant title is one telltale sign of a strong, well thought-out paper, as is a compelling opening sentence. Although in some professorial circles, the content should speak solely for the grade, in others, writing ability speaks volumes as well. Sword (2012) is of the latter camp.

While some disciplines seem to scorn, belittle, and shun stylish writing, when the professors in those disciplines see your submission written in a clear and entertaining manner, they sigh a breath of relief, welcoming the respite–especially after marking hundreds of bombastic, tedious essays.

Sword (2012) has some advice for making your titles and introductory sentences evocative:

– Use a playful title and consider techniques such as alliteration, wordplay, and concrete images.
– don’t jam-pack two titles in one with a colon by making the first part information and the second entertaining. Zero in on the entertaining title and see if it can stand alone, complemented by the subtext of the journal name, the edition title, and so forth.
– In the title, pose question, create a scenario, put forth opinion or fact, implement metaphor, or create a grandiose claim.
– Do all of the strategies listed in the bullet point above for the opening sentence, but add elements such as anecdotes, humour, literary references, quotations, personal anecdote, or a vivid description.

So, there’s nothing to fear. The Study Dude is determined to make right for you all the wrongs I made in grad school?one A+ at a time.

Sword, Helen. (2012). Stylish Academic Writing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.