The short: An invaluable, inspiring read. There is hope for academic and non-fiction writers, if only we would all read Helen Sword's book!
Helen Sword is a professor in the Centre for Academic Development at the University of Auckland (New Zealand). Her book, Stylish Academic Writing is actually part qualitative analysis, part writing advice.
Sword sampled ten academic journals from a dozen academic fields, ranging from the hard sciences to social sciences and literary studies. She conducted an analysis of the writing styles of each genre. The resulting qualitative data gave Sword a sense of what “typical” writing looks like in academia.
She then asked academics to recommend books and articles in their own field that they thought were examples of “good writing,” which gave Sword a sense of what good, acceptable, engaging writing looks like.
The book reads a bit like a teeter-totter: On one end, she gives examples of problematic (typical) academic writing. On the other end, she highlights engaging, clear (stylish) academic writing. She bridges typical and stylish writing with her own analysis and explanations.
Taken as a whole, Sword gives beautifully clear examples of what you should not do in academic writing, how to fix typical errors, and what good writing can look like.
Here are the main topics Sword addresses:
- What style guides actually recommend because, let's face it, most academic writers don't even know their own style guides.
- Unspoken academic styles that people believe are hard and fast rules but, in practice, are not. In each discipline, the “good writers,” as identified by academics themselves, do not abide by the unspoken academic styles.
- Use personal pronouns (“I” and “we”).
- Use concrete language, rather than abstractions, to convey complicated concepts.
- Create titles that lure the reader into your writing and contain a useful roadmap for the reader.
- Write introductory paragraphs that grab the reader's attention and help them commit to reading your piece.
- Choose examples, metaphors, and allusions that clarify your points and provide much-needed spice for your reader's benefit.
- Avoid jargon, unless truly necessary. (Sword uses Foucault as an example of a writer who uses engaging verbs! His followers have deviated a bit from clear, concrete language.)
- Think through your piece's structure and perhaps even challenge the traditional format, just a bit. (You know, IMRAD, Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion.)
- Work with your citation style to maximize readability.
- Read widely to enrich your own creativity, as well as your writing.
At the end of each chapter, Sword provides some exercises to break you out of bad writing habits.
Overall: I highly, avidly recommend Sword's book!