How successful academics write

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I am a longtime fan of Helen Sword’s work on academic writing. I first came across her lovely piece in Studies in Higher Education on Writing higher education differentlySword writes the first part of the paper in a conventional way, and then the second part in a more daring, direct and elegant way. This paper really transformed my thinking about how to write about my research.

A side note – I didn’t know Sword at that time, but I sent her a quick email saying how much I appreciated her paper. She ended up mentioning me in the acknowledgements of her 2012 book Stylish Academic Writing, which goes to show that a short note of thanks can mean a lot to an author.

Air & Light & Time & Space builds on Stylish Academic Writing to focus not so much on writing but on writers.  As Sword says on the first page:

…whenever I was invited to talk about [my books on academic writing] with faculty and graduate students, I noticed how quickly our conversations about sentence structure and style strayed to other writing-related issues: for example, work-life balance…or power dynamics…or emotion. …Gradually my scholarly gaze began to lift from the words on the page to the people who put them there…

So over a period of four years, Sword interviewed 100 academics writers and surveyed a further 1,223, including PhD students. From this impressive data-set, Sword has drawn out many different ways to approach academic writing. This is a welcome relief from the message that there are only certain ways one can be a successful writer, such as writing a certain number of words every day, or writing at a particular time of day. Sword showcases the writing habits of her research participants ‘in all their messiness, contradiction and variety’.

Each chapter contains many brief excepts from Sword’s interviewees, as well as page-long interludes that provide deeper insights into the practices of academic writers. One featured writer is the Thesis Whisperer herself (see page 143), who also gets an index entry, which is surely something to tick off the academic bucket list! The chapters conclude with a ‘Things to try’ section, so that you can apply the chapter’s findings to your own writing.

Air & Light & Time & Space busts the myth that skilled academic writers easily and quickly churn out perfectly formed prose. Describing academic writing as artisanal means viewing writing as a craft, a painstaking and time-consuming path towards making something beautiful. While I have been working to write more stylishly since first reading Sword, I see this process as a lifelong journey.

As you’d expect, the book is beautifully written. I liked that at the beginning of Part 2: Artisanal habits Sword shares with us six ‘false starts’ to the section, giving us a rare and welcome glimpse into the writing and editing processes. Sword also shares stories about the places in which she writes, and the people she writes with. In that spirit, I wrote this blog post in various ways and venues. I made hand written notes on the bus, jotted down notes in emails to myself, let things dwell in the subconscious a while, and then pulled it all together in Word. I found that writing with a glass of wine in hand at an airport bar wasn’t as effective as with a cup of coffee in my office! One of the main themes of Air & Light & Time & Space is to experiment with writing in different situations to find out what works best for you. For me it’s deadlines, travel, retreats, and Shut Up and Write. For you, it may be a completely different set of conditions.

What emotions do you feel about your writing? Frustration? Anxiety? Pleasure? Satisfaction? These are some of the emotions most commonly reported by participants in Sword’s study. Most participants reported a mix a positive and negative emotions about writing: ‘an indication that emotional ambivalence is the norm rather than the exception’ (p153). Of particular interest to readers of this blog is Sword’s finding that female PhD students are three times more likely than male PhD students to report wholly negative emotions about writing. Sword felt that this was likely due to the tendency of women to underestimate their abilities – imposter syndrome strikes again – and that ‘only after academic women have finished their PhDs and moved into academic positions does this emotion gap begin to narrow, although the prevalence of negative-only over positive-only emotions persists until retirement age’ (p154-5).

I enjoyed the details of Sword’s research study in the appendix, and it’s good example of how to write up research methods clearly and elegantly. Her very extensive and generous acknowledgements section is also a pleasure to read, and the bibliography – well let’s just say I have major bookshelf envy and would love to see Sword’s bookshelves!

If you’re looking for a quick fix, this ain’t it. As Sword says in the preface, Air & Light & Time & Space‘offers no ready-made blueprint for academic success…[i]nstead you will find here a flexible, customizable building plan intended to help you design your own writing practice from the ground up.’  If you’re looking for inspiration, and for guidance about writing that will keep you company throughout your PhD and beyond, then I highly recommend this book.

Disclaimer: I have met Helen and am an admirer of her work, but purchased the book from my own funds and was not solicited to write this review.

Author Bio: Dr Bell is a Senior Lecturer, Educational Innovation, and Honorary Senior Lecturer in the Sydney School of Education and Social Work, at the University of Sydney. Her main research focus is exploring student-staff partnerships to enhance higher education. 

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