Writing: the proverbial struggle

I read Helen Sword’s Stylish Academic Writing (Sword, 2012) on a recent flight. The book surveys major style quirks plaguing academic writing. It is both entertaining and concerning: some of the examples are hilarious, but a look at one’s own writing yields many sentences as wonky as the examples in the book. For me, writing is the single most difficult part of being an academic: I am a slow writer and need heavy editing to get my first draft into shape. I regularly indulge in reading writing guides like Sword’s book in the hope that it will help me become a better writer.

With its focus on crafting sentences (chapter 5), being deliberate in selecting titles (chapter 6) and hooks (chapter 7); as well as paying attention to narration (chapter 8) and using jargon carefully (chapter 10), the book is a good complement to Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss (Truss, 2009).

Reading Sword’s Stylish Academic Writing made me want to read her recent book Air & Light & Time & Space (Sword, 2017). While Stylish Academic Writing is mostly concerned with style, Air & Light & Time & Space focuses on habits of successful and less successful writers.

In this sense it is reminiscent of books like How to Write a Lot (Silvia, 2007) and Howard Becker’s Writing for Social Scientists (Becker, 2007). Sword, however, is less formulaic than Silvia, and doesn’t have the focus on social sciences of Becker. She does not only focuses on successful writers and, in this sense, her work suffers less survivor bias than many of the writing books aimed at academics. To do this, she pairs data collected through interviews with surveys whose respondents are academics who attended her writing workshops. This means that a lot of the survey respondents would describe themselves as struggling writers while many of the interviewees are individuals identified by their peers as successful writers. This provides a nice balance of perspectives. Maybe predictably, though, a lot of “successful writers” still see themselves as struggling writers.

The book reviews many of the habits of writers. One important point she makes that resonates particularly with me is the fact that writing schedule do not work for everyone. Writing to a schedule is probably the number one advice one can find in writing guides. After years of trying to stick to one and failing, however, it is a relief for me to learn that many productive writers do not write on a schedule. Finally, I can let go of my guilt of not managing to stick to a schedule.

Among the other interesting topics covered by Sword’s are writing as a social activity and writing as a non-native speaker.

The last part of the book, focusing emotional habits and the pleasure of writing, is particularly welcome. In this part, Sword debunks the idea—paddled by many a writing manual—that successful writers are those who reduce writing to a mundane activity that they do routinely day in and day out. While she acknowledges that writing often is essential, a lot of the academics in her survey sample and among her interviewees are not routine writers and they have strong feelings about writing, both positive and negative. This again provided some form of relief to me as I certainly do not find writing routine.

She also describes the fact that academics need to be resilient to face colleagues, editors and reviewers and offer advice on how to build this resilience.

Overall, it is an entertaining book that is well worth reading for PhD students and more advanced writers alike.


Becker, H. S. 2007. Writing for Social Scientists (Second Edi). The University of Chicago Press.

Silvia, P. J. 2007. How to Write a Lot. A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing. American Psychological Association.

Sword, H. 2012. Stylish Academic Writing. Harvard University Press.

Sword, H. 2017. Air & Light & Time & Space. Harvard University Press.

Truss, L. 2009. Eats Shoots & Leaves. The Zero Tolerance Guide to Punctuation. Fourth Estate.

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