Stylish Academic Writing: How to Write Reader-Friendly Prose

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Have you ever marveled at those researchers who are not only prolific, but whose articles make a real contribution to your field?

Have you ever struggled to write an article and felt like you didn’t have the words, or that you weren’t sure how you could make your writing more clear?

Or have you read through an essay and struggled to pinpoint the problems, even though you knew something wasn’t quite right?

I’ve been reading Stylish Academic Writing, by Helen Sword. In this book, she identifies some of the most common problems with scholarly writing and offers ways for authors to address them. She dares to contend that academic prose should be readable, and that in fact, the articles that have the most impact usually share the same key characteristics of readability –regardless of which discipline the writer is in.

I’ve included below three of Sword’s tips for readability here, in order to give you a taste of her advice, and also so that you can select which ideas might help your writing.

Tips for Reader-Friendly Academic Prose

1. Consider your subjects and verbs and their relationships. Strive to use concrete nouns, even if you have to use first person. Her advice to use first person may go against convention, but Sword points out that few journals expressly forbid such usage, and that in many cases, the first person, or at least the plural “we” may well be appropriate.

2. What story is your research telling? Sword argues that the best articles and books are well plotted structurally, with a “sense of moving from A to B.” According to Sword, “a skillful academic writer can construct a compelling narrative whose main ‘character’ is an institution, a methodology, or a technique.” For scholars, the key decision is not whether or not there is a story, but deciding which story to tell, and how to tell that story the most effectively. Sword encourages writers to summarize their research story in one single sentence, and then see where the backbone of the story emerges.

3. Show and tell. Sword believes that the most stylish academic writers “ply their readers” with carefully chosen examples, anecdotes, case studies, visual illustrations, and scenarios. She even suggests that figurative language such as metaphors and similes can be used to make abstract ideas more concrete, as long as these metaphors are chosen carefully. As with many of the other chapters in the book, she offers exercises to help writers practice using examples in ways that will clarify their findings rather than further confuse the reader.

Ultimately, Sword reminds us that the most important characteristic of any piece of writing is that it make sense–at least to its intended audience.

So the next time you’re struggling to explain something clearly, whether yours or someone else’s, ask yourself how clear your sentences are, what the story is, and whether or not you have given the reader enough examples.

And remember, above all, that you’re communicating with another person on the other side of that paragraph. Make sure they get the point of what you’re writing.

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