Can Academic Writing be Stylish? (By Margarita Huerta, Ph.D., P.O.W.E.R. Consultant)

 

Can Academic Writing be Stylish?

By Margarita Huerta, Ph.D., P.O.W.E.R Consultant

 

I don't think I ever hated to read until I entered academia. Academic journal articles practically killed my joy for reading, because, let’s be honest: academic writing can be one of the dullest forms of written material available. Dull, convoluted, unclearly written material…

 

But, in my 10+ years of reading academic articles, I have encountered “glimmers of hope” - writing for which I could just TELL the author was passionate about his or her topic. The language was crisp and energetic. The content would become real and (dare, I say?) I-N-T-E-R-E-S-T-I-N-G.

 

Interesting and engaging…isn’t that how we should think about the research we are putting out for others to read? If so, it follows that we should write in a way that engages readers – academics, practitioners, and professionals - alike.

 

My suspicions about the dullness of academic writing as well as my belief that even academic writing could (and should) be engaging, were confirmed when I started reading Stylish Academic Writing by Helen Sword.  From the onset, the title caught my attention because it is odd: “Stylish” and “academic writing” in the same phrase? 

 

Yes. In fact, Sword admits her title is an oxymoron to many academics. She describes an intriguing study in which she compiled one thousand peer-reviewed articles across ten different disciplines. Her goal? To characterize the writing in each discipline. Her findings? Well, you’ll have to read the book to find out!

 

I will say this, however: Sword highlights examples of dull academic pieces and powerfully written academic pieces from across different academic fields. In doing so, she asks the reader to pay attention to how academic authors do or not make use of writing to engage the reader and convey information in a powerful manner.

 

Sword’s book reads like a hybrid of an academic writing manual and a creative writing manual. Chapters are devoted to topics such as crafting a title, using hooks to draw in readers, and telling a story within an academic piece of writing. The ends of the chapters include exercises to try out her tips.

 

For me, the book is a confirmation that, as Sword puts it so well, “…elegant ideas deserve elegant expression;…intellectual creativity thrives best in an atmosphere of experimentation rather than conformity; and…even within the constraints of disciplinary norms, most academics enjoy a far wider range of stylistic choices than they realize” (vii.).

 

A word of warning, however: There are strong disciplinary norms that beginning academic writers may or may not choose to do battle with for their first publications - especially when working with co-writers who are grounded in the norms.  We live in a world of conformity. That’s reality. And I’m not saying that you should write a poem and expect it to be published in just any peer-reviewed academic journal.* No. However, there are ways to weave in elegance into academic writing, in all academic fields.

 

If you want to see examples of stylish academic writing and begin to experiment with your own writing, check out Sword’s book. You may just surprise yourself and others by publishing an elegant piece of academic writing – one that others will begin to secretly wish they could imitate because of its clarity, depth, elegance, and power. That would be something worth reading, or, should I say, writing, no?

 

 

*Note to reader: For those interested, the following are examples of peer-reviewed journal that publish poetry: The American Poetry Review (http://www.aprweb.org/about), The Antigonish Review (http://www.antigonishreview.com/)