My readers? I buried them!

Dense, wordy, wooden, Foucault-flaunting prose? There is another way, scholar tells Matthew Reisz

April 26, 2012

If you have ever needlessly added the term "Foucauldian" to a journal article or bludgeoned readers by starting an epic sentence with reference to the "post-Mendel application of Lamarck's apparently superseded scientific theory by non-empirical social scientists", then you have followed the trend for "wordy, wooden, weak-verbed" writing that dominates academic prose.

Those are two of the examples picked out by Helen Sword, associate professor in the Centre for Academic Development, University of Auckland, who hopes to bridge the "massive gap between what most people consider good writing and what academics typically produce and publish" in her book Stylish Academic Writing, published on 26 April.

Her stated aim is to "start a stylistic revolution that will end in improved reading conditions for all".

Professor Sword told Times Higher Education that after surveying a dataset of 1,000 articles in leading journals (of which she analysed 500 for specific stylistic criteria) as well as 100 style guides, the conclusions were stark.

"You could safely say that fewer than 10 per cent of the articles I surveyed met all three criteria of stylish academic writing: engagement, accessibility and craft," she said.

Many of the articles were notable for dull titles, formulaic structures, "dull, passive prose" and "multisyllabic, abstract nouns".

Yet Professor Sword did find writers in every discipline who were effective in engaging their readers. Comparing the openings of two articles on evolutionary biology, she comments: "Amazingly, the authors of the first make the study of ant communities sound fascinating, while the author of the second succeeds in rendering penis size one of the most boring topics on earth."

Although Professor Sword recalls the thrill of using phrases such as "psychosexual morphology" and dropping in the adjective "Foucauldian" - interestingly, only two of the seven articles in her sample using this "F-word" showed any signs of first-hand engagement with the work of cultural theorist Michel Foucault - she warns about the dangers of academics' bad writing habits. All scholars need "to interact with wider audiences at least occasionally: for example, when describing their work to grant-making bodies, university promotion committees, departmental colleagues, undergraduate students, or members of the non-academic public".

"Writers have choices, even within disciplinary conventions," explained Professor Sword. "Some early career academics don't want to write like that but think they have to, so there's a real sense of relief when I tell them they don't. It's all about empowerment and giving people the courage to write well."

For a review of Stylish Academic Writing, see next week's Times Higher Education.

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