style and structure – according to Berger

There are a lot of books about academic writing out there. And I buy a lot of them too! The majority of academic writing books are written by people who are in academic development or writing instruction; others work in ordinary discipline-based teaching and researching jobs but have developed a writing specialism (like me). Many of this last group of #acwri writers – but not all – have a literature or linguistics background (also like me). But there are other academic writing books written by people who are just very experienced writers.

Probably the best known of the books written by experienced writers is Howard Becker’s Writing for social scientists. How to start and finish your thesis, book or article. Most people like Becker’s book and I do too. It’s always one I suggest to people because it’s so well written and, yes, just plain sensible.

I recently picked up Arthur Asa Berger’s book The academic writer’s toolkit. A user’s manual. Berger is also a very accomplished and prolific author, having written over 60 books in his career. As it turns out, he’s also something of a scholar of academic writing and has clearly been reading about writing, as well as doing it, for quite some time.

(An aside: being a student of academic writing is good in my view. I always check books on academic writing, doctoral education and supervision to see whether the author has done anything other than “Do it my way” … and I almost inevitably prefer those books which are grounded not only in a writer’s experience but also in a serious study of the area. But back to Berger.)

Berger’s book is divided into two sections. The first deals with the writing process and the second with different genres of academic writing. Most of the chapters give a general overview of the topic and then offer a set of principles which are exemplified and explained. There are also quite a lot of summary lists. Berger likes a good list.

So for example, a chapter which addresses structure and style begins by looking at the importance of word choice, the utility of thesis statements, the structure and function of paragraphs, the use of transitions, subheadings and different writing styles. Each of these sections is of necessity pretty brief. By and large the sections simply provide some broad guidance, but there are also helpful leads that a reader might want to follow up to get more detail. But the benefit of putting things together as one, in this way, is that Berger shows the range of decisions that an academic writer needs to make in order to write clearly.

The second part of the structure and style chapter offers one of Berger’s lists. Berger’s ‘good writing style’ list is this:

Vary your sentence length and structure
• Write clearly in an articulate and easily comprehensible manner
• Avoid jargon to the extent it is possible
• Move up and down the “ladder of abstraction”
(Berger explains this as from the concrete to the abstract and back again)
Use narratives when they will be helpful
• Provide your readers with new ideas and fascinating information – that is, be interesting
• Offer data that explains trends
• Solve practical problems
• Build upon what your readers know
• Keep away from the cliche
• Be careful with humour
• Make your paper’s structure show
• Use repetition wisely
(p. 52)

Now this is a pretty mixed list and it is expressed as a set of ‘rules’ which always makes me nervous. Anyone reading this blog will know that I don’t think about academic writing as having rules, but being more like a set of conventions which have developed over time. Nevertheless, Berger’s list is useful, even if only to help the reader to think about which things they might agree with – or not.

And I do as a reader and a writer agree with some of his points. I do for instance think that varying sentence length is generally preferable to always writing sentences that are the same length. It just makes the prose more interesting to read. Ditto not using jargon and lots of clichés and trying to make the writing interesting and lively. But of course this kind of advice is not unique to Berger. The strength of Berger’s book is that he has gathered together a range of relatively uncontentious wisdom and put it all together in a readable way. And the book does in fact follow his own style and structure advice.

This is certainly a book worth dipping into from time to time. It’s perhaps a bit like consulting Doctor Spock … for those of you who can remember this, reading Spock was like ringing your Mum and asking “What do I do if the baby has a temperature” and the answer comes, “Don’t worry too much yet, temperatures usually go away, try a baby aspirin and wait for a couple of hours before running off to A and E”. So it’s this kind of advice for academic writers that Berger offers… reassuring, as well as straightforward, no nonsense stuff.

I think it’s a book which deserves a few more recommendations and a bit more reading than I suspect it gets at present.

A caveat: Every now and then I post about an academic writing book. When I do this, it isn’t a suggestion that you ought to rush out and buy it. It’s more a case of suggesting that it’s first of all worth checking to see if the book is in the library. If it is, then you might want to have a look at it. If it’s not there, then you might want to suggest that library gets a copy. Then decide if you want it for your own library.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
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