I read a lot of books about writing and research. That’s not surprising, as I write them too and I always want to see what others are writing. And today… Helen Sword has followed up Stylish academic writing with a study of successful academic writers – it’s called Air & Light & Time & Space.
Sword identifies four elements that combine to make a successful academic writing practice: behavioural habits such as persistence; artisanal habits such as crafting and artistry; social habits such as collaboration; and emotional habits such as risk-taking. There is an accompanying website that you can use to look at your own writing habits. Once you have your ‘diagnosis’ you can then consider strategies that you might use to change any one of the four ‘cornerstones’.
I was very interested in the empirical basis of the book, a survey followed by 100 interviews. The book offers many ‘boxed’ condensed portraits of the academic writers who were interviewed, all named. There is also a generous use of quotations which illustrate the diversity of writing practices across countries and disciplines.
As I read it, the message Sword drew from her data is this – everyone sorts out their own academic writing practice… but the four habits derived from successful academic writers can be used to examine what you do and how you might work on your own academic writing.
I particularly like the way that Sword debunks writing advice full of shoulds, and focuses instead on what writers may do.
May I ignore the advice of all of those productivity-pumping books, articles, and websites that tell me I should write in a certain way, at certain intervals, for a certain length of time? Yes, you may. Alternatively, you may choose a prescriptive formula and follow it to the letter if doing so works best for you. (p. 42)*
Sword lists a number of metaphors that dominate writing advice – blast or sculpt, bungee or map, lines or boxes, roots or rhizomes, snack or binge, sprint or marathon, march or dance. She suggests that while writing advice often lands on one side of the binary – snacking good, binging bad for instance – academic writers often have a personal preference for one or the other, and many people do both at different times. Besides giving permission to become non-binary, Sword also offers some alternative couplings – stew or marinate, juggle or bowl, track or float, cloisters or commons – which address other aspects of the writing process.
But finding your own writing practice is not just about rethinking what you do. It’s also about being informed about producing text. Sword’s chapter on the craft of writing (Chapter 5) contains a very helpful list of the ‘stuff’ that experienced and successful writers attend to – elegance of expression, concision, structure, voice, identity, clarity, accessibility, vocabulary, syntax, agency, audience, telling a story, “the big picture”, the visual (typography, pagination and layout) and the technologies of writing. Any budding academic writer could easily use this list as a self-guided map for working on their own writerly artisanship.
Each of Sword’s chapters concludes with ‘things to try’ – examining your own practice, examining the ways in which you think about academic writing, and further reading. The further reading is VERY comprehensive and ranges through literary, creative writing and academic writing texts. Years of fun could be had checking these out, and for anyone thinking about a career in academic writing, this is a handy ready-made bibliography.
I really enjoyed reading the book and I recommend it to you (but see note below). It’s got loads of helpful pointers, and a reassuring stance. The habits of successful writers can help you to think about what strategies might work for you.
And if you are interested in following up Sword’s debunking of the daily writing practice mantra, she has written a journal article where she addresses Robert Boice’s original argument – she describes the evidence for the advice to write daily as a ‘perilously thin research thread’. She argues on the basis of her empirical research that:
The bottom line is that Boice’s austere methods do not reflect – and in some cases are antithetical to – the real-life practices of productive academics. For the vast majority of the colleagues I interviewed, writing is neither a daily routine nor a rare occurrence, neither an immovable constant nor a random event, neither a public activity nor a rigidly sequestered one; writing is the work that gets done in the interstices between teaching, office hours, faculty meetings, administration, email, family events, and all the other messy, sprawling demands of academic life. The secret to their academic success lies not in any specific element of their daily routine but in a complex cluster of attributes and attitudes that I call their ‘writing BASE’: behavioural habits of discipline and persistence, artisanal habits of craftsmanship and pride, social habits of collegiality and collaboration, and emotional habits of positivity and resilience (Sword, 2017). (p. 320)
Even though I’m a daily writer like Sword, I completely agree with her argument about the dangers of assuming a One Best Way. (I’ve posted about daily writing as therapeutic desensitising treatment for writer’s block – my attempt to show its specificity and potential uses.) Free writing can be very helpful – but it is not mandatory. In Sword’s words you may choose to do it. There really is no one way to write, you have to sort out what works for you, when, and on what. You have agency.
And Sword’s latest book can certainly help widen your thinking about how to build your own repertoire of writing strategies and practice. Also see her piece in the Times Higher about how her research might inform academic writing provision in universities.
I don’t want people to read my posts about books as me saying that they must rush out and spend some of their limited funds on these books. Books are expensive. You need to pick and choose which ones you will buy. If you’re short of cash, you want to choose books which you’re going to use over and over again. So I often say at the end of writing about a book – get your library to order it. So please read this post, and the other one or two that will appear over the next few weeks as having that message. These books are interesting and worth reading – so if Sword’s book isn’t already there, get your library to get it in because then others will benefit from it too.