bad writing advice


There’s some very bad writing advice out there. Most of it is well-intentioned. Most doesn’t aim to make profit from anxious writers. But unfortunately readily available writing advice is not uniformly good.

Does this matter? Caveat emptor perhaps? Well, there’s a lot of research on writing, and on academic writing in particular. A lot. So every now and then I find myself wondering why people offering writing advice don’t consult the available evidence.

Academic writing is a multi-disciplinary research field. Let me give you a bit of a sketch – by no means complete, but enough to show some key components.

English, Writing, and Rhetoric and Communications Faculties host Language and Linguistics scholarship, and research on writers and on writing practices. Each of the three has distinctive traditions and its own corpus of publications. And each of the three is a field with its own sub-fields. Language and Linguistics for example includes what we might call Genre Studies, Discourse Studies, Corpus Linguistics, Systemic Functional Linguistics and New Literacy Studies. And then there are applied fields like Composition Studies, English as a Second/Foreign Language and English for Academic Purposes  – these not only draw on research from other language related fields, they also produce their own research.

Psychologists are interested in academic writing behaviours. Most of the advice that you see about writing habits – speed writing, daily writing, motivation  – originates in psychology research, although the connection sometimes gets lost in translation.

Anthropologists have long been concerned with writing, and related social science disciplines have taken an interest in writing too; this scholarship focuses in part on the ways in which writing produces particular, culturally/materially/socially situated knowledges.

And did I mention Education? There’s more writing researchers here, and we are most often interested in the teaching of writing. Some of us are located in special units devoted to researcher development while others, like me, are in education faculties. Education researchers interested in academic writing draw from a range of research conducted in other disciplines, as well as developing our own. For example, it is largely educators in graduate support services who have been researching writing groups, writing courses and boot camps. Educators often use “Creative Writing” (back to English) pedagogies too.

And this is by no means a definitive list of where research and scholarship on academic writing can be found. But it is perhaps enough to suggest that there is writing advice, and then there is research-informed writing advice. No surprises in what I prefer.

And I so completely understand the motivations of  Cheryl Ball and Drew Loewe who recently edited a book called – yes – Bad Ideas About Writing. (open access)

Bad Ideas About Writing  takes issue with some of the common tips and tricks routinely provided for undergraduate students. Some of what is said in the book also applies to doctoral writing, and to academic writing more generally.

 Bad Ideas About Writing is divided into six sections. These are: Bad ideas about what good writing is, Bad ideas about who good writers are, Bad ideas about style, usage and grammar, Bad ideas about writing techniques, Bad ideas about genres, Bad ideas about assessing writing, Bad ideas about writing and digital technology and Bad ideas about writing teachers. These titles give a flavour of what is in each section and this is made even more obvious in the titles of the various section contributions.

The section entitled “Bad Ideas about style use and grammar” contains nine pieces of about three to five pages each. And these writers have set their sights on: Strunk and White set the standard; Good writers always follow my rules; Writers must develop a strong original voice; Leave yourself out of your writing; Never use “I”; The passive voice should be avoided; Teaching grammar improves writing; Good writers must know grammatical terminology; and Grammar should be taught separately as rules to learn.

Each of these separate contributions draws on specific research. For example, Laura Lisabeth argues in the piece entitled “Strunk and White set the standard” that this most popular of texts has its roots in nineteenth century handbooks of conversation etiquette. This is an important connection, Lisabeth argues, as the

…kind of writing Strunk and White put forth as good writing is in fact a discourse that limits and excludes, not reflecting the valuable ways English is practiced in local and digital contexts and by a variety of writers from different language traditions. Insistence on the kind of English constructed by The Elements of Style is uninformed at best and … unethical and racist at worst. (p. 118)

Lisabeth shows that the language ‘standards’ espoused by Strunk and White have been contested ever since the first edition was published. She suggests that

One way to begin dismantling Strunk and White’s bad idea about writing is by understanding Standard Academic English as a historically formed, culturally specific language among many other languages. Reframe the notion of academic writing as a fixed, unchanging, and neutral discourse; think of it instead as a flexible toolkit of language practices that change with the user and the context. (p. 119)

Lisabeth sees writing as a socially situated practice not a neutral tool. Her argument accords with views widely held across the humanities and social sciences that texts are cultural constructions. This view doesn’t mean of course that Lisabeth is advocating that ‘anything goes’ in relation to writing. Like all of the contributors in the book she recognises that conventions exist and that they generally need to be followed. But she wants readers to resist using texts like Strunk and White as infallible laws, and instead to be open to cultural nuances and digital, popular and (what linguists call) World Englishes.

In the same section, Monique Dufours and Jennifer Ahern-Dodson tackle process advice rules. They argue that rule-driven approaches – always start writing with an outline, always use a sequence of steps to produce a paper, only write in short bursts, only work on one project at a time – can create problems if they are held as unwavering truths.

Rule-driven writing instruction, the pair suggest, actually undermines the very skills it is designed to foster (p. 123). Writers  hold onto rules even when they are clearly not working. Dufours and Ahern-Dodson propose that readers: (1) translate rules into suggestions and (2) ask questions about the use of rules. They illustrate these propositions with an example that is familiar to most of us:

Take, for example, the common advice to always begin … with a catchy hook. Catchy hooks such as apt, vivid anecdotes can be used to excellent effect, if they meet the needs of the text and the circumstances. A writer can try it (this tactic) out and see what happens. What effect does it have on the text? Does it meet the audience’s and context’s needs (i.e., the rhetorical situation)? Does it contribute to expressing what the writer is trying to say? How do real readers respond? In this way, writers can experiment with techniques, deliberate about their implications, and make judgments about the best course of action among their options. And, most importantly, writers focus their goals and purposes, rather than on the rote adherence to rules, which is more meaningful… (p. 124).

Dufours and Hern-Dodson’s stance – which focuses on the writer’s capacity to diagnose and choose for themselves – is  taken by all of the book contributors. Advice is just that, they say, advice. If we understand writing problems to be the norm rather than the exception, then we also understand that to become a better writer means building a repertoire of process tools and techniques. We writers don’t need prescriptions, they urge. Rather, we can approach each writing task thinking about that problems we might, and are facing, in the particular piece. We then think about what resources we might draw on to address them. We try them out. We see what works better for us in that specific situation.

All of the chapters in Bad Ideas About Writing offer further reading.  Most of the authors refer to key texts and research; some also point to the advice books and blogs that use research.

Regardless of your/my experience with academic writing, most of us would benefit from reading bits of this book. Those of us who research and teach academic writing are likely to find some new reading matter. Those relatively new to academic writing will not only find a wealth of texts to explore, but also some useful insights. We mightn’t agree with all of it, but we can debate it… and as in any scholarly debate it helps if we are well informed.

And the material in the book will help readers to develop writing advice crap detectors, useful to discriminate between the proliferation of writing advice – some bad, some not so bad, some good.

Image by Frame Harirak on Unsplash.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, advice, poor advice, research, writing research and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to bad writing advice

  1. styleeternel says:

    “well-intentioned” sounds like bad verbing. Which is ironic, because this post is about avoiding bad writing. 😦


  2. Jonathan Downie says:

    This kind of book needs to be spread more widely. I have given up counting the amount of times people have used old chestnuts like “avoid the passive voice.” From now on, I will just point them to this book.


  3. Pingback: Teaching writing in ‘general’ EAP | Academic Emergence

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