Saturday 20 August 2016

Academic fitness: Is your writing flabby or fit? #Acwri

I came cross an article that is titled 'Ask the Professor about academic style'. This was written to respond to the question: 
"Why is so much academic writing stodgy and unreadable? To be taken seriously, do I have to write like that too?"
The author Dr Helen Sword begins by asking academic peers what they personally thought a stylish academic writer would produce. These are the responses: 

  • express complex ideas clearly and succinctly
  • write with originality, imagination and creative flair
  • engage and hold their reader’s attention through relevant examples and anecdotes
  • convey a sense of energy, intellectual commitment and even passion
  • produce elegant, carefully crafted sentences, using language appropriate to the audience, discipline and subject matter
  • tell a story
  • provide their readers with aesthetic and/or intellectual pleasure
  • avoid jargon, except where specialised terminology is essential to the argument.  

I for one have laboured over academic papers with a dictionary at hand to attempt to make sense of the heavy text, jargon and often staid approach to writing that is impersonal and frankly not quite capturing my imagination. 

In Helen's paper she says that "'academic style' need not be an oxymoron". She goes on to advocate those writers who do truly have their readers at heart. 

Verbal fitness

Helen provides some excellent tips in the article and one of these is 'verbal fitness'. Aside from using stodgy prose, she highlights the redundancy in the way we write and over use of 'waste words' such as it, this, that, there. 

Now what really caught my eye was the Writer's Diet Test Helen has created, where you can submit between 200-2000 words and it will score your prose as lean, fit & trim, needs toning, flabby or heart attack. Words are analysed and colour coded as verbs, nouns, prepositions, adjectives/adverbs, or waste words. 

The Writer's Diet Test comes with the caveat that it is an automated feedback tool, not an assessment tool. The test identifies some of the sentence-level grammatical features that most frequently weigh down academic prose. It is not designed to judge the overall quality of your writing — or anyone else's.  

However the test is useful and Helen's book complements this. When writing, the word count can often be an issue. The test at the very least can help you weed out those waste words.  

Helen Sword


Sword, H. (2008) Ask the Professor about Academic Style. MAI Review, 2008, 3, Writing Workshop 7. 

Sword, H. (2016) The Test. The Writer's Diet [website] 

Sword, H. (2016) Writer's Diet: A Guide to Fit Prose. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

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