Sword Drill: Successful Academic Writing

As I have indicated in other posts, I read regularly books about writing, always with an eye to improving my own writing and to provide advice to others (especially students). Helen Sword is an academic who has written several books on the topic, most recently Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017). Not too many years ago, she wrote one of my favorite books, Stylish Academic Writing, also published by Harvard in 2012.

Sword’s new book draws on her own teaching of writing, interviews with one hundred “exemplary writers,” and a survey of more than one thousand academics. This is the source of the strength of this publication, lengthy quotations and observations based on her interactions with these people. Sword also draws from others who written about the writing process, as well as her own experience in writing: “I still academic writing to be a frustrating, exhilarating, endlessly challenging process that never seems to get a any easier – but that I wouldn’t give up for the world” (p. 7).

For those who have read other books on writing, they will find little that is new, except for the many cases drawn from the academy. Sword considers writing regimens, preparing a space for writing. “To be a successful academic,“ she states, “it is not enough merely to have mastered the craft of writing intelligibly. You must also be creative enough to produce original research, persuasive enough to convey the significance of your findings to others, prolific enough to feed the tenure and promotion machine, confident enough to withstand the slings and arrows of peer review, strategic enough to pick your way safely through the treacherous terrain of academic politics, well organized to keep multiple roles and commitments, and persistent enough to keep on writing and publishing no matter what” (pp. 65, 67). Do I hear an amen?

Throughout the book, Sword offers advice that is both practical and straightforward. For instance, she provides a useful orientation to collaborative writing ventures and its benefits. The book is amply loaded with examples, other sources to consult, and ways of resisting failure. This is a very useful guide, one that academics will find of value for their own work. Sword is sensitive to the fact that most academics are not taught how to write, and must learn as they go. This book is a good place to start.


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