Magazine article Times Higher Education

My Readers? I Buried Them!

Magazine article Times Higher Education

My Readers? I Buried Them!

Article excerpt

Dense, wordy, wooden, Foucault-flaunting prose? There is another way, scholar tells Matthew Reisz.

If you have ever needlessly added the term "Foucauldian" to a journal article or bludgeoned readers by starting an epic sentence with reference to the "post-Mendel application of Lamarck's apparently superseded scientific theory by non-empirical social scientists", then you have followed the trend for "wordy, wooden, weak-verbed" writing that dominates academic prose.

Those are two of the examples picked out by Helen Sword, associate professor in the Centre for Academic Development, University of Auckland, who hopes to bridge the "massive gap between what most people consider good writing and what academics typically produce and publish" in her book Stylish Academic Writing, published on 26 April.

Her stated aim is to "start a stylistic revolution that will end in improved reading conditions for all".

Professor Sword told Times Higher Education that after surveying a dataset of 1,000 articles in leading journals (of which she analysed 500 for specific stylistic criteria) as well as 100 style guides, the conclusions were stark.

"You could safely say that fewer than 10 per cent of the articles I surveyed met all three criteria of stylish academic writing: engagement, accessibility and craft," she said.

Many of the articles were notable for dull titles, formulaic structures, "dull, passive prose" and "multisyllabic, abstract nouns".

Yet Professor Sword did find writers in every discipline who were effective in engaging their readers. …

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