How successful academics write

Helen Sword is, hands down, one of the best writers on academic writing working today. The difference between Sword and other people working the writing advice patch is that she uses an interesting range of research approaches to inform her work. A new book from Sword is a nerdishly exciting moment for research educators like me and always an automatic buy. This time I was lucky enough to get a review copy of “Air and Light and Time and Space: how successful academics write” in the post.

In the interest of full disclosure, I know Helen professionally and admire her as a generous and talented senior colleague. I am one of the people interviewed during Sword’s research process for this book. I read the book with interest, but I threw out my review when Dr Amani Bell, a fellow higher education researcher, contacted me to ask if she could do one for me.

Dr Bell is a Senior Lecturer, Educational Innovation, and Honorary Senior Lecturer in the Sydney School of Education and Social Work, at the University of Sydney. Her main research focus is exploring student-staff partnerships to enhance higher education. She tweets at @AmaniBell. Take it away Amani!

How’s your writing going? If you’d like to reflect on your behavioral, artisanal, social, and emotional writing habits, try Helen Sword’s BASE quiz (background info here). It’s only four questions, so it’s pretty quick. Just drag the sliders to see the range of possible responses, admire the shape it creates, and then click on ‘see my profile’.

My profile is, rather delightfully, called the ‘seabird’. It brings into focus what I already know – that I ‘struggle to write as productively as [I] would like to’ and suggests that I ‘establish a more productive daily routine: for example, by joining with other writers to start an accountability group or a weekly write-on-site meet-up.’ I’m directed to the relevant section of Sword’s new book – Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write – for further suggestions, examples, and readings.

I am a longtime fan of Helen Sword’s work on academic writing. I first came across her lovely piece in Studies in Higher Education on Writing higher education differentlySword writes the first part of the paper in a conventional way, and then the second part in a more daring, direct and elegant way. This paper really transformed my thinking about how to write about my research.

A side note – I didn’t know Sword at that time, but I sent her a quick email saying how much I appreciated her paper. She ended up mentioning me in the acknowledgements of her 2012 book Stylish Academic Writing, which goes to show that a short note of thanks can mean a lot to an author.

Air & Light & Time & Space builds on Stylish Academic Writing to focus not so much on writing but on writers.  As Sword says on the first page:

…whenever I was invited to talk about [my books on academic writing] with faculty and graduate students, I noticed how quickly our conversations about sentence structure and style strayed to other writing-related issues: for example, work-life balance…or power dynamics…or emotion. …Gradually my scholarly gaze began to lift from the words on the page to the people who put them there…

So over a period of four years, Sword interviewed 100 academics writers and surveyed a further 1,223, including PhD students. From this impressive data-set, Sword has drawn out many different ways to approach academic writing. This is a welcome relief from the message that there are only certain ways one can be a successful writer, such as writing a certain number of words every day, or writing at a particular time of day. Sword showcases the writing habits of her research participants ‘in all their messiness, contradiction and variety’.

Each chapter contains many brief excepts from Sword’s interviewees, as well as page-long interludes that provide deeper insights into the practices of academic writers. One featured writer is the Thesis Whisperer herself (see page 143), who also gets an index entry, which is surely something to tick off the academic bucket list! The chapters conclude with a ‘Things to try’ section, so that you can apply the chapter’s findings to your own writing.

Air & Light & Time & Space busts the myth that skilled academic writers easily and quickly churn out perfectly formed prose. Describing academic writing as artisanal means viewing writing as a craft, a painstaking and time-consuming path towards making something beautiful. While I have been working to write more stylishly since first reading Sword, I see this process as a lifelong journey.

As you’d expect, the book is beautifully written. I liked that at the beginning of Part 2: Artisanal habits Sword shares with us six ‘false starts’ to the section, giving us a rare and welcome glimpse into the writing and editing processes. Sword also shares stories about the places in which she writes, and the people she writes with. In that spirit, I wrote this blog post in various ways and venues. I made hand written notes on the bus, jotted down notes in emails to myself, let things dwell in the subconscious a while, and then pulled it all together in Word. I found that writing with a glass of wine in hand at an airport bar wasn’t as effective as with a cup of coffee in my office! One of the main themes of Air & Light & Time & Space is to experiment with writing in different situations to find out what works best for you. For me it’s deadlines, travel, retreats, and Shut Up and Write. For you, it may be a completely different set of conditions.

What emotions do you feel about your writing? Frustration? Anxiety? Pleasure? Satisfaction? These are some of the emotions most commonly reported by participants in Sword’s study. Most participants reported a mix a positive and negative emotions about writing: ‘an indication that emotional ambivalence is the norm rather than the exception’ (p153). Of particular interest to readers of this blog is Sword’s finding that female PhD students are three times more likely than male PhD students to report wholly negative emotions about writing. Sword felt that this was likely due to the tendency of women to underestimate their abilities – imposter syndrome strikes again – and that ‘only after academic women have finished their PhDs and moved into academic positions does this emotion gap begin to narrow, although the prevalence of negative-only over positive-only emotions persists until retirement age’ (p154-5).

I enjoyed the details of Sword’s research study in the appendix, and it’s good example of how to write up research methods clearly and elegantly. Her very extensive and generous acknowledgements section is also a pleasure to read, and the bibliography – well let’s just say I have major bookshelf envy and would love to see Sword’s bookshelves!

If you’re looking for a quick fix, this ain’t it. As Sword says in the preface, Air & Light & Time & Space: ‘offers no ready-made blueprint for academic success…[i]nstead you will find here a flexible, customizable building plan intended to help you design your own writing practice from the ground up.’  If you’re looking for inspiration, and for guidance about writing that will keep you company throughout your PhD and beyond, then I highly recommend this book.

Disclaimer: I have met Helen and am an admirer of her work, but purchased the book from my own funds and was not solicited to write this review.

Thanks Amani! Yes – I was thrilled to be in the index #bucketlist. In my opinion, if you are seriously interested in improving your writing – or teaching others, this book is an essential buy. Did you do the quiz? What’s your BASE profile, and did you find the quiz helpful? Did anyone get the coveted ‘rock’? Let us know in the comments section.

Other books by Helen Sword (if you buy these using the link your purchase supports the Whisperer)

Stylish Academic Writing

The writer’s diet: a guide to fit prose

Recent book reviews on the Whisperer

The Professor is IN

Critical thinking – the hardest doctoral skill of all?

Will my children be damaged by my PhD?

35 thoughts on “How successful academics write

  1. klinkehoffen says:

    Fabulous post: thanks so much. Am just investigating purchase options, and have popped a link up on Moodle for my undergraduate research students to check out their writing habits 🙂

    • amanibell says:

      Thank you! I hope your students find it useful – I don’t think we do enough to support UG students with writing.

  2. Phillipa Bellemore says:

    What a timely post for me as I am writing my thesis daily with about nine months to go. I like the idea of writing as artisan practice and the role of emotions. My emotions are a mix and range from panic to a sense of achievement – all in an hour! I resist the idea of set ways to write and I often let ideas percolate. In the past I viewed daydreaming as procrastination but now realise it is time well spent. To control anxiety I set a daily word count and this seems to help me.

  3. Judith Newton says:

    That you so much for bringing Helen and her work to my attention. I’ve just ordered her books and eagerly look forward to reading them. Kind regards, Judith (PhD student)

  4. Katherine Firth says:

    Ummmm, this is probably not going to surprise you Inger, but I’m a rock (I’m a wonky diamond shape, which is a lovely way to think about how I think about writing.)

  5. Mm says:

    This looks brilliant Inger! The Harvard site says in Australia you need to get a local bookstore to order it in through footprints site. Do you know of anyone stocking it? I’d really love to get this.

  6. Tash says:

    Removed it from the library shelf here….it is all for me, at least for a little while. I came out as a hang glider!

    • amanibell says:

      Oops, sorry about that and thanks for picking it up. Inger, are you able to relink to a non Sydney Uni library version? Thanks!

  7. Charlotte says:

    Does this book have figures or diagrams in it? I’m looking at getting a copy but need to decide whether to get a physical copy or a kindle version. My kindle is ancient and only displays text, hence the original question.

    • amanibell says:

      It’s pretty much all text – just some boxes around excerpts, and there are a small number of word clouds and graphs, so I don’t think you’ll miss out if you get the kindle version. However the hard copy is nicely done – a nice cover, layout, font etc.

  8. msiDelicious 🍀 (@msidelicious) says:

    This is well written review with good insights. Enjoyed reading it, but I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there’s going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up. The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows. And I’m much more a gardener than an architect.

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