Helen Sword has made a career of studying how academic writers write.  You may know her from The Writer’s Diet book and online test to tell if your writing is flabby or fit.  Maybe you’ve tried to emulate the elegant expression of ideas surveyed and analyzed in Stylish Academic Writing.  Or perhaps you’ve read her newest book, Air & Light & Time & Space, which describes the many and varied writing practices of successful academic writers (yes, even if you don’t write every day, you can be a successful writer).  If this is your first introduction to her work, check out her catalog for enlightenment.

At the Edge, we think she’s exceptional.  Dr. Sword graciously agreed to a virtual interview about writing in academia:

Your home field is Modernist literature. What brought you into studying and writing about writing?

It all started with The Writer’s Diet.  For years I’d been giving my literature students a handout called “Editing your Prose”; they would accept it politely, take a cursory glance, and shove it to the bottom of their backpacks, never to be seen again.  One day, on a whim, I retitled the handout “The Writer’s Diet” and added some cheesy metaphors about cutting fat from your diet, avoiding the clotted cream of jargon – that sort of thing.  My students loved it; they praised it in their end-of-year evaluations, gave copies to their friends, and started asking me for permission to use it in other contexts such as school teaching and newspaper editing.  That’s when I realized I must be onto something. After publishing my book with that title, I worked with a colleague in Computer Science to program the online WritersDiet Test, which allows you to paste a piece of your writing into a text box, push a button, and get a tongue-in-cheek diagnosis of “flabby” or “fit.”  My Writer’s Diet website (www.writersdiet.com) now attracts more than 70,000 unique visitors per year, so a lot of people seem to find it useful.  And from that point onward I was hooked on writing about academic writing, a field about which there turned out to be very little empirical research.

What did you find most interesting about other academics’ writing habits?

I’ve read a number of how-to-be-a-productive-writer books that contain variations on the same advice: write every day, write at the same time every day, stop worrying or complaining, just write. But when I started interviewing successful writers about their work habits, I discovered that very few of them follow such consistent or virtuous practices.  Some write in the morning, others at night; some write every day, others only in the semester breaks; some “write to think,” others “think to write.”  The amount of variety in their habits fascinated and astonished me.

You’ve criticized “write every day” mantras from the likes of Paul Silvia and Robert Boice.  Do you dislike them because they’re often seen as the only prescription for being an academic writer, when in fact many if not most academics’ writing habits are far more varied, or do you think the advice is actively harmful?

Writing every day is a great practice to try, and I highly recommend it.  But most of the successful academics I interviewed do not write every day; it’s certainly not the only way to be productive. So many writers already carry around a heavy burden of guilt: I’m not fast enough, not talented enough, not skillful enough, not productive enough.  Why add one more stone to the load?  If daily writing works for you, that’s fantastic.  But if it doesn’t, try some other strategies instead.  My new book is full of alternative practices and suggestions, nearly all of which have worked for some writer somewhere.

If you could change one of your own writing habits, which would it be?

I’d love to be able to write more quickly; nearly every sentence or paragraph that I publish takes ages to find its final form, and afterwards I still find myself wishing that I could make just a few more tweaks to the printed version.  But I’ve come to recognize that slow writing and meticulous editing are not “bad habits” that can or should be changed; they’re simply my way of working. Writing this book [Air & Light & Time & Space] taught me not to be so hard on myself: I carve out as much writing time as I can and try not to berate myself if my progress feels slow.  Equally importantIy, I don’t let myself feel guilty or discouraged if my daily writing routine slips for a while.

You found that in writing workshops, the gender ratio is almost invariably 2:1 in favor of women.  We’ve found that many more women than men tend to enroll in our grant pacing (project management) workshops as well.  Why do you think more women than men enroll in these kinds of workshops?

Perhaps female academics are less secure about their writing than their male colleagues?  Or perhaps women are more secure than men about seeking help and development advice?  There’s probably some truth to both these theories; but rather than asking why more women than men enroll in writing workshops, I prefer to shift the question and address the implications of this trend for those of us who support faculty writing.  For example, if some academics (mainly women) are drawn to group environments, while others (mainly men) tend to avoid social learning, what alternative forms of learning might the latter cohort find more appealing and useful than workshops and retreats? (Or are the academics who don’t come to your project management workshops resistant to professional development altogether?)  I’d also be interested in knowing whether the kinds of workshops and learning communities favored by many academic women are undervalued (and therefore underfunded) by the male deans and provosts who hold the majority of senior management roles at universities worldwide.  These are knotty questions that have no easy answers but are certainly worth asking.

From your research, have you found particular writing problems that plague biomedical scientists more than writers from other disciplines?

My research focuses mainly on tracing commonalities rather than identifying disciplinary differences.  Writing is a complex, emotionally fraught task for nearly all academic writers, and no discipline is immune from these challenges.  Having said that, I’ve noted some stylistic issues that frequently crop up in medical journals, and in science writing more generally. The most common is a lack of attention to craft; many scientists, it seems, have never learned how to construct a strong sentence or even how to spot a weak one.  Here’s an example from an article recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association:

The frequency of false-positive cardiac catheterization laboratory activation for suspected STEMI is relatively common in community practice, depending on the definition of false-positive.

We can drill down to the grammatical core of the sentence by identifying its subject, verb, and predicate:

The frequency of false-positive cardiac catheterization laboratory activation for suspected STEMI is relatively common in community practice, depending on the definition of false-positive.

“The frequency is common” makes no sense; it’s a tautological sentence, like saying “the rain is rainy.”  This article – which has nine named authors – presumably went through a robust peer review and copyediting process in order to get published in JAMA; yet not a single person along the way appears to have noticed that this key sentence is rotten at the core.

What’s the biggest difference between writing a paper for submission to a journal and writing a grant?  What should writers of each keep in mind?

Journal articles generally speak to specialized audiences using specialized language; grant applications, on the other hand, must appeal to non-specialists with little tolerance for disciplinary jargon.  A grant application has to be punchy enough to rise to the top of the pile, persuasive enough to convince a group of highly skeptical readers that your project is worth funding.  How do you manage that?  By telling a clear and simple story; by employing concrete language and examples; by keeping your sentences short and sharp.  If you’re used to writing academic articles that do none of these things, you’re unlikely ever to get your ideas past a grant-making committee.

Writers…with a growth mindset never stop seeking out new ways of developing and testing the limits of their craft. – Helen Sword, Air & Light & Time & Space

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