9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
Wow, can this girl write. 'Spellbound' would be the word that springs to mind: for Prof. Sword has a beautiful turn of phrase, that I accept I will aspire to all my life, but will be unlikely to ever attain.
The book impresses on so many levels. Firstly: it's a beautiful book, nicely bound, lovely graphics on the cover, precisely printed with amazing, effortless punctuation and precise placing of each word. Secondly: though one could argue that it's a dry subject, Prof Sword handles it beautifully, entertainingly and with alacrity. Thirdly: though it is American spelling throughout: the text is crafted with clear and concise prose that is a delight to read.
What struck me on watching one of the latest Hollywood blockbusters last weekend, was just how quickly the American language is diverging from classical English: for it no longer comes down to the spelling of color or colour, but also the very basis on which our sentences rest. The film was intriguing in the sense that it had some wonderful dialogue on one hand, and on the other, whole strings of words and sentences that were unintelligible! This is a shame: for surely it must be the first duty of any author or writer to communicate with his/her audience. ( I am certain that many Americans would have the same view of some English writers).
The NHS is presently going through a drive whereby patients can request copies of clinic letters. This, at first glance is a good thing. My problem, which the author highlights unequivocally, is that often clever, learned people hide behind impenetrable jargon and see no need to explain it to their audience - in this instance my patients! Thus; I had a little old lady who had been to a specialist clinic, and only on the day of her operation did she learn that a hip revision meant that the old hip would be removed and a new one inserted ( she refused ). Whether we know what revision means or not; my point is that she should not have been allowed to leave any of those three (!) clinics without knowing precisely what was being offered, in words she could understand. Similarly, yesterday, a patient who brought her clinic letter and asked me to explain what "serious compromise of systolic function" meant. Of course, I am used to such jargon and was able to clarify, but why was she allowed to leave that clinic without someone telling her that she has a serious, life-threatening problem with her heart?
The most tantalising thing about this book is the gift of hope that it offers: for it reinforces my belief that there are a few people out there who write reports, articles, papers or books for the attention of others and who strive word-by-word, line-by-line to be better at this practise tomorrow, than they are today: and the fact that Helen Sword is way ahead of many of us should not discourage us from making the attempt because she has shown us what amazing results can be achieved. With many thanks.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 4 March 2013
This is a guide for the willing. If you seriously want to make your thesis, dissertation, paper or journal article more readable, you'll find plenty of inspiration here.
"Elegant ideas," says Helen Sword in the preface, "deserve elegant expression." She subscribes firmly to the style-and-substance view of language: style clothes ideas.
Ms Sword may be writing diplomatically. She carefully distances herself from any hint that poor writing might be a symptom of poor thinking. Her book, she suggests, serves two types of writer: those who want to write engagingly and accessibly all the time; and "those who opt to cross that bridge only occasionally."
Academic writing, then, doesn't have to be stylish.
Ms Sword's book is welcome principally because it's based on quantitative research. Ms Sword offers us help in creating eye-catching titles, first-person anecdotes, attention-grabbing opening paragraphs and more. She offers `Things to Try' at the end of each chapter and, interspersed through the text, intriguing examples from writers she likes.
But it's the chapter on citation systems that contains the real bombshell.
Sword quotes from an article by psychologists Richard Madigan, Susan Johnson and Patricia Linton, who declare that a student following the American Psychological Association citation style "comes not only to write like a psychologist but to think like one as well."
With these words, the gaff is well and truly blown. Style-and-substance is a chimera. Thinking happens in language; the style of our expression delineates the very contours of our ideas.
And that, finally, is why this book matters so much. An intellectual who can't write or speak clearly is an intellectual who can't think clearly. And what kind of intellectual is that?
A longer version of this review appears at:
Ted Cadsby, in his ambitious and enjoyable new book, discusses two worlds.
World #1 is `straightforward'. In this world, we easily differentiate meaningful signals from noise; patterns are consistent across different situations; feedback is direct, timely and clear.
World #2, in contrast, is `complex'. Here, signals are buried in noise; patterns vary across situations because each situation is unique; feedback on our actions is indirect, delayed and ambiguous.
Cadsby argues that our brains have evolved to manage World #1 and are unprepared for World #2. In fact, we have, figuratively, two brains: the `old' brain, which operates largely unconsciously, and the `new' brain, which has evolved over the past 100,000 years and which we think of as conscious. We think automatically with the `old' brain, and effortfully with the `new' one. But the partnership is unequal: the `new' brain has limited access to the `old' one. As a result of this `brain-brain' gap, the way we think is not always matched to our modern world, and so we face the second challenge of a `brain-world' gap.
The challenge is to close the gaps.
Cadsby develops this thesis in great detail. He synthesises huge quantities of information and simplifies it elegantly. This may not be quite a popular science book and it may not be quite a management book; but it's certainly a page-turner.
And yet, something bothers me.
It might be a certain pessimism that seems to pervade the book - a pessimism I also found in Kahnemann's Thinking Fast and Slow. Rather than celebrating our successes in combining Type #1 and Type #2 thinking - in collaborative research, perhaps, or in artistic production, business and diplomacy - Cadsby invokes the quietism of Stoicism and Buddhism to help us outmanoeuvre Type 1 thinking and the depressing negativity bias of our emotions.
So what's missing?
Perhaps the clue is in the `cultural big bang' that Cadsby describes early in the book. Something happened to our thinking at that point; something that allowed us to transcend the difference between Type1 and Type 2 thinking and combine them; something that offered us the opportunity, not merely to generalise, but to innovate. Cadsby acknowledges that this cognitive leap expanded our working memories and enabled us to speculate about the past and the future. But there's a more radically significant element in this new `cathedral of the mind', as Stephen Mithen has called it. And Cadsby, I can't help feeling, has missed it.
That element is metaphorical thinking.
Metaphorical thinking has generated the massive potential for creativity that continues to drive our cognitive development. Where, I wonder, might metaphor might fit into Ted Cadsby's splendidly articulated argument?
A longer version of this review is posted here:
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
This is a textbook on how to write. But what an entertaining textbook! And it is not just for Academics; the rest of us can also benefit. Yes, it has many wordy examples of what is bad, and others of what is good, but knitting it all together is Helen Sword's light and engaging narrative.
We might skip the less interesting examples, and we don't often need to follow any of the copious references neatly linked from the text, and the Things To Try are analogous to the 'exercises' we used to find at the end of each chapter in the Maths book, except, delightfully, many of these TTT are interesting and fun.
Her opening paragraph in Chapter One mentions my heroes Strunk and White and immediately I warmed to her. Reading on, so many times in the book she picks up on things I have also fought against when preparing technical documents; she is always hammering her points about simplicity, use of good English, avoiding convoluted hanging clauses, and cutting out jargon. She reinforces these themes with surprisingly detailed and rigorous analysis and relevant examples.
This is the first time I have actually enjoyed reading something I should class as a textbook. In several places I felt myself cheering her on. I have been working on trying to improve my writing style for several years, and had dribbled to a halt, but this gives me new ground to cover and with any luck it might take me on to a another level. To my surprise, I think I might have just become a fan!
Thank you Vine for giving me the opportunity to benefit from reading this.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 20 July 2012
I bought this as a resource for an undergraduate essay writing class that I teach, but it's turned out to be very useful in my own writing. Sword identifies a number of key problems with much academic writing - poor structure, too many abstract nouns, horrible titles, unnecessary use of jargon, etc. - that I was embarrassed to identify in my own written work. Each chapter ends with suggestions for improving your own writing - some of which I've already put to the test, and found incredibly helpful. My only complaint - and it's a relatively minor one - is that some chapters are a bit heavy on quantitative data. It's great to know that Sword has done her homework, but a bit tedious to have to read about it in so much detail! Apart from that - highly recommended.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Writing a book about writing is fraught with danger. If the author expresses something inelegantly or with a lack of clarity it can seriously undermine the message. Helen Sword avoids this pitfall by writing in a clear, authoritative and engaging way. If there is one key message from this book - and I think there is - it is that academics should give more consideration to how they write. Academics (particularly in my own field of law) tend to use jargon in the form of legal terminology which is not easily comprehended by the layman. This encourages the use, subconsciously, of other jargon which is unnecessary. Academics also fall into the trap of seeking to flaunt their intellectual prowess by the use of unusual words or unduly complex sentences.
This book is really an attempt to break some of the shackles of academic writing by encouraging authors to recognise that there is no "right or wrong" way to write. Think about the target readership. Try to express complex ideas as simply as possible. The use of short sentences can be a valuable technique.
As the book is aimed at an academic audience it has to be based upon a foundation of research. Academics won't take it seriously if you just write something based on 30 years experience of reading academic texts. So, Helen Sword has done the research and analysed 1,000 academic articles. She has also gone beyond her own discipline to do this and this is admirable. The task of going even further and considering good writing from high quality non-academic sources would have been an interesting addition but probably impractical. The reporting of the quantitative research data was rather heavy going, though I understand why it was included. I thought that it lessened the impact of the book but overall it is a very helpful work with many useful and constructive suggestions.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 26 July 2013
I was disappointed with this book. The title promised such a lot. Whilst I agree with Helen Sword that some academic writing is bad, I don't agree that nearly all of it is (at least not in my field of medieval literary study): 'so much uninspring, cookie-cutter prose'. Not only is this negative assessment lacking in generosity about people's hard work, it also makes it impossible to give this book to students as a guide to writing; it is likely to undermine their faith in their teachers as writing practitioners.
This is not really a writing guide, it is rather a sociological or anthropological study of academic writing habits in a few disciplines and takes, as a special focus, bad examples. Sword writes as if she is an outside observer: 'I assembled a data set of one thousand academic articles from across the sciences, social sciences, and humanities'. Frequently it sets out its case statistically: '8 percent of the computer scientists include at least one "engaging" element in their titles, such as a quote, a pun, or a question'. On the other hand, its writing advice is banal, suggesting academics hold out for 3 'ideals': 'communication, craft, and creativity'.
I bought this book in order to reflect on my own writing practice. I learned, by reading against the argument of this book, that a good and well-thought-out argument is indispensible. Because the content of this book was so scanty and mean, I can't agree it is, itself, well written.
OK, I'll say it before anyone who knows me chips in; I am neither academic, or stylish; but this book does exactly what its title leads one to expect. It is both of these traits, in spades!
My writing is of a more mundane level ("Two pints today, please" is one of mine) but I still found some useful tips in this little opus and, were the writers of supposedly high-brow articles to even glance at this book, the world would be a better place. I would not know where to begin upon a work such as this; each person's style is different. Fortunately, and wisely, Harvard University Press did not offer the job to me, they chose Helen Sword, who knew exactly how to go about the task - and accomplished the desired effect admirably.
I would suggest that this is a useful addition to the reference section of anybody who writes, at any level: it is a MUST for any academic writer. Now, I feel the creative muse......"Two pints and a pot of cream, please" - by george, that book has had an effect!
As an author, I always worry about my style and whether what I have to say communicates effectively to my audience. This book would be a wonderful addition to the library of anyone who writes or aspires to write. Sadly, a lot of academic writing is technical and uninspiring. See my review of the lateste title by Habermas to see what I mean. Writing well helps get our point across. Amato and Fantacci (even in translation from Italian) are a great example of how elegant prose lifts the argument. This book offers in a very well presented and eloquent manner a large number of useful tips on how to improve one's style. My only concern is that working under the pressures that we have (REF etc) we hardly have time to take the author's advice. Perhaps after 2013 we can once again write for an audience different from the REF panel.
I cannot speak highly enough of this book. Finally an academic who believes that such writing does not have to be dull, bogged down in facts and figures and 'resources'. Helen Sword tackles the problenm of those professors who are far more used to pontificating that actually making their work accessible, without dumbing down, and points out that stylish and pertinent writing may actually capture the students' (and the public) interest without losing anything except a few thousand words. The book is illustrated with numerous examples of how to achieve this... in short, it is an academic godsend! I recommend this for every student and teacher interested in actually presenting works of clarity - what have you got to lose but a few thousand words?!
As somebody who works within an academic environment I already feel the stuffy nature of some of the things I have to read - life's too short; so on balance I already agreed with the author on the basic argument she fields about academic writing, it really doesn't have to be boring!
I think the main thing I sought was a kindred soul, backed by a balanced argument. The point of this book is well made and rather than steal the authors thunder I strongly recommend that you read it. There are few people who could have versed the text that was required to actually walk the talk of the book, but Helen Sword is one of them. Thanks and well done!