Scholars Talk Writing: Helen Sword

July 31, 2017

University of Auckland
It’s a weird and complicated experience, picking up a book that covers familiar territory and realizing it’s better than what you might have written. That was the case when I first read Helen Sword’s Stylish Academic Writing.

Sword, who teaches at the University of Auckland, in New Zealand, uses extensive research — both data and empirical studies — to back up everything I believe about how and why academic writing goes wrong, and what good prose looks like.

This year she published a new book, Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write (Harvard University Press). An antidote to the preachy and rigid "Write Your Dissertation in Five Minutes a Month" genre, Sword’s new book shows that there are as many ways to be productive as there are writers.

It’s fair to say that Helen Sword has made my work life easier. Now, when I give talks to faculty members on writing, I just hold up her books and say, "Read these." Because I’m human, some grudging, competitive part of me wants to dislike her. But I can’t. She’s gracious and funny and, well, right about pretty much everything when it comes to writing, which makes her a fine candidate for the Scholars Talk Writing series.

In Stylish Academic Writing, you examine the actual style guidelines of academic journals and contrast those rules with what academics think they are and are not allowed to do. What were some of the major misconceptions about good academic writing?

Sword: I know of no major academic-style guide (e.g., MLA, Chicago, APA) that forbids first-person pronouns or recommends exclusive use of the passive voice. Nor have I ever met an academic editor who wants to publish anything other than well-crafted prose with a bit of life and energy to it.

Scholars Talk Writing

In a continuing series, Rachel Toor talks with noted scholars about the joys and pains of writing.

Yet many researchers remain absolutely convinced that they won’t be taken seriously unless they suppress their own voice and cram their sentences full of multisyllabic jargon. Like most myths, this one contains just enough truth to keep it alive. For example, some journal editors and peer reviewers still routinely demand that all personal pronouns be deleted from draft articles — even when their journal’s style guide contains no such rule.

Have you learned anything new since the book was published?

Sword: I’ve learned that scientists care at least as much about stylish writing as humanists do. In fact, they’ve been among the book’s most enthusiastic proponents. I’ve learned that so-called "L2" academics (those for whom English is not their first language) generally possess a much better grasp of English grammar than their "L1" colleagues, many of whom get a panicked look in their eyes the moment I start talking about nouns and verbs. And I’ve learned that women are more than twice as likely as their male colleagues to attend academic-writing workshops — a statistic that has made me wonder whether women are also twice as likely to read books on academic writing.

How did your new book come about?

Sword: While I was working on Stylish Academic Writing and its companion book, The Writer’s Diet, I kept hearing stories from colleagues and graduate students about writing-related dilemmas that had little or nothing to do with style: for example, how to carve out time for writing, how to gain confidence as a writer, how to deal with a unsupportive adviser or respond to a negative peer review.

Although I’m a literary scholar by training — I’m used to working with texts, not people — I set out to interview 100 successful academics about their work as writers. What are their daily writing habits? (Do they even have daily writing habits?) How did they learn their craft? What emotions do they associate with their academic writing? How have they developed the courage to push against stylistic conventions, the resilience to cope with criticism and rejection?

Along the way, I also gathered questionnaire data from 1,223 academic writers who attended my writing workshops at more than 50 universities and scholarly conferences in 15 countries. By the end of it all, I had talked to, and heard from, a lot of writers, from a wide range of backgrounds.

What surprised you in the interviews?

Sword: At first I assumed that the writing habits of successful academics would align fairly closely with the advice I had read in the abundant how-to literature on "how to be a productive writer": Write every day, write at the same time every day, always schedule your writing time — that sort of thing. Within the first half-dozen or so interviews, I realized how wrong I was. Not only did very few of the academics I talked with follow the recommended practices; many of them actually reported engaging in behaviors that the writing guides explicitly warn against, such as "binge writing" or writing only when they feel like it.

One of the things I find so interesting (and perhaps obvious) is that there’s no secret sauce: Each of us finds different ways to be productive. What are some of the most common things that came up?

Sword: It’s not your day-to-day habits that matter, I found, so much as your habits of mind. Successful academics don’t necessarily write every day, but they’re constantly strategizing about how and when they’ll get their writing done. They don’t necessarily consider themselves to be "stylish writers," but they care deeply about wordcraft. They don’t necessarily enjoy every aspect of the writing process, but they relish the challenge of communicating complex ideas to others. These core attitudes and attributes remained fairly constant across nearly all the writers I interviewed.

You’ve devised a system that you call BASE. Can you explain that?

Sword: My research showed that successful academics build their writing practice on a complex set of attitudes and attributes that I call their "writing BASE" — behavioral habits of discipline and persistence, artisanal habits of craftsmanship and care, social habits of collegiality and collaboration, and emotional habits of positivity and pleasure.

More than 80 percent of the how-to literature focuses on behavioral and artisanal habits alone. I wanted to tip the balance toward its social and emotional dimensions as well. My book includes a diagnostic tool for helping readers visualize the BASE on which their current writing practice is built. There’s also a free online version available,, that offers a personalized profile and targeted suggestions for broadening your BASE.

What are some of the most useful exercises you came up with for the book?

Sword: I particularly enjoyed writing the chapter on metaphor, which provides tools for reframing negative emotions about writing. Working through these exercises myself, I realized that I tended to describe my writing process as fiddly, finicky, and laborious — words redolent of incompetence and frustration. By shifting to different metaphors — sculpting, crafting, shaping, polishing — I have learned to rework my own narrative, recognizing perceived weaknesses as core strengths.

Can you summarize your overall findings?

Sword: I learned so much from writing this book! But I can point to at least one major finding for each quadrant of the BASE:

  • Behavioral habits. Successful writers don’t follow a formula. Productivity-boosting strategies such as writing every day or keeping a writing log may well prove beneficial and are certainly worth trying. However, I’ve become quite cynical about how-to books that prescribe a specific set of rules, usually based on the author’s own personal experience rather than on robust empirical research. The approach I’m suggesting is powerful because it situates behavioral habits within a larger ecology of writing.
  • Artisanal habits. All academics write, but very few — no more than around 15 percent worldwide, by my estimate — have learned to write and publish in their disciplines via an accredited course, formal mentoring scheme, or other cohort-based, expert-facilitated program. For most of us, it’s a matter of "sink or swim," a phrase that I heard frequently from the academics I surveyed. Is this really how we want to treat our early-career colleagues? Throw them in at the deep end and watch to find out whether or not they’ll go under? ("Not waving but drowning," in the words of poet Stevie Smith).
  • Social habits. Writing is, at its heart, a social enterprise. Trained in the humanities, I have always regarded scholarly writing as an individualistic and lonely task. My work on this book has taught me the value of cultivating positive social habits around writing: seeking out opportunities to write with and amongst others; sharing my experiences and emotions with my colleagues and students; exchanging early drafts with sympathetic readers.
  • Emotional habits. Writing is frustrating! In my survey of academic writers, frustration emerged as the most frequently mentioned writing-related emotion by a factor of nearly two to one. However, for the 100 successful writers in my interview cohort, pleasure and satisfaction topped the table. I’ve now learned to regard frustration not as an impediment to successful writing but as a necessary part of the process: the blockage that enables the breakthrough.

So what’s next for you and your research?

Sword: I’m interested in exploring how my findings — particularly regarding the lack of development opportunities for academic writers and the gendered nature of academic labor — might be used to influence the kinds of research-support programs that universities provide to graduate students and faculty.

For example, a male provost or dean who has never attended a writing workshop or residential retreat himself may unconsciously regard such events as touchy-feely and frivolous, in which case he is likely to tilt research support away from social learning situations in favor of gladiatorial-style research seminars and targeted grant-writing clinics. I’d like to help academics in senior management roles recognize how their personal biases could be disadvantaging all those colleagues — men as well as women — who crave a more collaborative, less combative research environment.

Moving forward, I’d also love to delve more deeply into the role of positive emotions in academic practice. There’s plenty of literature about the paralyzing effects of negative emotions on the writing process, but hardly anyone talks about the relationship between productivity and pleasure.

Rachel Toor is a professor of creative writing in Eastern Washington University’s writing program. Her website is Her latest book, just out from the University of Chicago Press, is Write Your Way In: Crafting an Unforgettable College Admissions Essay.