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All I Want for Christmas …

Even though European shops seem to resist promoting their Christmas products just a bit longer than their American counterparts, living four weeks away in package-delivery time from most of my family gets me planning my gift-giving early. Which is why I spent some time last week investigating the contents of the 2014 editions of The Best American Essays and The Best American Short Stories—although I don’t know why I bother: The collections are consistently fantastic, and this year’s are no exception. I’m comfortable buying them blind. (Nor do they require delivery from Europe.)

I’ve also been known to spring for The Best American Science and Nature Writing, which moves us in the direction of a book I would find really useful—not as a gift, but as a teaching tool. Houghton Mifflin, couldn’t you, wouldn’t you consider a new offshoot, The Best American Academic Writing?

Sure, the title alone would have many readers’ stomachs churning. But such a volume would make my life much easier. I spend hours every week going over students’ papers, master’s theses, and article submissions and urging the writers to, for example, reduce the number of subjects they’re employing, or start sentences with what readers already know and move on to what’s new, rather than the other way around. The students leave our sessions with a few tips and sometimes a reading recommendation—but it’s usually for a chapter in a book about academic writing (don’t worry, no Strunk and White here; Joseph Williams or Pinker are much more likely candidates).

Yes, these are helpful, particularly for people writing in a second language. But in my heart of hearts, I feel academic writers should be learning by example. Rather than reading books about style, they should dig into well-written pieces themselves, ideally from their chosen fields. Seeing scientists they respect repeat phrases, or use humor, or write in the first person will give my students permission to do so, too—more than anything I say. My colleagues and I have therefore been scraping around for papers to share, but they’re proving harder to find than we’d thought. There are the classics, of course—Watson and Crick’s “A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid” or “The Arrow Calculus” by Sam Lindley, Philip Wadler and Jeremy Yallop—but it would be useful to have more contemporary examples as well, and these can be hard for generalists to come by.

Would many copies of The Best American Academic Writing make their way under the Christmas trees of lay readers? If so, great. If not, that fact might quell the complaints of academics who say that journalists hopelessly misinterpret and misexplain their work. If you can’t beat ‘em or join ‘em, work with them instead—and see your research elegantly explained in one of the existing Best American collections, 2015.

In the meantime, recommendations for our private collection of best-of’s would be gratefully received.

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