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My Daily Read: Helen Sword

Helen Sword is a professor in the Centre for Academic Development at the University of Auckland.  Her new book, Stylish Academic Writing, is just out from Harvard University Press.

Q: What’s the first thing you read in the morning?

A. On weekdays I get up at 6 am, put the kettle on for a cup of tea, and settle myself in front of my computer to write for an hour before breakfast. If I’m being good, the first thing I read before I start writing is the last paragraph that I wrote the day before. If I’m not being good, I take a sneak peek at my email first.

Q: What newspapers and magazines do you subscribe to or read regularly? What do you read in print vs. online vs. mobile?

My family subscribes to the New Zealand Herald and The New York Times online, plus a few glossy magazines such as National Geographic, the Princeton Alumni Weekly, and Rugby World (a publication of high intellectual caliber, according to my husband).  I tussle with my teenaged kids at the breakfast table to get a glimpse of the NZ Herald before work—a quick hit of local news and international stories from the major U.S. and U.K. wire services—but for deeper coverage I go to The New York Times. Whenever I travel to the U.S., I devour back issues of Harper’s and The New Yorker at the homes of friends and relatives; however, I don’t think I could do that much reading every day of my life and get much else done.

Q: What books have you recently read?  How do they stand out?

A. Ann Patchett’s wonderful novel State of Wonder sent me back to reread Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which Patchett subtly and not-so-subtly rescripts.  Now I’m making my slow and fascinated way through Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, whom I can’t help comparing to Patchett’s Dr. Swenson and Conrad’s Kurtz: a charismatic leader who sucks followers into a “reality distortion field” that makes them believe anything is possible.  Whether the setting is the Congo, the Amazon, or Silicon Valley, it’s essentially the same story: ethics and individuality are sublimated to one person’s overwhelming vision.

Q: What is the best article you’ve read recently?
My current research focuses on “stylish academic writing” from across the disciplines, so I get to read a lot of scholarly articles that fall outside my own fields of expertise.  A few days ago, for example, following a serendipitous trail of recommendations and links, I came upon an article by management professor Amanda Sinclair called “Body Possibilities in Leadership” – a compelling account of how contemporary leadership discourse fails to account for the gendered, racialized, and otherwise embodied reality of leaders’ physical presence.  Although it was aimed at an audience of management scholars, I found the article both accessible and illuminating: now I look at media photographs of local and world leaders in a completely new way.

Q: What is your greatest criticism of much academic writing?

A. In contrast to Sinclair’s lucid and engaging paper, many academic articles are quite frankly unreadable, not only by disciplinary outsiders but by close colleagues.  Often the problem is simply poor craftsmanship:  perhaps the author has tried to cram three or four major ideas into a single sentence, leaving the reader to do the hard work of disentangling all those nested subordinate clauses.  Another common issue is an excessive allegiance to the discourse of abstraction: it’s not uncommon to find nine, ten, or more spongy abstract nouns (examples: allegiance, discourse, abstraction) cohabiting in a single sentence. The human attention span has trouble coping with that much vagueness.  Stylish academic writers anchor abstract ideas in the physical world, using stories, case studies, metaphors, illustrations, concrete nouns, and vivid verbs, and lots and lots of examples.

Q: Has your reading of professional journals changed in the past 10 years?

A. I now find it almost impossible to read an academic article without analyzing its style.  For example, if I open up a higher education research journal and find a sentence that says, “Rarely is there an effective conceptual link between the current understandings of the centrality of text to knowledge production and student learning and the pragmatic problems of policy imperatives in the name of efficiency and capacity-building,” I automatically note the high proportion of abstract nouns, the total lack of concrete language (even the word link is used abstractly), and the erasure of human agency (neither students nor higher education researchers, the subjects of the article, are grammatically present in the sentence.) Fortunately, this tendency works both ways: I am also highly attentive to and hugely appreciative of stylish academic writing.

Q: Do you read blogs? If so, what blogs do you like best?

I don’t follow any specific blogs, but I nearly always click on links to online articles and blog posts recommended by colleagues on the various educational email lists I subscribe to—a useful filtering system. I seem to end up most frequently at The Chronicle of Higher Education and the Harvard Business Review Web sites.

Q: Do you use Twitter? If so, whom do you follow?

A. No.  Who has the time?

Q: What are the guilty pleasures in your media diet?

I’ll admit to being somewhat addicted—is that the same thing as a guilty pleasure?—to my own WritersDiet Test. When I paste in a sample of my writing and click “Run the test,” I either get a reassuring diagnosis that my prose is “fit and trim” or a salutary warning that it “needs toning.” The test reminds me to favor active verbs, avoid excessive abstraction, and banish unnecessary clutter from my prose.

Sketch by Ted Benson

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