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Improving academic writing: Four books to read during #AcWriMo – Metaphor Hacker
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Improving academic writing: Four books to read during #AcWriMo

What is #AcWriMo

November is the month of writing. There’s NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) for writing fiction but also AcWriMo (Academic Writing Month) for producing academic writing. The idea behind NaNoWriMo is to make a commitment and finish a piece of writing. This makes more sense for fiction because everyone has that novel inside them and having a month to have a go all out at it is a sensible thing. You may not finish but by the end of the month, you will probably know if you have what it takes.

But academic writing is not a calling, it’s a profession. Lots of people have to do it whether they want to or not and many of them struggle with it. And that’s why for some having a month of focus on finishing a piece of writing makes sense but for others the idea of finishing a paper let alone a book in such short a time seems crazy.

So for people who have to do academic writing, November could be just as much about building some of the foundational skills, developing good habits, or identifying areas for improvement as it would be about finishing a piece of writing.

Before you can write, you have to read. People who want to write a novel will have read hundreds of them. But not everyone who has to do academic writing (this includes undergraduates) has done a lot of academic reading. Or when they have, they focused on the content and not on how it is put together.

So, while AcWriMo should be about actually doing some writing, some people may benefit from reading about academic writing. That’s not enough, but it’s a good start. As the people behind AcWriMo say, let’s hope:

The month helps us:

  1. Think about how we write,
  2. Form a valuable support network for our writing practice,
  3. Build better strategies and habits for the future,
  4. And maybe – just maybe – get stuff done!

So to that end, here are four books and one blog you can read to help you with these aims.

Build your BASE with “Air & Light & Time & Space” by Helen Sword

I didn’t like Helen Sword’s first two books. Not that they did not contain a lot of useful advice on writing. But they started from the assumption that there is one good way to write and everybody was doing it wrong. They were certainly right for many people but in general not of much use to most struggling academic writers.

With this book, Sword has seen the light (along with air, time, and space). It is based on in-depth interviews with 100 successful academic writers and an even bigger survey of others. Sword described a huge variety of ways that people succeed but what is particularly useful is how she synthesised these into four foundations for academic writing success (that helpfully spell out BASE):

  1. Behavioural: The correct behaviours and habits to get writing done. When and where you sit down to write and what it actually takes to get started.
  2. Artisanal: The linguistic and stylistic skills to get the point across. The sorts of things that for many come under the heading of ‘academic English’ and ‘essay writing’.
  3. Social: Who do you do your writing with and for? Do you have the right sort of support networks to succeed? People to get feedback from, commiserate with, be accountable to, or simply work quietly along side?
  4. Emotional: How do you feel about your writing? How do you feel while you are writing or even when you have to think about having to write?

There is no one way to succeed at any of the above, but they all contribute to writing success.

This is a long book and perhaps your time is best spent by using the framework to analyse your strengths and weaknesses and to decide what to focus on during AcWriMo. Helen Sword has a helpful BASE self-assessment on her website.

Listen and watch

Key quotes illustrating BASE

  1. B “Successful writers carve out time and space for their writing in a striking variety of ways, but they all do it somehow.”
  2. A  ”Successful writers recognize writing as an artisanal activity that requires ongoing learning, development, and skill.“
  3. S “Successful writers seldom work entirely in isolation; even in traditionally “sole author” disciplines, they typically rely on other people—colleagues, friends, family, editors, reviewers, audiences, students—to provide them with support and feedback.”
  4. E “Successful writers cultivate modes of thinking that emphasize pleasure, challenge, and growth.”

Learn “How to write a sentence” from Stanley Fish

Stanley Fish is not someone whose work on literature or law one would read for pleasure but his sentences are a pleasure to read. His short and mostly practical book has a very simple central message that I would paraphrase as:

Sentences are at the heart of a writer’s craft and anybody can learn to create better ones by more focused reading and practice.

What Fish recommends is that writers who want to improve their composition skills (or build their artisanal base in Sword’s terms) spend a lot of time reading sentences and thinking about what makes them tick. His view of a sentence is straightforward. Here’s the lesson I learned from it::

A sentence is at heart a subject and a predicate. But these are often so artfully obscured by different adornments (for good and ill) that this basic relationship is lost to the reader. And writers who do not read reflectively then struggle to write sentences that make sense because they focus on the frilly bits and not on what really matters – expressing logical relationships.

So, his recipe is dead easy: read a lot, replicate what you read but start from the simplest elements.

Unfortunately, Fish is a bit too much in love with his own sentences and could have done with writing a lot fewer of them to get his point across. Which is why despite this being a relatively slim volume, I think people only need to read the first few chapters to get the main point.

Listen and watch

Key quotes

Sentence craft equals sentence comprehension equals sentence appreciation.

my bottom line can be summarized in two statements: (1) a sentence is an organization of items in the world; and (2) a sentence is a structure of logical relationships.

The conventional wisdom is that content comes first—“you have write about something” is the usual commonplace—but if what you want to do is learn how to compose sentences, content must take a backseat to a mastery of the forms without which you can’t say anything in the first place.

As with any skill, this one develops slowly. You start small, with three-word sentences, and after you’ve advanced to the point where you can rattle off their structure on demand, you go on to the next step and another exercise.

if one understands that a sentence is a structure of logical relationships and that the number of relationships involved is finite, one understands too that there is only one error to worry about, the error of being illogical, and only one rule to follow: make sure that every component of your sentences is related to the other components in a way that is clear and unambiguous (unless ambiguity is what you are aiming at).

Start your “Writing process reengineering” with Thomas Basbøll

This is not a book but a series of blogposts that add up to a programme of self-improvement. Thomas Basbøll is a writing coach but he lays out the process so clearly that anybody can follow it. His core message is:

  1. Develop sustainable behaviours that accumulate over time
  2. Focus on communicating through paragraphs that add up to bigger wholes
  3. Find ways in which you can appreciate and find pleasure in the times that you are writing

His writing process certainly offers one way in which these goals could be achieved. But the focus is perhaps too much on the behaviours and feelings and less so on the minutiae of the craft. So perhaps the writing process reengineering is not the best place to start for those who want to develop more foundational skills such as building sentences.

But if you are looking for ways to add more structure to your AcWriMo journey, you could do worse.


Basbøll has a collection of videos of talks he gave on the on his Inframethodology blog (cbs.dk)

  1. 4 week Course with intro videos and assignments
  2. Other Videos of talks about writing

Key quotes

With a little planning, you can find at least half an hour every day to write. Writing for more than three hours on a given day is rarely a productive use of your time. (from How to like writing)

Always decide the day before what you will say; make sure it’s something you know. (from How to like writing)

Enjoyment is a trainable skill, we might say; knowing how to do something pleasurably is simply an advance on being able to do it painlessly. And if it pains you to do something you are doing it wrong. You’re not good at it. (from Getting Better)

Work out with one of “50 Exercises for Paced, Productive, and Powerful Writing” by Patricia Goodson

Patricia Goodson’s book is two books in one. 1. A description of a writing program based on deliberate practice and 2. series of exercises to follow towards improvement.

Goodson’s approach is based on the idea of ‘deliberate practice’ developed by Anders Ericsson whose work also gave rise to the 10,000 hours idea. I would summarise this idea as ‘reflective repetition’.

We can see how this resonates with what Sword, Fish and Basbøll have to say. But where these three mostly just give hints at how to practice focusing more on what or when, Goodson’s book provides a much more detailed guide for somebody wanting to build on their work.

There are exercises on learning to:

  1. build a writing habit
  2. make better sentences
  3. construct paragraphs
  4. edit text for improvement
  5. compose different parts of the academic paper

Each exercise has suggestions for time and content as well as getting regular feedback.


Watch Patricia Goodson give a webinar on Developing Your Academic Writing

Key quotes

If you are a college student, a graduate student, faculty, research staff, or an administrator, you write for a living.

the central question in writing (as with any difficult skill) is this: How can I get myself to put in the daunting time and effort I need for more consistent good results?

If you understand the principles and practice the exercises on a weekly basis, you will establish a stress-free writing habit that will serve you throughout your academic career; increase your writing (and publishing) productivity at a comfortable, consistent pace; and improve the quality of your academic writing (in two words: write better).

Try one of “50 Ways to Excel at Writing” by Stella Cottrell

This is one of a series of 50 ways to books that fit in the pocket and into idle moments in one’s life. It is not a book to read but to browse. Not one to get from the library or have on this Kindle. This book is best to buy (it is very cheap) and carry around. Each tip is very practical, has useful examples and even checklists or worksheets.

Many of the tips are the same as those in the books I mentioned but condensed into their essence into two short readable pages. Where the books above are mostly aimed at writers who are a bit more experienced, this one assumes no prior skills. It is unlikely this book will actually get in the way of your writing which is always a danger with how-to books that make it easy to substitute reading them for actually doing the thing you’re reading them for.

Some more thoughts

Writing is in many ways a puzzling process and it is so on multiple levels. Some people like Steven Pinker say that it’s the power of inserting images into other people’s minds. If so, it is a mysterious power. Putting words together with the hope that someone will reassemble them into a similar mental image that inspired them is more than a little daunting.

Word choice, sentence structure, paragraph composition, argument building, stylistic decisions – all of those things go into the writing process. And they need to come together with sufficient fluency for the writer’s (and reader’s) brain to have any processing power left for figuring out the meaning. How all of this happens, how people get good at it, and where all the blockers are that stop them does not have a single straight-forward answer. Or if it does, nobody’s come up with it yet.

Here are a few other posts where I tried to get to grips with some of the issues involved: