Zombies demand your attention. So when I saw an op-ed entitled "Zombie Nouns," I had to read it. In the op-ed, Helen Sword reminds academics of the hazards of nominalizations—nouns, like 'nominalization', forged by soldering an ending like '-ization' or '-tion' or '-ism' onto another word. I liked the op-ed. It reanimated my desire to make my writing more stylish. As luck would have it, the blurb below the op-ed casually mentions that Sword's latest book is Stylish Academic Writing.
I bought Sword's book. I read it. And now I'm writing this post to prevent you from doing either. The book is a waste of time and money.
To be fair, I'm being slightly unfair. The book's not a total waste, and some academics might find it liberating. In particular, the book might liberate academics who write unstylish prose only because they think their colleagues demand it of them. Sword claims to have met such people. But for the rest of us, the book's not worth its sticker price or its reading time. I'll post a very brief summary of each chapter as a comment, so as not to take up space here.
I have two main complaints about the book. First, I didn't find any of Sword's advice particularly novel. I haven't read Strunk & White in a while, but I'll bet that almost all of her writing advice is contained in Strunk & White.
Second, Sword mostly ignores the legitimate reasons that academics lean on abstractions; stuff their sentences full of adjectives, preopositional phrases, and other qualifiers; use jargon; etc. Most of these reasons, I think, have to do with expressing nuanced ideas.
Take the title on this post as an example. It doesn't say what I mean. If I weren't following Sword's advice to use an engaging title, I'd entitle the post, "How to use your money suboptimally without improving your writing very much." The book's not really a waste of money. It's probably a poor use of money, but that's harder to defend than the claim that it's a suboptimal use of money. 'Suboptimal' is a precise word, and it conveys precisely what I want to say. Jargon often functions this way. Sword admits that jargon sometimes functions this way, but she is too ready to accuse academics of pomposity. Likewise, it's not that the book won't improve your writing at all. Sword does assemble helpful reminders. But the book won't improve your writing very much.
Sword and others would probably retort that the best academic writers convey complex ideas in simple language. I agree. But I think that Sword and other critics want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
I do like one things about Sword's book: I personally find her suggestion to use concrete nouns to be a helpful heuristic. I write better sentences when I follow her advice. Sadly, that's the bit of advice that's freely available in "Zombie Nouns."
Which books on stylish academic writing have you found helpful? Which specific pieces of advice have you found helpful? Whose academic writing do you admire as particularly stylish, and why?