Monday, July 22, 2013

Book Recommendations ♯10 - Books on How to Write

(Series Index)

It’s been awhile since I did a book recommendation, so to make up the delay this post offers five recommendations in lieu of the usual one. This time round I’m recommending books about academic writing. Obviously, what with the blog and with my research work, I do a lot of writing. The majority of this writing is academic (i.e.research-based, and expository or persuasive) in nature.

Now, I don’t think I’m particularly good at writing — I won’t be winning awards for my elegant style any time soon — but I do think I’ve improved considerably over the years. And I’m convinced that the main reason for this is just the sheer amount of practice I’ve had. Indeed, if I were to offer somebody advice about how to improve their writing, it would simply be this: write a little bit everyday. Blogging is great for this, which is why I often encourage students to do it. Trying to express yourself clearly to an unknown audience is, I think, a surefire way to improve your style.

Still, practice by itself isn’t everything. Some guiding principles are necessary if you want to avoid ingraining bad habits, and books about writing can be great for finding these principles. It’s important, as well, that when you look for these guiding principles you don’t get too bogged-down in style guides and grammar books. They are significant, for sure, but there is so much more to writing than the words that end up on the page. In fact, those words are the last thing you need to worry about (literally): you need to have something to write about and get yourself to your writing desk before they arrive on the scene. With that in mind, some of the books I recommend below cover those initial phases of the writing process too.

Anyway, without further ado, here are my recommendations.

1. Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace by Joseph M. Williams and Gregory Colomb
I’m one of those unfortunate people who was weaned into the world of academic writing on the infamous Elements of Style by Strunk and White. For some reason, that book is overwhelmingly popular among academic departments (particularly law departments). This is despite the authors’ rather questionable grasp of basic grammar.

Alas, it wasn’t until after I graduated that I was introduced to this, far superior, book. It offers excellent, sensible advice throughout, without being too prescriptive (a vice that is all-too-common among writers of style guides). It remains my go-to book whenever I think my style is getting clunky. There are eleven editions of it, as well the very similar Style: Towards Clarity and Grace. Any of them would be worthwhile (actually, I have a slight preference for the earlier editions -- as with all these things, there is a tendency for later editions to become bloated).

2. Philosophical Writing: An Introduction by A.P. Martinich
There are lots of books offering advice about how to write philosophical essays — and some pretty good webpages too — but this is still my favourite. It tells you what an argument is, offers tips on their analysis and evaluation, and shows you how to structure an essay. Although it is geared toward undergraduates in philosophy, I think anyone could benefit from it, even non-philosophers. Frankly, I would be delighted if the law students I taught read and put into practice the advice it offers. Many of them struggle to write good academic essays because they don’t know how to present and defend an argument. Say what you like about philosophy, even if it does nothing else, it can teach people that vital skill. And by showing how that skill directly translates into good essay writing, this book is as good a place as any to pick it up.

3. How to Write a Lot by Paul J. Silva
We now move away from the structural and stylistic aspects of writing to the more mundane and procedural aspects. As I said above, writing in general, and academic writing in particular, is a difficult process. For the professional academic there are significant pressures to produce research articles, and to do this regularly requires discipline: you need to get up every day and do some writing. But how can you when you have other responsibilities, when your email is always a click away, and when the expected return from writing an article is both low (since rejection is common) and temporally distant (since there is a significant time lag between writing and publication)? This book is useful for its no-nonsense advice on how to overcome these (arguably specious) hurdles to writing. Two pieces of advice struck me as being particularly useful, so I thought I’d share them here:

1. Have a minimum daily writing target: Silva recommends two hours everyday; other books (see next recommendation) go as low as a mere 15 minutes. I personally prefer to target a number of words, usually aiming for 1,000 words per day. The important point is to set a minimum target that is pyschologically low enough to not seem insurmountable: that way you won’t create an obstacle for yourself. If you can stick to that minimum target you’d be amazed how much you can get done. I’ve even tried the 15 minute per day target and impressed myself with how productive such a short amount of time can be.
2. Make writing an essential, non-negotiable part of your daily schedule: Silva notes that many academics talk about trying to “find” time for writing in their otherwise busy schedules. Typically, they lament the fact that they can never find it (I know people like this). But, as Silva highlights, these very same people never talk about “finding” time for the classes they teach or the meetings they “have” to attend. Why not? Because these things are treated as essential, non-negotiable parts of their schedules. Why can’t writing be treated in the same way? As an academic, writing is just as crucial as teaching and attending meetings, probably even more so. So when you think about it, it’s silly to build writing time around these other commitments. Indeed, you should really try to build those other commitments (particularly meetings) around your writing time.

The one quibble I have about Silva’s book is that it is written for academic psychologists. So once he moves beyond the general tips on writing schedules and overcoming specious barriers to writing, the book becomes less and less useful for non-psychologists. Still, the first couple of chapters make the book more than worthwhile.

4. Writing your journal article in 12 weeks by Wendy Belcher
This continues the theme set by the previous book by providing a more “holistic” guide to the craft of writing. What I like about it is the comprehensive, algorithmic approach it takes to writing academic articles. It does pretty much exactly what it says on the cover, providing the reader with a step-by-step, twelve-week programme for writing a journal article. It’s written in workbook-style, so it’s full of exercises for you to complete as you read along, and it covers everything: picking a journal, identifying your thesis, writing the abstract, establishing structure, polishing the style, responding to reviewers comments, and dealing with rejection. I found it quite useful when I was starting out, and I still dip into it occasionally. Possibly my top recommendation because of the depth of coverage (warning: it is geared predominantly toward the humanities/social sciences).

5. Stylish Academic Writing by Helen Sword
I’m a little more “meh” about this book than the others. On the plus side, it features a nice empirically-motivated, “meta” discussion of what makes for good style in academic writing; it has some actual (though maybe questionable) data which debunks and confirms certain myths (e.g. writing in the passive is not unforgivable; lawyers write long articles); and it is broken into nice, bite-sized chapters. On the negative side, I didn’t find the advice it offered on good style to be particularly useful; and, frankly, I thought it was a little boring at times. Maybe this was more my problem than anything: I’ve read a lot of these things at this stage, and I’m familiar with most of the myth-debunking. Still, it fills the gap until Steven Pinker’s next book, which I’m definitely looking forward to.

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