Tuesday, May 02, 2017

academic writing

A few years back, Eric Arnould wrote a helpful article on “Getting a Manuscript to Publication Standard” that was reprinted in the first issue of Design Research Quarterly: 


You’ll find my thoughts in the PowerPoint deck for the Research Writing Workshop. This includes information on how to write well, and it includes a discussion of issues to consider in writing a journal article: 


Two books are especially useful when it comes to writing well in English.

IMHO, Strunk & White’s Elements of Style remains the classic on writing narrative prose. Chapters I, II, and V discuss usage, form, and style. Chapters III and IV discuss minor points. While chapters III and IV are rule-driven, the book as a whole is driven by style and clarity. You can read it in an hour.



People sometimes describe Strunk & White as a fussy rule-book of writing — based, in part, on chapters III and IV. That’s a mistake. The book focuses on effective prose style for clear communication. Strunk & White takes only an hour or so to read, so it is easy to use. (I cover the main points in the Research Writing Workshop slides.) I read this book once a year, and I learn something new and useful each time I read it.  

The real pain of writing comes in writing. Dorothy Parker once wrote, “If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second-greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of ‘The Elements of Style.’ The first-greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.”

Those who want to focus on academic, scholarly, and scientific writing do well to read Helen Sword’s (2012)



One thing that writers rarely consider is how editors and reviewers look at articles. Two books offer an excellent overview of these issues. One is Baruch, Konrad, Aguinis, & Starbuck's (2008) Opening the Black Box of Editorship:



Cummings & Frost's (1995) Publishing in the Organizational Sciences discusses many of the challenges that author’s face — and it gives a view from reviewers as well. 



Frost & Taylor (1996) discuss another aspect of writing in Rhythms of Academic Life. While some of the material in this book seems outdated in the era of the managerial university, it remains a serious and interesting work:



Sternberg’s (2000) Guide to Publishing in Psychology Journals is one of the best overall guides to every aspect and phase of the overall publishing process:



Good referencing is one of the key issues in effective scholarly and scientific writing. Dorothy Harris used to have a slogan: “Be true to your sources and your sources will be true to you.” Good references are more than a finicky way to avoid plagiarism. Solid citations provide the evidence on which most articles rely. They are therefore a key tool for reviewers. More important, careful referencing helps authors to write better articles.  

In addition to the chapter in Robert Sternberg’s guide, I suggest three useful guides on reference and citation. Friedman (2017) and Himmelfarb (1991) are short and informative. Grafton (2003) is long, historical, and extremely entertaining 





Fowler & Aaron's (2016) Little, Brown Handbook is an essential reference book. Be warned: this book contains too many details to read, and no one can actually read it. Its value lies in the answers it provides to nearly every question you might have about academic, scholarly, or scientific writing. I suggest reading the Preface, the Table of Contents, and the three-page guide at the back. Then, when you have a specific question, use the book for advice.



I’ll round this off with two books. Clifford Geertz’s (1998) Works and Lives is a book about anthropological writing — how writers create a voice and a persona, and how their works influence their domain. Geertz himself is a lucid and entertaining writer, the creator of the approach to social science known as “thick description.” This book is entertaining, lucid, and useful:



Gordon Wood's (2008) Purpose of the Past offers a collection of Wood’s book reviews of books on American history by a great historian and historiographer. Reading this book offers a view of how writers address the problems within a field, and how they address the field and drive it forward in doing so. Wood himself is an elegant writer. After a long day of editing and reviewing articles, I sometimes like to read Gordon Wood to relax.


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