By Susan Carter
This post is premised squarely on the base line of Helen Sword’s latest book on academic writing. She begins by asking the reader to self-audit their own strengths and weaknesses as writers. This task orients them into the book, one rich with data from interviews with successful academic writers as to how they work. Sword has recommendations for each of the dimensions in this exercise. Yet she begins not with good advice, but with an affective approach, reaching into the core of each reader by asking us to reflect on who we are as writers. To self-analyse, we are given an exercise evaluating the different aspects of academic writing that influence development.
The exercise is plotted visually onto a grid—get the book to see Helen’s diagram. (Actually, just get the book: it is terrifically inspiring. And check out the website.) The grid reminded me of Briggs and Meyer’s similar plotting along axes to better see the whole person in order to understand that person.
So in each of the four dimensions, we are asked to rank ourselves, with stronger rankings being further along one arm of the diagram. The process is a great way to consider what you need to improve, not only by thinking about grammar, word choice, structure, and demonstration of critical analysis, but also by thinking about your identity as an academic writer. Who are you, then, writer? Try it!
- Sword’s first dimension rests on behavioural habits. What behaviour patterns do you have that help or hinder your writing? Some of us systematically factor academic writing into our whole lives as part of who we are. I seldom go anywhere without my writing on a laptop because ‘academic writer’ is a side of my identity I like, but I know others who dread writing and don’t positively identify as writers. So how would you rank your behavioural habits: highly engaged; adequate but uneven; not very engaged; disastrously inadequate? If, in all honesty, your behaviour in terms of productivity is hopeless, you will plot a mark along one vector near to the central intersection.
- Sword’s next dimension is artisanal. An artist produces works of art; an artisan crafts products that are not quite art but have their own ethical beauty. Skill with syntax and style sits in here, as do clarity. Those who trudge within a limited lexical range and recycle formulaic sentence structures will be closer to the central intersection. Those who love the rhythms of language, who savour the selection of the precise word, or the evocatively vivid word, and who structure their prose with attention to the signification of form will plot themselves at the outside end of the second vector.
- Sociality with writing stretches along the third vector. Doctoral students are by definition sole author of the thesis, but could ask themselves whether they take up or make opportunities for peer review, for attending workshops on writing, or putting on workshops for writing. They might also reflect on how well socialized they are when working on supervisory or reviewer feedback. Many of us find pleasure in the social side of working with others—I do very much when working in this blog site, for example.
- The fourth dimension wings out carrying the emotion of doctoral writing. This ranges simply along a vector running from loving writing at the outer edge to hating it near the vector crossroads. In this post, that seems to take me back to the behavioural starting point, since if you loathe writing, you may engage with it as little as possible….
I endorse these four dimensions of writerly self, and agree with Sword’s premise that if we find that one dimension is weak compared to others, that raises the opportunity for deliberate development.
The start to Sword’s book promisingly focuses on identity and actions, and this seems so relevant to doctoral writers. Helen Sword has given research writers inspiring advice about how to produce clear writing in which each word is the best for purpose in The Writer’s Diet and Stylish Academic Writing. Her new Air and Light and Time and Space turns from addressing textual improvement to the embodied practice of writing. Its data and advice for practice aim to fit writing more comfortably into lives that are three dimensional, sensate, and emotion-prompting.
Yes, learning how to successfully manipulate the mechanics of language, and gathering strength by noticing how strong writers produce their prose, will mean that doctoral writing leads to an autonomous functional research writer after graduation. Thus, it makes sense to begin with a baseline of person-as-writer: graduates could also develop confident attitudes to their writing, and build networks around writing. They could consciously explore ways to love their own writing and to love the work of writing. Then they construct themselves not only as automous research writers, but also as researchers who love the craft of writing. That may be the base for a happy career.