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By Susan Carter

To what extent should those of us who support doctoral writing aim to help candidates to write succinctly, clearly and with a control that makes reading smooth and even pleasurable? I puzzle over that, aware of what a marathon writing task the thesis presents, how emotionally challenging doctoral writing can be, how life can throw study off-centre and what an extraordinary amount of diligence has often gone into learning English as an additional language to the level of fluency and sophistication required at doctoral level. Might it demoralize doctoral writers to include tips about further authorial skill with feedback on content, structure, and ideas?

I’d really welcome your opinions. My own inclination is towards teaching for style because I believe that enhanced writing skill is a huge benefit, and yet I know wonderful academics who argue that, in the busyness of academic survival, just focusing on getting something submittable is a sustainable approach.

These people may be right and I could be overly idealistic to want to teach doctoral students to write more accessibly and stylishly. Maybe the point is, as it usually is, to check with students as to what they want.

I am really sympathetic to how pressured doctoral lives can be, and still point out to candidates that examiners are more likely to be favorable and articles are more likely to be published when writing is pleasurable to read in its own right. This may be especially true for those in Social Science and Arts and Humanities, but I would also argue that being smoothly written and thus easy to read matters in all disciplines. I suspect that the same idea, data and argument will more likely get approval from the discourse community when readers find them accessible by merit of good quality writing. And maybe academic writing becomes less onerous, demoralizing and life-consuming when there are sentences that give the author pride and pleasure.

In this post I am drawing on Helen Sword’s research into guides on academic writing. She surveyed over 100 guides and came up with six points that they agreed on (Sword, 2012: 26-27):

  • Clarity, Coherence, Concision: Strive to produce sentences that are clear, coherent and concise…the “three C’s” are mentioned in some form in most of the style guides…
  • Short or Mixed-Length Sentences: Keep sentences short and simple, or vary your sentences by alternating longer sentences with shorter ones
  • Plain English: avoid ornate, pompous, Latinate or waffly prose
  • Precision: Avoid vagueness and imprecision
  • Active verbs: Avoid passive verb constructions or use them sparingly; active verbs should predominate
  • Telling a story: Create a compelling narrative

Before itemizing this list, Sword gives examples of sentences that are challenging for readers, and yet quite typical in doctoral prose, and, alas, many published articles. This is not a name and shame situation: she doesn’t give references, but says that these examples come from her own database of published journal articles. Do you know doctoral writers who might produce sentences like this? And do you suggest ways to improve for clarity? Should you?

Rarely is there an effective conceptual like between the current understandings of the centrality of text to knowledge production and student learning and the pragmatic problems of policy imperatives in the name of efficiency and capacity-building (cited in Sword, 2012: 5).

Are you certain as a reader that you know exactly what this author means? I agree with Sword that if such a sentence could be split into shorter ones, perhaps with concrete examples, so that a reader is able to be certain of what is meant, that revision work is worth doing. I also believe that such revision skills are well learned.

Here are three exercises from Sword that could be offered to doctoral students who want a route to stylish academic writing.

Voice and audience

Thinking about voice, write down the names of five real people. They should be:

  1. A top expert in your field, one you’d like to impress
  2. A close colleague in your discipline who you would trust to give you honest feedback
  3. An academic friend from outside your discipline
  4. An advanced undergraduate from your discipline
  5. An intelligent non-academic friend or relative.

Then read a passage of your writing aloud to imagine each person’s response. Revise the writing so that each one would understand you, stay interested, and want to read on (adapted from Sword, 2012: 46-47). That is sound advice for teaching how to produce clear readable prose, and it takes writers along the road to pleasure as well as clarity.

Lively verbs

For livelier sentences, try changing some of the  ‘to be’ verbs to active, vivid verbs—Sword gives ‘sway, shun and masquerade’ as examples (Sword, 2012: 60), and you find many more if you read her other publications (e.g., Sword, 2007, 2008, 2009). Her own writing demonstrates her points.

Possible agents governing verbs

Then ‘make sure that at least one sentence per paragraph includes a concrete noun, or human entity as its subject, immediately followed by an active verb. Some examples are “Merleau-Ponty argues…”; “Students believe…”; “International banks compete….” Sword makes the case too that because abstract nouns are hard for readers to envision, “Where possible, explain abstract concepts using concrete examples” (Sword, 2012: 61).

Modelling on exemplars

Find an author whose work you find really engaging and a pleasure to read. Then look closely and analytically at how the writing achieves this. What strategies can you find, perhaps just in the opening paragraph, that you could adopt in your own writing (Sword, 2012: 85)? How are paragraphs organized so that readers follow through the logic of an argument being steadily built? Once the grammatical bones of a good article are traced, it becomes possible to model structure on the well-written exemplar.

I’m closing here with a request again for comments. What are your views on teaching doctoral students to write stylishly?


Sword, H. (2007). The writer’s diet. Auckland: Pearson Education NZ.

Sword, H. (2008). The longitudinal archive. International Journal for Academic Development, 13(2), 87-96.

Sword, H. (2009). Writing higher education differently: a manifesto on style. Studies in Higher Education, 34(3), 319-336.

Sword, H. (2012). Stylish Academic Writing. Cambridge, Mass.; London, England: Harvard University Press.