How do successful academics write? Helen Sword’s “Air & Light & Time & Space” (review)

Helen Sword’s latest book, Air & Light & Time & Space, has a subtitle to make every academic salivate:  How Successful Academics Write.  Who among us wouldn’t like to know that secret?  Who wouldn’t like to know how academics can write more productively, and at the same time, take more pleasure from writing?  After all, academics are writers; we spend a remarkably large fraction of our time writing; and writers for whom that’s easy are very, very rare.  I may have written a book on writing (perhaps you’ve noticed), but I struggle with writing like (almost) everybody else.  So I was eager to crack the spine of Air & Light & Time & Space – especially because I’m an admirer of Sword’s previous book, Stylish Academic Writing.  And the Introduction was promising.  Sword divides the habits of writers into “behavioural”, “artisanal”, “social”, and “emotional” habits (together making up the BASE of the “house of writing” (pp. 4-5), and sets out to explore the elements of the BASE in turn.

But Air & Light & Time & Space wasn’t quite what I expected – or, I gather, quite what Sword expected either.  She describes setting out to compare the writing habits of successful and less-successful writers, to learn how a writer in the latter category might join the former.  What she found, after dozens of interviews and over a thousand surveys, was variation: no two writers (successful or not) write in quite the same way.  As Sword puts it, “productivity is a broad church that tolerates many creeds”, and “the right way to write is any way that works for you” (p. 5, p. 53).  That’s absolutely correct – but also rather unhelpful.

You’d think I’d be the very first to appreciate this message of variety.  After all, I’ve argued that the first rule of writing is that there are no hard and fast rules.  And in my own book, I resisted reviewers’ advice to offer firm prescriptions, in favour of a toolbox of possible approaches writers can try.  I think this is a critical lesson, actually: every writer needs to learn how they, individually, write best.  But here’s the thing:  some writing habits are more productive for most people; some sentence structures are better than others most of the time.  Sword, with a large dataset, might have tried to carry through her original intention to extract some of these mosts.  But with a few exceptions, she doesn’t; instead, in chapter after chapter she simply lists things that writers report that they do.  Writer A does thing α; writer B does thing β; writer C does thing γ; writer D does thing δ; and so on, On Beyond ω. For a while this is utterly fascinating, like being a fly on the wall of writing rooms all around the globe.  Eventually, though, it gets frustrating.  How does the knowledge that one person reports doing thing φ help me as a writer?  Especially given that Sword doesn’t present evidence that thing φ is actually effective, even for the person who reports doing it?  Refreshingly, every now and then Sword can’t help herself and offers firm statements, either of fact or advice.  For instance, natural writing geniuses are rare: “Of all the myths surrounding academic writing, the fallacy of effortless productivity is among the most persistent” (p. 78).  I would have liked more of these moments.

Air & Light & Time & Space is at its best, I think, in its concluding chapter, in which Sword offers some broader-scale prescriptions for how we might write more productively (and with more pleasure), not as individuals, but as an academic community.   She offers nine metaphorically cast principles to advance that goal: “open the curtains” (show others how you write), “widen the eaves” (try new things and push back against convention), “dwell poetically” (take pride in well-crafted writing), and six more.  This chapter is well worth reading and pondering – although it seems oddly unclear how the nine principles rest on data or on the chapters that precede them.

So, should you read Air & Light & Time & SpaceIf you’re looking for unambiguous advice about how to improve your writing – probably not.  But it you’re curious about the way – no, all the ways – real academics write, and about the huge variety of approaches you could experiment with in your own writing, then Air & Light & Time & Space may well be worth picking up.  You can find it here, or (of course) check your local library.

© Stephen Heard  August 16, 2018

3 thoughts on “How do successful academics write? Helen Sword’s “Air & Light & Time & Space” (review)

  1. Elizabeth Moon

    Writers each develop a “process” or workflow that’s unique because they are, after all, individuals. But there *are* commonalities, perhaps best observed in writers who are not academics.

    Writers write (almost) every day, a practice that keeps the mind (and fingers) in “writer-space”–a desire to communicate and a willingness to do the work necessary. Writing–the act of writing–sharpens the tool of writing so that writing improves with practice. They may or may not outline; they may write at dawn, midday, dusk, or midnight…but they do write. Writing more makes writing easier.

    Writers read a lot, many of them reading the kind of writing they don’t themselves write. This opens the mind to other possibilities, other ways of saying what they want to say. Read a little poetry, both rhyming and not. Read a little in a fiction genre you don’t normally look at, from high-literary to whatever you think is the worst. Read in other academic disciplines. Writers who can read in more than one language have a great advantage. The best writers sail through libraries like a baleen whale or a whale shark, taking in great volumes and making use of the small bits that suit its digestion. They notice, while reading, what writers move them, and then how that writing was constructed. (It is legitimate to steal techniques: we all do it.)

    Writers share their work (at some point) with potential readers and other writers, getting feedback on what works and what doesn’t to convey what they wanted to convey. With a little instruction from the writer on what the writer needs, they point out where the “flow” is sluggish or stagnant, where the writer’s intent disappears into a maze of braided thought channels. One on one discussion, with the reader saying “I don’t understand what you’re getting at here” and the writer replying “What I *meant* was…” helps a lot. Especially with a reader who ways “Then SAY that, what you just said, because you didn’t.” Some thrive in writing groups; some don’t (I don’t.) But all benefit from sharing their work before its final appearance on a public stage.

    Writers tell stories, and use the story structure whenever possible, because the human brain processes and remembers stories better than a list of ingredients. The story structure works for both fiction and nonfiction; it organizes what the writer wants to say in a way that readers can “hear” and understand.

    Writers revise–a lot–and many enjoy that process. It’s not about “fixing mistakes” (as I thought decades ago) but about making the trail from writer’s mind to reader’s mind clearer for the reader to follow. The stuff that’s discarded wasn’t wrong…it just wasn’t the best choice for that particular piece of writing. The stuff that needs to be added was in the writer’s mind, but just never got onto the page. In revision, the lost is found and tucked back in.

    Writers learn to give readers all the information they need…but only when they need it. Too early, and readers will forget it or lose it in the mass of infodump. Too late, and they’ll be confused over and over again. Writers ask themselves “What does the reader need to know *now*” many times in the course of a story (fiction or nonfiction.)

    Writers learn to use transitions (text or other signals) to keep readers oriented in place, time, person…and within person, oriented to the emotional flow of a passage or scene. Good transitions keep the flow moving smoothly. Bad or lacking transitions jar the reader and can even jar them right out of the book, short story, article.

    Writers use variety to catch and hold readers’ attention. Though story structure itself helps, a story written entirely in six word sentences will the same pattern will send readers to something else. They also use variety to keep themselves from being bored, especially on long projects. Write something silly. Write something angry. Write something that rhymes.

    These are habits of thought and practice common to all the practicing writers I know–fiction and nonfiction, poetry and drama, best of the best and those who aren’t. I hope it’s helpful; if not, I’m sure you have a circular file handy.


    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      This is wonderful. Elizabeth, thanks! I particularly like the point about reading what you don’t yourself write. I hadn’t thought of it this way, but that’s sort of the converse of the way we sometimes write turgid academic prose because that’s what we read – catch-22! I do think my extensive reading in SF, mystery, and so on *does* help my academic writing. Cheers!


      1. Chaconine

        I like the idea that we should read widely and that it has value outside of simple pleasure. However, I think it’s challenging to translate certain types of prose into scientific writing because academic writing is sometimes just filled with jargon. Looking forward to reading more of your writing and Heard’s though!



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