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 & Space? If 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