Omnibus prik

Thinking outside the box

Why imitate a boring style instead of opting for something which is truly well written? Asks Helen Sword.

An alarm bell rings in the head of the New Zealand author and literary scholar Helen Sword when people say that their supervisor won’t allow them to write in a particular way. Or that certain conventions have to be obeyed in their particular field. She feels that being an academic is all about thinking outside the box and challenging the conventions with which you are faced.

This also applies to the conventions governing how to write a good academic article. And in this connection, Helen Sword has launched her own personal campaign on clumsy academic style with a poor level of communication: containing long sentences, passive verbs, homemade phrases and concepts, and parenthetical clauses making manuscripts heavy and even downright incomprehensible for the innocent reader.

She wonders why academics think that they should be imitating the boring aspects of other people’s texts, instead of finding articles that are well written, analysing why they think they are good, and then gaining inspiration from them.

The universities have some responsibility

According to Helen Sword, it’s a paradox that universities do not spend more time teaching students and staff to improve their written communication skills. After all, this is a major aspect of being an academic – and it also plays a role in terms of the financial situation of universities.

The organiser of the workshop for students was Mads Rosendahl Thomsen, a degree programme director and associate professor of comparative literature. He agrees with Sword.

“We need to integrate writing courses into our teaching. It’s no good expecting the students to do their exams without practising their writing skills first. It’s too late when exam time comes around. And that’s why we need to give them writing tasks during the teaching process – not least because it supports their academic development,” he says.