My heart sank when seeing the week’s theme. In Module 1, I had encountered and dismissed Helen Sword’s negative appraisal of academic writing because I felt she had missed some essential points of academia. Having to deal again with Sword dismayed me. However now I think I may have jumped too hastily to a weak verdict. I will explain why I reappraised Sword.
I describe my reasons for rejecting her (and others, e.g. Pinker  and Toor ). Arguably Sword’s insistence on story telling and reader engagement may be irresponsible. Readers approach articles according to their needs: scan for information, find relevant literature, read only the introduction and conclusion, and so on. Journal papers fulfil various functions, only some of which suit a narrative style, and this style risks subverting the established reader-author trust. A telling example is her “manifesto on style” (2009) whose unconventional format makes alternate reading purposes very difficult. Also, Sword expects academics to write mainly for a non-specialist audience. Garber recasts what Sword calls “specialised language” (Sword, 2011) as “a way of storing a complicated sequence of thinking operations under a unique name” (Garber, 2001, as cited in Sword, 2009, p. 329). Specialists utilise technical language to express complex ideas more compactly. In other words, a large part of academic texts communicates with a select few. I do not know how many of the 100 articles Sword analysed to create her manifesto were written for a select audience. However, jumping to the conclusion that research becomes less meaningful because the text does not “communicate clearly” (Sword, 2011, emphasis added) is a leap too far. Academics may prefer engaging prose, but we can understand turgid text as well.
What turned me towards appreciating Sword’s methodology swivels on an irony. That Sword’s limits her analysis semantic categories had irked me. She neglects to discuss the overriding consideration: an argument’s propositional force. In this English-dominated world, most users of text are not native English speakers, and style contains nuances whose study detracts from the business of communicating knowledge. More important is the study of rhetoric, i.e., the study of how to create powerful messages. However, when I tested an earlier draft of the above text in The Writer’s Diet (Sword, n.d), I found that my writing was FLABBY. The verbs were flabby, nouns and prepositions needed toning, adjectives and adverbs had a heart attack and only the waste words were fit and trim. This current version is FIT and TRIM: only adjectives and adverbs are flabby: the rest lean.
The need to improve my score repeatedly forced me to revise my text. In doing so, I noticed many inconsistencies, weaknesses and errors. Furthermore, I reduced the word count significantly by removing unnecessary text. The irony that the attention on semantic terms helps produce a stronger propositional force is not lost on me, but I wonder how much of that change has to do with time-on-task forced upon me rather than the focus on the semantic aspects of the discourse.
Pinker, S. (2014). The Chronicle Review. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/article/Why-Academics-Writing-Stinks/148989/
Sword, H. (n. d.). The Writer’s Diet Test. Retrieved October 1, 2015, from http://www.writersdiet.com/wasteline.php
Sword, H. (2009). Writing higher education differently: a manifesto on style. Studies in Higher Education, 34(3), 319–336. http://doi.org/10.1080/03075070802597101
Sword, H. Improving Academic Writing. Laureate Education, 2011
Toor, R. (2012). Becoming a “Stylish” Writer. Retrieved October 1, 2015, from http://chronicle.com/article/Becoming-a-Stylish-Writer/132677
Writer’s Diet: BEFORE
Writer’s Diet: AFTER