Stylish Academic Writing Workshop

These are my notes from a 1 1/2 hour workshop run by the Mathematics and Statistics PhD Writing Group. Big thank you to Rebecca Turner for organising and to Helen Sword for fitting us into a very busy schedule.

Liza’s one sentence summary

Not only is “stylish academic writing” not an oxymoron, it is within your grasp if you cultivate a craftman’s attitude to your writing by developing appropriate skills and strategies and using helpful techniques (see: reverse outlining, audience activity, writer’s diet test, busting zombie nouns).

My key takewaways

  • Use reverse outlining to help you structure your writing.
  • Use zing-ier verbs and limit your flabby uses of “is” and other “to be” verbs. The Writer’s Diet online test can help - notes below.
  • Fight your zombie nouns (nominalisations).
  • Use concrete language. Academic thought is all about abstraction, we need to think abstractly and use abstractions, but we must communicate concretely to get our ideas across.
  • Ask yourself: “Does this sound like a human being talking to another human being?”
  • Think about your specific audience when you write.

I own Writer’s Diet and Stylish Academic Writing if you want to borrow them. Helen’s most recent book is Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write. Full list of books recommended from today on Goodreads.

Helen Sword (general intro)

  • Background in comparative literature.
  • Been at Auckland about 14 years now with CLeaR.
  • Most academics aren’t formally trained to teach or to write.
  • “If you’re writing in a social science, you’re writing about things that should be interesting to people, and so it should be accessible”
  • “Scientists respect expertise”

Jo noted that reading Helen’s new book got her back on track with her approach to her writing.

An attitude to wanting to write well is the key theme among successful writers. Seeing your writing craft as something worthwhile and really satisfying.

Group activity: What do we think makes stylish writing?

  • Telling a story
  • Examples and scenarios
  • Personality and emotion come through (but people often feel discouraged)
  • Simple language and flow, coherence, structure
  • Engaging, clear sentences so you don’t have to re-read over and over
  • Well-crafted
  • Balance between the English and the formulae
  • Signposting

Additional things Helen noted in her research:

  • Elegant placement of citations
  • Great titles
  • Engaging opening paragraphs
  • People in science tend to favour concision

Technique: Reverse outlining

  • Pull out a topic sentence for each paragraph
    • If you can’t find the sentence that explains what this paragraph is about, you probably need to work on this paragraph
    • Sometimes a few words about what the paragraph is trying to do will also work
  • Put all these topic sentences in a new file
  • Read through them
  • Ask yourself these questions:
    • Can you make sense of your paper from this outline?
    • Does it flow?
    • Is it logical?

Things to think about before, during and after writing

What craft looks like may differ by by discipline, but the question you must always ask is: “Is my writing well crafted?”

Audience Activity

Write down the names of the people that fit these five descriptions.

  1. Famous person in your discipline you’d like to impress

  2. Critical friend in your discipline (honest and supportive feedback, think more a peer than a supervisor)

  3. Critical friend outside your discpline (you could have an engaging conversation about the general topic with them)

  4. A talented undergrad in your discipline (someone is smart and keen and knows a bit about this)

  5. Uncle Bob/Aunt Mable (someone among your family or friends)

Comments on each of these groups

  • Writing for the famous person in your discipline is a great way to get trapped into trying to sound smart by adding that extra jargon word or the one with more syllables.
  • The critical friend in your discipline is one of the best audience members to write for.
  • The critical friend outside your discipline is a good tester for writing you might do for grant applications.
  • Keep in mind that talented undergrad, if they couldn’t get at least some of what you’re doing, that should cause you pause.
  • Practice wearing your Aunt Mable/Uncle Bob hat now and then. Could they understand your title? Get through the abstract?

Louise noted that describing a new method in an abstract can be really hard.

If most academics were writing a mystery novel, what would the first sentence be? “The butler did it.” We’re trained to put everything up front. BUT in most disciplines, instead of telling you absolutely everything, part of the role of the abstract should be to make people want to read more.

“The PhD examiner committee is unlike any audience you will ever have to write for again.”


Some academics say there is no place for personality in your paper, but time and again, when you look at the papers people like to read, there is clearly a human there talking to another human. While it is possible to do this without the use of “I/we”, that is harder.

This is another example of how theses are strange beasts. Most of our work is collaborative and we would use “we”, but your thesis is supposed to be a work of “I”.

We x 3

There is the “we” of our research group, the “we” as the general “we the people” (“from these results we can see”) and the Royal We. Don’t do the last one.

In social sciences there was more “we” than people were originally suggesting were the norms, and in the Sciences, WAY more. Evolutionary biology had something like 99% “we” papers. Narratives! Also high in computer science and medicine. Helen also looked at many different journal style guides. NONE of them prohibited use of active voice, and many discouraged the passive voice. Passive voice hides agency. “Mistakes were made.” By whom?

Scientists would say they couldn’t use pronouns because they were scientists and scientists have to sound impersonal. But then in most science writing that gets published we see pronouns.

Someone probably told you that you can’t use the first person. Maybe it was in undergrad, maybe it was your 5th form English teacher. But somewhere along the line your were told this fallacy and have failed to rebel against it.

There are no hard and fast rules. You can use pronouns in all sections of your paper, or just some where it is easier.

When you’re introducing your PhD: A personal introduction, why you’re doing this research, can then carry your voice through later sections.

Telling stories

There is a movement in accounting story telling! Helen was invited to go speak at an accounting conference. An account is a story, too…

What is a story?

There are basic elements:

  • A protagonist
  • Action, some kind of ‘doing’
  • A struggle or challenge
  • A change, often of the protagonist or the situation

View your literature review as the backstory. How did the characters get to this point?

There are two stories you might want to tell:

  • The past leading up to now (which doesn’t really have you in it)
  • Your story of finding the research gap and engaging with the literature

Any paper had at least two stories. Your story (easy - how did you get into this) and the story of the research (harder - doesn’t have much to do with you).


In a piece of evolutionary biology research the writers told two stories.

The seagulls’ story: Seagulls have evolved to fly to just the right height to drop eggs from in order to crack them. Too high and you’re wasting energy. Too low and you’re not always cracking the eggs and you’re also wasting energy.

The researchers’ story: how they got interested in this.

Activity Idea: Once upon a time…

Tell the story of your research or your own research journey as a fairytale.

The Curse of Knowledge

When you know something well, it is impossible to imagine what it is like not to know it.

Example of the Knockers: In a study people were asked to pick a popular song and knock the rhythym on a desk for someone else to guess. They were asked how successful they thought people would be at guessing and wildly overestimated. Most people could not guess successfully. It was so obvious to the knocker, because they knew what they were doing.

Technique: Reverse engineering your writing from exemplars

Look at what you like in what you’re reading and see if you can emmulate that. If you get pushback from supervisors, show them what you’re trying to work from. Are you just not capturing it? Or is your supervisor stuck thinking writing can’t be stylish?

Technqiue: Use the Writer’s Diet website

Is your writing flabby or fit? Check out Helen’s Writer’s Diet site:

  • Helen noticed a lot of common things that if writers just did less of, their writing would be better
  • E.g. looks for all versions of the verb to be “is, are, be, been etc.”
    • These are easy to use and OVERUSE.
    • Verbs are about emotion and taking you places. Use zingy-ier verbs.
    • The advanced tab allows you to exclude certain words that you have to use - if you’re in population genetics, your probably have to say “population”.


Words that end in -ism, -ity, -tion reduce agency and tend to cluster “be” words around them. Read Helen’s New York Times piece or watch her TED-Ed video.

Concrete nouns

Try to write about things that are really there. What’s a quark? We’ve given something a name to try to make it more concrete. “Everything on your desktop is a metaphor.” “Trash””, “files”, “folders” etc. We’re hardwired to engage with the concrete. And it makes things much more comprehensible.

Too much abstract language makes your mind wander.

Academic thought is all about abstraction, we need to think abstractly and use abstractions, but we must communicate concretely to get our ideas across. If it is something you can illustrate with a hand gesture, say. Anything that puts things into the real world.


  • Do you keep a bank of great phrases?
    • Helen did especially while writing stylish academic writing and still takes notice
    • Keeping a bank of fabulous verbs can help you with your writing
  • Trends in article titles - what is too clickbait-y?
    • Three types of titles: Engaging, informative or both
    • Being engaging and informative without a colon is the holy grail!
    • People often default to Engaging: Informative as their title structure. Sometimes what they end up with is just Informative: Informative.
  • Does better writing make you a better speaker?
    • I didn’t get a chance to ask this one, but I bet it does…


So, how are you going to make your writing more stylish? Come continue the conversation on Twitter. Only stylish Tweets allowed…

Written on October 3, 2017

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