A guide to academic writing and an annotated bibliography of books on writing

Note: below is a short guide to writing better. Skip to the end for the annotated bibliography.

No part of my graduate coursework emphasized writing. It was assumed that we could all construct a sentence, a paragraph, and (hopefully?) a dissertation chapter. As someone who struggled with his writing in the early parts of graduate school, this was frustrating. Since then, I’ve realized people with PhDs don’t talk about improving academic writing very much either. But they should. Everyone should. Below are some strategies I’ve used to improve my writing.

Improving your writing in the short term

Think about writing as three different stages: planning, writing, and revision. In reality, the lines between these stages are blurred and its okay to revise each paragraph as you go or to change the outline as the chapter unfolds, but when you’re trying to improve, thinking deliberately about each piece is critical. The three small suggestions below address each of these stages. If you feel the first two are too obvious, you can ignore them, but you should try the third one if you don’t do it already.

1. Work from an outline. You want to have a clear sense of how your chapter or article should unfold. Once I have my plan, I go back to my evidence (or material) and often sort it based on the outline. An outline is also the best cure for writer’s block. If you can’t start writing, just make the outline more detailed. This refines your argument and you end up writing a lot of the topic sentences for the chapter. An outline is also handy when it’s time for revision. In fact, if you’re struggling with the structure of an already written draft, make a reverse outline, which is an outline constructed with the actual topic sentences (in order) of the written chapter. You can then compare your actual structure—and the clarity of your topic sentences—with the original plan.

2. Topic sentences. Again, this feels too basic. It’s not. As I was finalizing my manuscript, I realized that bad topic sentences were responsible for almost all the problematic or confusing parts. Topic sentences guide the reader as well as keep you honest: you can’t write them clearly unless you really understand the point you want to make. If you revise nothing else, make sure your topic sentences are clear.

3. Print your work and edit in pen. You probably edit on the screen. That’s totally fine. But if you want to improve your writing, I strongly suggest actually printing your work. First, it forces you to treat revision with the respect it deserves. Secondly, I think it alienates you from the text, which is actually a good thing. It makes it easier to see how the piece is constructed since you’re coming into contact with it in a new way. It also means you revise in two stages; when you first make the edits in pen and again when you enter them into the manuscript on the computer. Even if you aren’t persuaded, just try it. I’ve convinced a few people to do it and they all found it useful. There’s not much to lose, though be sure you like the technique before buying a new laserjet printer.

Improving your writing in the long term

The cliche is that you should read a lot (and widely). It’s good advice, but I’m guessing you already do that. The key is to train yourself to read like a writer. You should be reading not just for enjoyment and/or information, but to understand how the piece you’re reading is constructed.

1. Go through your favorite books and think about how they are written. Ask yourself why you enjoyed your favorite academic book so much. Can you apply any of the author’s techniques? How did they open your favorite chapter? Similarly, look at a prize-winning article you like. How is it constructed? You’re already familiar with the content of these works, so focus on the writing. Initially this requires deliberate effort, but over time you’ll learn to think about the writing whenever you read anything.

2. Read other people’s drafts. It teaches you to think about writing. When you revise one of your own pieces, you face familiar challenges. When you look at something you never would’ve written about or something written in a completely different style, you train yourself to be attuned to alternate stylistic choices.

3. Write as much as possible. Revision counts. Almost everyone I’ve met who writes beautifully kept a diary growing up. I didn’t, but since it’s a little late for that, I write as much as possible. It’s okay to write things that never go anywhere. Experimentation is a good thing.

Annotated bibliography of academic writing resources

William Zinsser, On Writing Well.

My favorite. Zinsser emphasizes simplicity and clarity. While this is all relative (particularly in academic writing), his philosophy of writing and concrete suggestions are great. The book is beautifully written, so it makes for a good read if you need inspiration.

Strunk and White, The Elements of Style.

Basic, but if you haven’t read it, do so ASAP. Lots of specific examples.

Helen Sword, Stylish Academic Writing.

This one is useful because it’s written specifically for academics. It’s also practical, dealing with questions like titles, chapter openers, etc.

Helen Sword, Air & Light & Time & Space.

Bad title, great book. Based on Sword’s conversations with academics about their writing.

Paul Silvia, How to Write a Lot.

I like this one because it deals with the mental aspects of writing. Silvia is a psychologist and he gives motivational suggestions as well as practical advice on writing and submitting articles.

Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato, Thinking Like Your Editor.

Save this one for when you’re moving to the revision for publication stage (particularly for a book). I found it really useful when I was revising my book manuscript.

Wendy Belcher, Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks.

The title says it all. If you want a step by step guide to writing, revising, and submitting a journal article, this is it. I’ve never tried to follow the plan exactly, but I found it an interesting read.

If you have book recommendations, send me the title and a sentence on why it’s useful (I’ll give you credit). You can find me on twitter or via email.

Read other people’s drafts

I started my academic career as a lousy writer. More specifically, as a lousy academic writer. But I was motivated to improve. I consulted people whose writing I admired and generally received the same suggestion: if you want to write better, you should (a) write a lot and (b) read good writing. Unfortunately, this advice always seemed a bit self-evident and frankly, unsatisfying. I had already tried both. Eventually, however, I realized that the key was less about what one read than how one read. The important thing was to think about how an academic argument is constructed. What nobody had told me is that the best way to do that is to read other people’s drafts.

My biggest improvement as an academic writer came from co-organizing a graduate workshop. In the workshop, students from a variety of fields pre-circulated drafts that we discussed in a group of roughly six to twelve. While it was almost always successful, the main reason I learned so much is that as an organizer, I was so worried about the contributor receiving poor feedback that I always thought hard about their paper and how it could be improved.

Reading drafts from people in your field is good, but reading drafts from unrelated fields is even better. When you’re reading about a topic with which you’re unfamiliar, you’re more attuned to the writing. You don’t worry so much about the specific contribution or intervention, but focus on how to improve or clarify it. I know little about medieval history, so when I read a paper on twelfth-century guilds, I can think carefully about the use of archival material, the overall structure, or the clarity of the scholarly intervention. It’s even better when you find the topic boring. Thinking about how to put the best spin on a topic you find uninteresting will hone skills that apply to your own work. Ultimately, other people’s drafts pose you with writing challenges you may never have faced or never known existed, and that leads to good things.

Talk to the person about their piece after you read it. Explaining suggestions not only improves the draft, but it helps you think consciously about what is and isn’t working. When I read an article I don’t like, I tend to move on without thinking about why. Actually having to explain why something isn’t working requires a better appreciation of the author’s challenges as well as the nature of the problem. The conversation also provides insight into the author’s perspective, which can change how you think about writing more broadly.

Finally, it’s always easier to spot bad habits in other people’s writing. This will lead to realizations about your own. For a period of about two years, I used the word “however’ in nearly every sentence I wrote. However, I wasn’t aware of that fact until I was reading a draft in which someone had the exact same habit. Problem solved. Of course this is only productive if you approach your own writing with humility. Drafts are rarely good and never perfect. Be charitable to the author and you’ll be more aware of your own limitations.

I spend more time offering to read drafts than actually reading them, because many people assume it’s not a genuine offer. It is, and hopefully this post has clarified why. If you want to be a better scholar, read other people’s drafts. Oh yeah, and if you read someone else’s drafts, they’ll read yours.

How to write an academic book review

Note: this guide is for writing the 500-750 word “academic summary” review. Some of these suggestions are helpful for longer reviews or review essays, though those are much more about making an argument about the book or historiography.

What do you do if you’re unsure whether you need to read that new book about rats in revolutionary Paris or the untold story of Jefferson’s wig? You look for reviews. In particular, you seek the academic summary kind, a 500-750 word overview that tells a busy reader what is at the book’s heart. Writing these summaries isn’t the most glamorous job, but they grease the wheels of the historical profession. Below are some suggestions on how to write academic reviews as painlessly as possible.

A good review starts with careful reading and economical note-taking. Somewhere during my preparation for general exams I stopped actually reading. Mostly, I skim. That’s no good for this. As a reviewer, you owe it to the author to read everything carefully and check the footnotes. However, don’t take an overabundance of notes. Be on the lookout for a few key quotations from every chapter. I like to write a 2-3 sentence summary of each chapter after I’m done reading it. Keep a broad perspective; you don’t want to lose the forest for the trees.

When it comes time to write the review, think about what the reader wants. Generally, it’s a short overview of the subject and argument followed by a slightly expanded discussion of some particularly interesting key themes and then an overall assessment. That’s it.

To do that, open with a short hook describing an interesting nugget or anecdote from the book. A well chosen opening like this should ideally reflect the book’s focus or argument and therefore give the reader a sense of the book’s flavor. Then you pivot to a one-to-two paragraph overview. Tell us the book’s subject, argument, and importance. Use at most two quotes; you don’t want to bury the reader. Then you want a paragraph on an interesting theme of the book (this one should be pretty positive). The next paragraph or so can raise another theme, with an eye toward constructive criticism or engagement with the book’s ideas. This is where you can get a bit into your analytic take / perspective. By this point readers expect a little of that. Then you end with a paragraph (or even a few sentences) providing an overall assessment of the importance or relevance of the book. Bam! You’re done.

General tips:

Reviews of this kind are somewhat formulaic. This is not the time to experiment with form. Readers of this kind of review are looking for a summary. If you want to write one of those reviews that is more about the human condition than the book in question, save it for the LRB/NYRB/LARB.

The first few paragraphs are an overview. Be faithful to the author’s argument, and keep your (brief) analytic take for later in the review.

Now is not the time to dump on a bad book. Be charitable. Raise legitimate criticisms constructively. Even bad books have useful information and content for other scholars.

Don’t nitpick. It’s lazy and stupid. None of us devote years of our lives to the copy-editing. Engage with the ideas.

You should write a few of these a year. You owe it to the profession!

For an example of a few reviews, here’s one I wrote for the Kentucky Historical Register and (slightly longer) one for H-NET.