There is endless advice out there on how to write well. Some of this advice seems universal, and some of it varies a great deal, depending on the audience, purpose, and context for your writing. Academic writing brings its own challenges. If you think back to how you were trained in academic writing, you may remember a hodgepodge blend of advisor mentoring, classroom instruction, emulating others’ writing, and flying by the seat of your pants.

Luckily, in SoTL and higher education research, we have excellent guidance from Helen Sword. If you haven’t heard of her, she is a poet, scholar, and international expert on writing. She has done extensive research on “stylish writing” for academics, and she has investigated the writing of higher education research specifically.

In 2009, Sword published an article in Studies in Higher Education, in which she shared her analysis of 100 articles in the top 6 higher education journals. Her results were a depressing take on the state of academic writing. Articles received a score based on how well they exhibited common markers of stylish writing, such as clear sentences, engaging storytelling, jargon-free writing, etc. Out of a perfect score of 10, the mean rating of these articles was a 1.1.

So, why, why, why is academic writing so very un-stylish? Sword offers one likely reason: scholars are busy, and stylish writing just takes longer to do. “Stylish prose favours the reader, whereas stodgy prose favours the writer” (Sword 2009). You are teaching, researching, doing service, and it can surely be tempting to churn out your writing while exerting the least effort. But if you take the time to carefully craft your writing, your readers will find it easier to engage with your ideas, put them into practice, and build on them.

Book cover for Stylish Academic Writing by Helen Sword

So, where to start in improving your own writing? In Sword’s book, Stylish Academic Writing, she identified six key points of style that all academic writing advice seems to unanimously agree on:

  1. Clarity, coherence, and concision
  2. Short or mixed-length sentences
  3. Plain English
  4. Precision
  5. Active verbs
  6. Telling a story (Sword 2012, 26-27)

I know this is very general, broad, advice. Sword provides many specifics and examples throughout her excellent book, which is why it should be on every academic’s bookshelf.

In her research, Sword also found surprising diversity among the writing of the most stylish writers. Although it might feel like there’s only one way to write in academia, there is space for your personal choices and personality to shine through. “The most stylish academic writers are those who follow no fixed stars but chart their own adventurous course” (Sword 2009).

One easy way to introduce your personal voice into your writing is to use first person pronouns. In 2019, Sword investigated pronoun use in SoTL and higher education research, and she found that the first person is now the norm, with over 90% of articles using “I” or “we.” I agree with Sword when she says, “Those of us who prefer the lively voices of real human beings to the dull dronings of agentless academic prose are sure to welcome this trend” (188).

Another tool I recommend is Sword’s Writer’s Diet test, a website (or app) where you paste in your text to determine if it is “flabby or fit.” The test is based on Sword’s delightfully short but meaty book by the same name, which “will help you energize your writing, boost your verbal fitness and strip unnecessary padding from your prose” (Sword 2016, 1). The test will identify some common problems in your writing (mine is a bit of a lazy propensity for be-verbs). The book will help you address these problems and tighten up your writing.

A screenshot of The Writer's Diet website. A text window shows the text of this post. To the right is the test's results: "LEAN". Five categories are shown: be-verbs, zombie nouns, prepositions, ad-words, and it, this, that, there.
Screenshot of the text of this blog post in The Writer’s Diet test. Results say, LEAN!

You probably took up SoTL research because you felt excited about improving your teaching and fascinated by how your students experience learning. Don’t let stodgy academic writing stifle that energy! In a field so focused on people, writing in SoTL should be personal, filled with the vivid stories of the teachers and students and staff who are the heart of our campuses.

Learn more

Sword, Helen. 2019. “The First Person.” Teaching & Learning Inquiry 7 (1).

Sword, Helen, 2016. The Writer’s Diet. University of Chicago Press.

Sword, Helen. 2012. Stylish Academic Writing. Harvard University Press.

Sword, Helen. 2009. “Writing Higher Education Differently: A Manifesto on Style.” Studies in Higher Education 34 (3).

Sword, Helen. 2017. “Writing to the Heights and from the Heart.” Plenary address at the 2017 conference of the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (ISSOTL). October 14, 2017 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

Jennie Goforth is the Center for Engaged Learning’s Managing Editor. She works with authors to shepherd their work from proposal through production in the Center’s Open Access Book Series. She also manages production of book websites and supplemental materials for the Stylus Publishing/Center for Engaged Learning Series on Engaged Learning and Teaching.

How to Cite This Post

Goforth, Jennie. 2023. “Writing Stylishly in SoTL: The Gospel According to Helen Sword.” Center for Engaged Learning (blog), Elon University. December 19, 2023.