Head of the Class

How to teach psychology well

Stylish Academic Writing? Really? Yes, Really!

Can academics learn to write with clarity and grace rather than stuffiness? Yep.

Back in May, I attended the annual Teaching Institute that is jointly sponsored by the Society for the Teaching of Psychology (STP) and the Association for Psychology Science (APS) at the latter’s annual convention. During the poster session, I had the good fortune to come across a poster by Dr. Mikelen H. Ray of Alverno College. Her work provided suggestions for helping students to better analyze, diagnose, and improve their writing. One of her activities involved having students select prose passages written by famous living psychologists and to then submit the text to an online writing site where it’s style strengths (good cadence, sentences of differring lengths) and weaknesses (o, passive voice! over use of it, this, that) are identified. She then had her students rewrite the original work based on lessons and tools learned in her class (and no, she did not disclose a “who’s who” of writes with style and grace and who, well, doesn’t--she is much too professional to do that).

I was impressed—also sobered. What if I submitted my own work to the site or to her students? I will come clean, Reader: I will but haven’t yet done so. Why? Abject terror? Fear of embarrassment or rejection (sorry, no, anyone who writes endures those fears—and sometime realities—all the time—to write is to open oneself up to criticism and snarky comments great and small). No, I haven’t because in that very same poster Professor Ray introduced me to a terrific book by Helen Sword of the University of Auckland. Stylish Academic Writing (Harvard University Press, 2012) offers pithy, thoughtful, and concrete guidance on ways to improve writing about scholarly research (or anything else for that matter) so that it is engaging to others. Professor Sword’s goal—no, her mission—is to dispel the myth that academic prose has be cast in stuffy, stodgy, dull academese that generates boredom and drowsiness rather than excitement or at least curiosity.

I recently read Stylish Academic Writing on a return flight from a conference in California. I loved it and will use its lessons on voice, crafting smart sentences, putting a “hook” at the opening of a piece, and thinking about the internal structure of what you are writing, whether it’s an article, a chapter, or book, in my own work and my teaching. She even takes on the dreaded menace of “jargonitis” (i.e., excessive use of buzzwords and neologisms) a disease that is rampant in the social sciences, especially, perhaps, in psychology (or it may well be a close tie with the equally verbose and babbly discipline of sociology).

Teachers who write should consider reading the book, especially because Professor Sword’s advice is such that you can cherry pick—an idea here, a suggestion there—you need not buy into the whole program, just hone those areas in your writing that need a gentle nudge to become more clear, concise, and precise. Teachers of writing at the college level will want to read the book so as to help stem the tide of overly formal, dry-as-dust term papers that are still standard fare in many classes. Note that I am not suggesting that students be assigned the book (though if I were a graduate student or a post-doc’s mentor, I would make it required reading so as to reduce the number of deadly dissertations and problematic first publications), just that ideas from it can be blended into current writing classes or discussions of writing in psychology courses, especially introduction to psychology, research methods, and any capstone courses that close out the majors.

As I have written in this space before, I remain convinced that the most important thing undergraduates learn—or should learn—is to write well. Clarity on paper leads to clear thinking and speaking and will take them much farther than almost any college major, including psychology. Or, in any case, learning to write well will help them to share their knowledge and love of the discipline with others.

So, run, don’t walk, to take a look at Stylish Academic Writing—and kudos to Drs. Sword and Ray for their respective efforts to improve everyone’s prose.

Dana S. Dunn, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology at Moravian College, a liberal arts college in Bethlehem, PA.

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