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Which “writing” book is best suited for me? A map of the literature based on a re-read of Helen Sword’s ALTS

The one question that I get asked by just about every single person I have ever interacted with, who reads my blog and knows about my Reading Notes of Books I Have Read section of my Resources pages, is: “which writing book do you recommend? Which book should *I* read?”

Well, I’m here to tell you that I have no clue how to answer that question. A recent re-read and reconsideration of Helen Sword’s Air, Light, Time and Space made me think about how what we know about a certain field is contingent (dependent) upon what we already have read and learned.

In early 2017, I had read very few if any books on writing, and on academic writing specifically. Right now, in mid-2019 I am at a very, very different stage in my academic life and I have purchased and read a ton of books on this topic, not only for myself but also to become a better supervisor and help my doctoral students complete their journeys.

Acwri books

The truth is that I have learned about writing (and more specifically academic prose production) through reading AND writing. I read about writing and I write, a lot. I submit my work for peer review, I get rejections, I revise my writings, and I sometimes (often?) get published.

Acwri books 2

I wrote a Twitter thread on how I revised my thinking about Sword’s ALTS and how I went from hating it to actually liking it. My opinion changed because I knew WAY MORE about academic writing than I did in 2017 and even more importantly, by the time I re-read ALTS, I already had read a ton of books on the topic.

I tweeted a couple of screenshots to make a point that is better explained in a blog post than a Twitter thread. When I re-read ALTS, I saw bits and pieces of other books there. I saw how ALTS fits within the broader landscape of books on academic writing and the scholarly enterprise.

In ALTS I see bits and pieces of Zerubavel’s The Clockwork Muse + Joli Jensen’s Write No Matter What + Sword’s Stylish Academic Writing + John Warner’s The Writer’s Practice, Patricia Goodson’s Becoming an Academic Writer and Wendy Laura Belcher’s Writing Your Article in 12 Weeks.


Let me explain: ALTS is a book on gently developing YOUR own approach to writing (Zerubavel+Jensen), your own writing practice (Warner, Goodson, Belcher) based on lessons drawn from empirical research that Sword has done on academic writers.

What does this imply, in practice, and for those of you who teach #AcWri? It means, as I’ve argued in previous threads, that you need to more-or-less know the landscape of books on writing BEFORE recommending one for someone (which is why I almost never recommend). How you’ll read a book will be dependent on how much you know about the topic beforehand, as I said above.

This thread, and blog post, outline why I don’t like being asked which book is the best for ME. Because only YOU know what is best for you, and unfortunately, much like research and scholarship itself, the only way to know that is by trial and error.

Read a book on academic writing.

Take the parts you like, discards the ones you don’t.

Develop a writing practice.

Refine this practice with time.

Sadly, that’s how life as an academic happens: doing the work.

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Posted in academia.

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