I rarely read books directly or indirectly unrelated to my research and studies, period. During the winter break back in December, however, I unusually read two research-unrelated books, Stylish Academic Writing by Helen Sword, and Insanely Simple: The Obsession That Drives Apple’s Success by Ken Segall. Sword is an academic, her book is about academic writing, and her main audience is likely academics; Segall is an advertising creative director, his book is about Apple’s marketing, and his main audience is probably the general public. These two books do not share similar content, but both offer some advice on how to make things better: academic writing and marketing/business.
Interestingly, I learnt much more about writing from Segall’s book than Sword’s book. Despite all the pieces of advice that Sword provides, her prose in Stylish Academic Writing was not stylish at all. You can see how she implements what she suggests in the book, but she seems to be struggling to integrate them into a coherent way of writing. Some sentences are even longer than typically long sentences that you would encounter in academic writing; too many parentheses keep cutting off the flow of sentences; the use of data that she collected is sporadic and does not really help strengthen her discussion; and, she does not really exhibit the occasional humour that she claims great academic writers possess. If you bother to read this book for advice, I would rather recommend that you read old-style prescriptive style guides like The Elements of Style, or The Craft of Research. Sadly, Sword’s prose was not engaging enough to be stylish at all.
Unlike Sword’s book, Segall’s Insanely Simple was engaging and full of intriguing anecdotes. Segall writes his understanding (and version) of Steve Jobs’s and Apple’s philosophy based on his own experience as a TBWA\Chiat\Day creative director, and breaks down such philosophy into ten “Think” catchphrases. Not all these Think’s are helpful for stylish academic writing, but some of them are straightforward and, at least for me, useful to improve my writing.
Although “Think Small” basically encourages us to work in a small group of smart people, this attitude is applicable to the preparation and the content of writing. At the beginning of brainstorming or writing, I tend to have more topics or ideas that I need to write a specific paper. By narrowing down my scope of topics or ideas, I should be able to engage with ideas or topics more rigorously and productively.
If “Think Small” is a larger work ethic, “Think Minimal” is a smaller work ethic and it encourages you to focus on one thing at a time or identify the common ground for multiple things. This mentality is directly applicable to academic writing where we need to focus on one workable idea at a time in order to make ourselves fully understood before going to the next idea.
“Think Motion” indicates the necessity to have a clearly defined goal and to work towards it constantly without being distracted by other factors. Setting up a timeline tight enough to achieve this, I should be able to make full use of my time and energy to work productively.
This “Think” mentality asks business people to think beyond numbers and to think about their customers, or human beings, first. By foregrounding customer satisfaction, companies can focus more on what they want to deliver. In academic writing, we all need to think about our potential audience, and without a clear idea of what types of people they are, our prose can end up being too vague for them, which also means that the audience does not understand our message.
I may be stretching Segall’s points a little too much by relating them to academic writing, but his thoughts on how Steve Jobs ran Apple would likely help me refine my writing and achieve more stylish prose than Sword’s book. For now, in order to achieve stylish academic writing, I will aim for insanely simple writing!