Air & Light & Time & Space, by Helen Sword

April 20, 2017

By Erin Zimmerman, Ph.D.

Most academics have a fraught, love/hate relationship with writing. Though the final product brings pleasure and a sense of accomplishment, the process can be both slow and painful. What’s more, writing is often easy to put off in the push to complete more pressing activities, such as research, teaching, and committee work. This procrastination leads many to end up approaching their writing with a sense of dread and writing in occasional, guilt-induced marathons, rather than shorter, more frequent, and less arduous sessions. So how can we turn writing into a pleasurable, rewarding experience that we look forward to? 

In her new book, Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write, Helen Sword has interviewed 100 successful academic writers and surveyed over 1000 “struggling” writers who have taken her academic writing workshops. From these data, she had hoped to gain insight into what makes a thriving academic writer tick… routines, rituals, location, frequency, mindset… some magic bullet for productivity. In her introduction, Sword is upfront about having found no such common thread. The book rejects easy answers or one-size-fits-all recommendations and instead functions as a round-up of the tips, tricks, and strategies of her sources. 

In aiming to present all possible routes to success, however, Sword strays too far in the opposite direction. At times, the very quote-heavy book reads like a crowdsourced collection of anecdotes with very few conclusions or, to use a more academic description, a manuscript with a book-length "Results" section but none of the insights of the "Discussion" section. This is not a book for those looking for straightforward, prescriptive instructions on how to be a more productive or contented writer. But with anecdotes and quotes comprising the majority of every chapter, it may be useful for those who would like to read a comprehensive list of what works for others and cherry-pick what sounds good to them.

Of the direct advice Sword does give, some is quite valuable, such as measuring how many words on average one can produce per hour as a means of evaluating the feasibility of others’ requests for writing. The author herself discovered, to her surprise, that she could only turn out about 100 words per hour of publication-quality writing. Though discouraging, this helped her to realize that a request from a colleague to “quickly bang out” an 800-word blog post would in fact represent an entire day’s work.

Much of the book, however, is not focussed on actionable suggestions. There is, at one point, a five-page long stretch of quotes on where various academics informally learned to write, but the wisdom to be gained from these quotes is never given. One thing Sword does well here is to point readers toward other—perhaps more pragmatic—books on writing. Many of these books are bound to be more directly helpful to the struggling academic writer, and they range in topic from improving grammar to forming successful collaborations, to academic writing for speakers of English as a second language. One of the main values of Sword’s book is in its excellent list of other books.

Air & Light & Time & Space is set up around a conceptual four-pillared house, the House of Writing. The four pillars, helpfully named to give the acronym BASE, are Behavioural habits, Artisanal habits, Social habits, and Emotional habits. Broadening and strengthening these pillars—the "base" of one’s House of Writing—is said to produce a stronger and more spacious metaphorical dwelling. The book is divided into 12 chapters; three for each pillar. What follows is a brief overview of each pillar and its main concepts.

Behavioural Habits

Behavioural habits include when, where, and how often people write, as well as for how long at a stretch, and what routines or rituals are used to lure them into a productive mindset. After an exhaustive list of highly varied responses, Sword’s conclusion is that any behaviour that works for you is a good one. While this is not a particularly insightful piece of advice, it’s easy to see how she arrived at it, when for each interviewee who recommended a certain way of doing things—writing early in the morning, say—there was at least one other who swore by its opposite. 

Perhaps we can take something from the fact that the author herself, having written three books on academic writing to date, is a daily writer who, as she describes it, rolls out of bed around 6 a.m., plants herself in front of her computer with a cup of tea, and plunges straight into writing. 

Artisanal Habits

The section on artisanal habits explores how we learned and continue to learn to write, whether formally (a small minority of respondents) or informally (from one’s PhD supervisor, for example); the level of care and attention to detail that academics bring to their writing; and what special challenges are faced by those compelled to write in English as a second language.

A point that Sword makes in this section that I found personally illuminating was to draw a distinction between artists and artisans. It can be difficult at times to see the “artistry” in writing about one’s scientific research, as opposed to writing a poem or a novel. Sword compares academic writing to the artisanal work of a carpenter or weaver… it is sturdy, well-built, and the result of years of apprenticeship or training. So while writing in the sciences is perhaps not artistic per se, one can take artisanal pride in a well-built and solid construct.

Social Habits

Social habits are broken down into writing for others (being conscious of one’s audience and their needs and interests), writing with others (co-writing and co-authorship), and writing among others (writing groups and retreats).

Probably the most relevant of these sections for most academic writers is that on writing with others. This is one of the few times the author makes a distinction between writers in the sciences, who frequently co-author papers, and those in the humanities, who she notes are usually sole authors. In addition to the usual (wise) advice on having a clear understanding of authorship order and expectations from the outset, Sword suggests trying co-writing, as opposed to simply co-authoring. That is, sit down in the same room with your co-author and actually hash out a few paragraphs together. Even if you decide never to do it again, she says, you’d have gained insight into how your co-author thinks and works. And in the best-case scenario, you may discover an enjoyable new way of working. 

Emotional Habits

Emotional habits, according to Sword, comprise the pleasure we take in our writing, the risks we take in style and subject matter, how we handle setback and rejection, and the metaphors we use, consciously or not, when we think about our writing. 

In the rather odd final chapter on metaphors, we are presented with a long list of the mental images Sword’s interviewees associate with writing. They range from “parachuting into new territory” to “experiencing a sandstorm in the desert” to “giving birth to an overdue baby.” While I initially dismissed this as a frivolous exercise, Sword may be correct in her assertion that these ideas really do matter. For those who habitually approach writing with a sense of dread, like being “lost, drowning, and confused”, perhaps replacing that thought with one of “going on a journey” or even “flying in your writercopter” can help to bring a sense of adventure and joy to the venture.

The House of Writing provides a novel way of thinking about one’s writing practice, and reminds us not to neglect certain aspects of a well-rounded writing life. Take a look at your own pillars. Are they well balanced? Could your collaborations, your routines, or your willingness to take risks use a little work?

Those considering reading Air & Light & Time & Space would be well-advised to take its subtitle very literally. This is not a book on how successful academics should write, but on how they write... period, in all its contradictory and idiosyncratic variety. If that sounds like an interesting undertaking to you, this is the publication you’re looking for. 

What are your favourite books on writing? Comment below or let us know on Twitter or Facebook.

Erin Zimmerman (@DoctorZedd) is a plant biologist turned science writer and illustrator. She holds a B.Sc. in plant biology and physics from the University of Guelph, and an M.Sc. and Ph.D. in fungal genetics and molecular systematics, respectively, from the Université de Montréal. She blogs about evolution at Questionable Evolution. Find more of her writing at her website.

Filed Under: Scholarly Publishing Science Communication Erin Zimmerman

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