Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Book: Writing for Scholars

Writing for Scholars: A Practical Guide to Making Sense and Being Heard by Lynn P. Nygaard
ISBN: 9788215013916

Writing for Scholars is a great guide for (aspiring) academic writers. The simplest thing I could say is that it ought to be required reading for anyone in graduate school who will be doing academic writing - e.g., journal articles or a dissertation. In my experience, academic writing was something that a graduate student was expected to either know already or absorb quickly without little or no coaching.

I've read a couple of books on the subject of academic writing, especially in the area of the sciences. Those books focused on a lot of the minutia of presenting and formatting one's work in a journal or similar medium. Ms. Nygaard takes a much larger view of the writing process, and she de-emphasizes (without completely dismissing) the technical minutia, putting it in the later chapters. She begins by talking about how to develop good writing habits, which is applicable to non-academic writers, too. She also explains the academic dialogue and how an academic paper has to fit into and extend that dialogue.

She continues by explaining how to identify your audience, which is also applicable to non-academic writing. Then she gets down to what I would term the core of the writing process: forming your argument and expressing it in standard academic form (abstract, introduction, method, results, discussion). She also explains how and when to use figures and tables.

A couple of topics that I don't recall reading in other books are: feedback (giving and receiving) and presenting a paper at a conference. Again, both of these are subjects which were never taught in my graduate schooling. These are both crucial topics that complete the academic dialogue.

Throughout the book, Ms. Nygaard includes numerous (sometimes humorous) examples drawn from a wide range of academic disciplines. Perhaps I'm just reading it through my own science-tinted glasses, but I'd say the book does lean more towards the "hard" sciences rather than social sciences or liberal arts. However, I would assume that non-science writers would find this book just as useful as the geeks in the world.

If I had to make a minor criticism of this book, I'd say that Ms. Nygaard should include some references to other sources relating to the various topics she addresses. This is a short book (less than 200 pages), and that's a good thing. But, as a short book, it cannot possibly be the end-all and be-all encyclopedia for academic writing. For example, her chapter on figures and tables is a great introduction, but references to authors like Tufte would serve the (novice) reader well.

In conclusion, Writing for Scholars is a great guide to academic writing. It is a must-read for anyone beginning a career that will involve such writing, and even seasoned writers can learn a few things by filling in some gaps that were left over from learning by osmosis.


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