Writing's on the Wall
Students and academics are being taught how to write, says David Quin
Academics and students are well aware of the dangers of badly written books and articles. It's an occupational hazard. If a particularly dry tome is on the reading list, word gets out. But as the pressure mounts on universities to persuade their academics to get their works published, the need for clearer writing increases.
Now help is at hand. A partnership between the Royal Literary Fund and 38 universities aims to assist students and staff with their writing styles. The scheme has put 55 professional writers in universities to improve academic language. Funding comes from the royalties of the estates of writers such as AA Milne and Somerset Maugham, and the money goes towards year-long contracts for university fellows.
"I have encountered some appalling English," says Mary Flanagan, a novelist and the fund's fellow at the University of Leicester. "But it's not the university or the students' fault. They are victims of an educational crime going way back to primary school. Although some are very bright, many simply haven't been taught their own language. My best student is Greek."
Flanagan says her role is very different from that of the traditional writer in residence. "Unlike a creative writing course, the students accept criticism with good grace. Academia can often encourage a certain verbosity, so I spend a lot of time cutting. I often take their writing apart and put it back together, like an editor at a newspaper."
Covering the range of university disciplines has its challenges. Flanagan does more than just correct grammar. "Being a novelist is about developing a voice, which academics can do, but it's harder when much of the tone is already set. A slightly better worded thesis can make the difference between a first and a 2:1."
Perhaps surprisingly, there has been very little resistance to the scheme. "I thought we might face some opposition from the academic world, but we didn't," says the Royal Literary Fund's fellowship officer, Steve Cook. "Perhaps that's a sign of how needy the universities are. They just don't have the time to advise as much as they would like on stylistic matters."
Martin Blinkhorn, professor of modern history at the University of Lancaster and editor of the academic journal European History Quarterly, believes that the scheme has helped, but has some reservations. "Regrettably the standard of written English I've seen over the years has fallen, so I'm sure the fund can help with that," he says. "But in the end it is never going to relieve the supervisors' responsibility. They are the ones who should know the intimate stylistic needs of their subjects."