Book Review: Eric Hayot’s Academic Writing Advice

By: Carolyn Ureña

The first time I taught a course on academic writing, I was assigned Cathy Birkenstein and Gerald Graff’s The Say, I Say as the core text for the class. As I read through this small book filled with practical advice on how to write clear transitions and build an argument, I was thrilled by its clarity but also incredulous that I had somehow managed to get by without it. I mean, why had no one handed me this book when I was in college?

This was the same feeling I experienced upon reading the first few pages of Eric Hayot’s The Elements of Academic Style. As graduate students, we are often tasked with teaching others to write, having become relatively adept at doing so ourselves. And yet, the difference between writing a college seminar paper and your first graduate school paper (or publishable article, or – gasp – your dissertation) can honestly feel as daunting as making that initial transition from high school to college writing. While there is no telling whether graduate education in the humanities will include a course on writing, the good news is that Hayot’s book has emerged to fill that void, helping to assuage the fears of anyone who has ever felt unsure of how to start, push through, and revise an academic writing project.

Part pep talk, part practical advice, The Elements of Academic Style offers readers concrete suggestions on essential topics such as: how to create and maintain a writing schedule; how to transition between the paragraphs, sections, and chapters of your project while also building an argument; and how to effectively engage sources. Deciding how much to “show your iceberg” –that is, determining how much of the research you’ve done you really need to show your readers (versus, say, placing those ideas in footnotes and letting your synthesized ideas show in the main text)— can be a major challenge when working with large bodies of work, and Hayot’s careful explanation of when to show what has already proved incredibly helpful to me as I engage in revisions.

One of the great strengths of Hayot’s book is his ability to position himself as a fellow writer throughout, offering advice from the perspective of someone who is constantly telling you not only a) this is what I actually do, but b) this is not the only way, just what has worked for me. I for one always appreciate when my mentors share with me their process as well as what they still find challenging, and for this reason Hayot’s book stands out as the best book on academic writing I have read to date. I’ve already been returning to it as a reference, recommending it to teachers, tutors, and students alike, and I highly recommend you give it a read, no matter where in your graduate career (or beyond) you find yourself.