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Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write (Review)

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Most successful academic writers in Sword’s study reported feeling a mix of positive and negative emotions when they write. This, she states, suggests that ambivalence about writing  is the norm.


The posting below is a review by Isabeau Iqbal, PhD*, of the book Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write, by Dr. Helen Sword.  Harvard University Press, 2017.


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Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write (Review)


This is not a traditional book review. Rather, it is an enthusiastic appeal directed at individuals who think they need to follow certain rules in order to be productive academic writers. My aim, in writing this piece, is to convince you to read Air & Light & Time & Space by Dr. Helen Sword.

Why am I so eager for you to read Sword’s book?  Here are my three main reasons:


1)    Sword’s book persuasively describes what every academic writer needs to know (and/or have affirmed): that there are many ways to find the “sweet spot where productivity and pleasure meet” (p.X) when it comes to writing. That is, there are no strict rules to follow. 

2)    This book is based on data collected during a 4-year study through 100 qualitative interviews and more than 1200 surveys. Consequently, the information in this book represents more than the author’s opinions.

3)    Sword’s book is exquisitely written and her writing is clear and playful. Take a moment to digest this: Sword is an academic writer and exquisite, clear, playful are not words typically associated with academic writing (see Note 1).

In Air & Light & Time & Space, Sword reports on a four-year study in which she conducted in-depth interviews with 100 exemplary academic writers and editors from across disciplines and collected anonymous questionnaire data from more than 1200 other academics who attended her writing workshops in 15 different countries. By her own admission, the findings surprised her.

From her findings, Sword developed the BASE model, which “offers a flexible heuristic for visualizing the complexities of the writing process and developing strategies for lasting change” (p.5).  BASE stands for:

Behavioral habits

Artisanal habits

Social habits

Emotional habits

Sword uses the metaphor of a “house of writing” and includes a visual to show how the four BASE cornerstones influence the architecture of one’s own writing home (see Note 2).

The majority of the book is dedicated to elucidating the study participants’ behavioural, artisanal, social, and emotional habits. I was delighted to read  how varied academic writers’ practices are.  I was also surprised; because, prior to reading the results of Sword’s study, I firmly believed that in order to be a productive academic writer, one needed to write every day (to read more about dismantling the “write every day”mantra, see Sword’s article in the International Journal for Academic Development).  To my relief, I learned this is not so. Through vivid participant quotes, the literature, and drawing from her own experience, Sword convincingly demonstrates the multitude of ways academics have designed their own productive writing practices.

Below I have pulled out some of the messages I most appreciated in the chapters that describe writers’ behavioral, artisanal, social, and emotional  habits.  Each chapter ends with a “Things to try” section that includes related practices to try and books to read.

Behavioural Habits

Three chapters make up Part 1: Finding time to write (Chapter 1); Power of place (Chapter 2); and Rhythms and rituals (Chapter 3).

In Chapter 1, Sword describes how, for most successful academic writers, their practice is not a daily routine or a rare occurrence. Instead, “writing is the work that gets done in the interstices between teaching, office hours, faculty meetings, administration, email, family events, and all the other messy, sprawling demands of academic life” (p.26). She suggests we may need to reconceptualize our notion of time, from an “adversary to be vanquished” to an element that can enrich our lives by taking us to new places and helping us “in moments of need” (p.26).

Only a minority of the interview participants in Sword’s study adhere to a strict, write-every-day and first-thing-in-the-morning schedule. The majority adopt other practices that include aiming for a certain number of words per session, making small progress on a regular basis, guarding a weekly writing time, writing during summer breaks, or writing at various times during the day (including before/after dinner and  middle of the night).

In Chapter 2, the Power of place, Sword encourages us to find places to write where our body and mind respond positively to the environment. The best place to write, Sword summarizes, “is anywhere you do” (p.39).

The chapter titled Rhythms and rituals casts away “should and focuses instead on may,” a verb that connotes possibility and permission (p.42). Sword urges us to think about routines and rituals as intentional activities and encourages us to frame our habits in terms of preferences rather than needs (e.g., from “I need big blocks of time to write” to “I prefer to write when I have a large block of time, but, I can occasionally write in the hour I have between classes”).

Artisanal Habits

The Artisanal habits described in Part 2 begin with an amusing and illustrative section on false starts.  In Chapter 4, Learning to write, Sword makes the point that few academic writers have received formal training on writing. She provides resources for building this skill formally and informally.  The following quote, from The Craft of writing, reflects the main message of Chapter 5: “Of all the myths of academic writing, the fallacy of effortless productivity is among the most persistent” (p.78). In this chapter, Sword recounts how her study participants experience the messiness and frustration that come with academic writing. All academic writers work hard at the craft of writing, she affirms.  The part on Artisanal habits concludes with the ‘The other tongue’ (Chapter 6). In this chapter, Sword describes the experiences of writing in English when that isn’t one’s mother tongue. In the texts I have read on academic writing, this is not material I have previously encountered, and I appreciated the inclusion of this data.

Social Habits

Part 3 contains the  chapters “Writing for others” (considering our audience, Chapter 7), “Writing with others” (collaborative writing, Chapter 8) and “Writing in the company of others” (writing groups, writing retreats, and other, Chapter 9).  In Chapter 7, Sword shares that most successful academic writers want to make a difference, for others, in their writing. She encourages the reader to consider what ‘making a difference’ might mean to us and the writing media through which we can fulfill this intention. Sword invites us to honour the role our readers play in our writing and reminds us that our readers are not necessarily (always) the stern critics we fear they will be. In Chapter 8, Sword highlights the need for advanced interpersonal skills in collaborative writing. Finally, in the section on “Writing in the company of others,” she describes ways in which members of writing groups and networks have shown concern for the growth and development of their members.  She relays how writing in the company of others can be pleasurable, and even fun. 

Emotional Habits

Most successful academic writers in Sword’s study reported feeling a mix of positive and negative emotions when they write. This, she states, suggests that ambivalence about writing  is the norm.  Part 4 examines what pleasure ‘looks like’ in academic writing (Chapter 10), the role of risk and resilience (Chapter 11) and metaphors to write by (Chapter 12).

Though I thoroughly liked each part of this book, Part 4 was my favourite because it invites us to consider ways we derive pleasure from writing and how we might do more of that.  “What happens,” Sword inquires, “when we invite positive emotion and language into our writing practice—and encourage them to make themselves at home?” (p.148).

Like Sword does early in her book, I invite you to wander through Air & Light & Time & Space “in a spirit of optimism and curiosity” (p.x).  As you do so, notice how the themes of possibility and permission, flexibility, and satisfaction appear. You may wish to consider how these can become (more) integrated into your own practice.

Note 1: For more on stylish academic writing, see Sword’s book by the same title or visit

Note 2: You can complete the short diagnostic exercise on pages 8-9 of the book to ‘see’ what your own house of writing looks like or do the exercise online at:



Sword, H. (2017). Air & light & time & space: How successful academics write. Harvard University Press.

Sword, H. (2016). ‘Write every day!’: a mantra dismantled. International Journal for Academic Development, 21(4), 312-322.

You can also view the BASE model here (



* Isabeau Iqbal, PhD

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