The Top 5 Problems of Style

On Tuesday, I told you why style matters in scholarly book proposals, and I teased that this weekend I would share the five stylistic problems I most frequently encounter when editing proposals for clients. Here they are:

Overly obscure language.
You knew this one was coming didn’t you? It seems like everyone loves to hate on academic writing for being too jargony (<—that isn’t a word but it should be. I’ve added it to the dictionary in my version of Word). While I get that specialized language is sometimes totally merited in discourse that is meant to take place among members of an in-group (see this tweet for a good example), many scholarly authors who are pitching a book to a publisher want to reach readers who *aren’t* already in their in-group. The good news is that you don’t have to excise specialized terms from your book proposal. If you define those terms as you go—or make sure their meaning is clear from context clues—you’ll not only get to use the precise language you’ve learned, you’ll educate your reader and demonstrate to the person evaluating your book proposal that you can write your book in an expansive, welcoming way.

Letting other people’s ideas take up a lot of room in your project description.
Remember when I said that your proposal is not a defense and you don’t need to provide a lit review to prove that you know your stuff? Not only do you not need to talk a lot about other scholarship to prove you know things, but talking a lot about other scholarship in your proposal can actually cast doubt on whether you have a substantial enough contribution to justify publication of this new book you’re pitching. One or two choice references to other scholarship can be useful in situating your work for your reader—and you should always give credit where it is due, of course—but your book should be built around an original enough idea that you don’t end up needing to devote a lot of space to giving credit to others. If you find yourself talking about other scholarship at length in your proposal, take a pause and try to put in your own words why you are writing this book. How would you explain it to someone who hasn’t read any of the stuff you’ve read?

Letting other people’s words take up a lot of room in your project description.
This is a more intense form of the above problem. You definitely do not need to quote other scholarship at length in your book proposal. Try only sprinkling in key phrases when you need to reference another body of work, ideally in the context of showing how you are extending that work in productive ways that readers will be interested in.

Using passive voice to conceal actors, agency, and power.
To be fair, I don’t think academic writers always use passive voice to intentionally conceal actors, agency, and power, but that’s the effect anyway. I certainly don’t want to make a blanket prohibition of passive voice, but I have found that academic writers tend to use it to avoid making strong claims about who does what, with what motives, and with what consequences. I catch myself doing this all the time, so I totally get the temptation. If you notice passive constructions in your own proposal, ask yourself whether you’re afraid to come out and say something that some other scholar might disagree with. Or whether you feel like you don’t have a firm enough handle on what exactly is going on with the phenomenon you’re studying. If it’s the former, steel yourself, because if you have an argument worth making, I promise you someone is going to disagree with it. If it’s the latter, try to figure out what you’d need to do to make yourself more confident in your claims. If it’s neither, and you’re just writing in the passive voice because it’s a habit or you think it sounds more “academic,” then just stop it right now! Put those actors back in those sentences!

Using hedgy, conditional language.
I’m guilty of this one too. I justify it to myself in the name of “nuance,” but honestly sometimes it is just that I don’t want to say something that someone else might say is wrong. Hedgy language is ok, sometimes, if you need to be honest with your reader about gaps in your knowledge. But if you use it too frequently it can suggest that you have too many gaps in your knowledge or that you’re overly afraid of criticism. Neither of those suggestions is a good look for an author proposing to write a scholarly book. Try deleting the conditional words in your book proposal draft. Do you like how confident your claims sound now? Can you stand behind them with your research? Great. That’s a book people will want to read.


There’s still a couple weeks left to get on board for this fall’s session of the Manuscript Works book proposal accelerator. There, I’ll have more tips on style and how to fix the problems you have, plus advice on every other aspect of the scholarly book proposal. If you need to draft your proposal from scratch this fall, the accelerator will help you get you started. If you’ve been sitting on a draft for months (years?), the accelerator will answer your lingering questions and help you get that thing out the door finally. Any questions about whether the accelerator is right for you? You can reply to this newsletter—the emails come right to my inbox—or hit me up on Twitter (DMs are open).