Creativities of Academic Writing

The Book Fool, Sebastian Brant, The Ship of Fools (1494) (Image courtesy of Project Gutenberg)

Hello All,

Welcome to my first blog post here at Scrivener & Smith, in which I discuss some of the more familiar and less-traveled paths to creativity in academic writing. I hope that this post gives readers an idea of what to expect from me as an editor and consultant, and perhaps offers some inspiration for those working on a scholarly project.

As the name of the post implies, I believe in creativities, rather than creativity, in academic writing. The idea of “creative writing” can be confusing, since it evokes the freeform creative impulse of fiction. The two genres of creativity are close relatives and have many interconnections, and yet the scholarly creativities of this post have unique concerns (as creative fiction writing has concerns of its own).

The creativities that I will discuss in this post are academic, and exist within the framework of scholarly rules and mores. Having said that, they also push at the boundaries and dissolve the limitations of these rules, offering the possibility of creating something that is a novelty, and yet also familiar as a piece of academic work. Creativity is, at its heart, “the use of imagination or original ideas to create something” (as the OED defines it). The interrogation of creativity itself is also a use of imagination to create something: there is an infinite process of creative impulse at work behind every act of creation.

It is easy to believe that academic writing is locked down by established rules. After all, readers become accustomed to seeing familiar structures and frameworks. This is, to a certain extent, both true and extremely helpful. When starting a PhD, for example, it is immensely useful to have some existing theses as models for one’s own. I contend, however, that there is a great deal more flexibility in the structure of academic writing than we give it credit for. The most exciting work that we encounter in the second decade of the 21st century is, to my mind, that which recognises the plasticity of scholarship while making use of familiar structures when it is sensible and expedient to do so. Creativity is not about ideas alone, but about the framework within which these ideas are presented.

My personal passion is what I like to think of as creativity of form, an oft-neglected aspect of scholarly writing. We often focus on more immediate forms of creativity: What topic will I study? How is it novel and exciting? What vistas of future scholarship will it open up? Is my writing stylish and clear? All of these forms of creativity are essential.

There are, however, dimensions of scholarly creativity that exist in levels of abstraction beyond the what, in the how, the where, the when. The internet and the proliferation of digital media have given us all unparalleled access to the tools of this creativity. As a stimulus for thinking beyond content alone, here are three (far from exhaustive) creativities:

1) Creativity of Content

This creativity is something that we are all much more familiar with than creativities two and three. This may include: our choice of reading material and our original ideas; our use of source material and the interpretation of data; our use of language; and so on. Despite the familiarity of this creativity, it can be extremely difficult to reconcile the creative and editorial impulses: sometimes being creative editorially is an exercise in double-think. This is something that endlessly fascinates me.

Being creative with content is difficult, and it is a task that is essential to the completion of any piece of scholarship. It is, however, more concrete and easy to conceptualise. And yet, reappraisal and interrogation of content can lead to acts of creativity in the domain of form.

2) Creativity of Form

This is a creativity that will be familiar to anyone who has had to structure an argument. It is necessary to shape a logical and concrete narrative that serves as a receptacle for one’s content, and yet the rules of form are far from fixed. A good structure can make an almost miraculous difference to whether a piece of work is readerly enough to engage its audience. The same material can be reworked into many different forms for many different audiences. In the age of public engagement and outputs, this is not a task to shirk, and creativity of form is a place for structured play.

Creativity of form is an exercise in design, a chance to step back from the words and ask difficult questions of our scholarly material. In an age of digital media, our options are limitless, and the potential futures of old formats such as articles and monographs are as manifold as the imagination can encapsulate.

3) Creativity of Medium

This is perhaps the most abstract and most exciting form of creativity in scholarship and editing. Medium has become an invitation to create rather than a limitation. There are no rules any more other than those that we make for ourselves, individually or collectively, out of fear of being misunderstood. This is by no means an illegitimate fear: we want our audience to understand us. There are also reasons why certain things have not been done, and the answer is not always lack of creativity!

In the Digital Humanities, an area of great promise for Historians such as myself, we see the creative harnessing of medium with rigour: one dataset, many outputs; one idea, many media; one principle, many expressions. As scholars we must trust our instincts: a good piece of research is robust, well-reasoned, and rigorously substantiated, and yet expressions of this core are dizzyingly infinite.

Presses and funding bodies are increasingly coming to understand and support creative deployments of medium, and yet struggle is inevitable. Bravery is essential. Even simple changes such as the use of video or audio rather than text, or images rather than words, can make a huge difference. Even within the hallowed halls of text, choices of delivery can be extremely powerful.

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