Defending your creativity (or Not)

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Hello All,

Today I would like to focus on an aspect of academic creativity that is sometimes overlooked: when should you push back against advice that you consider conservative or restrictive to your creativity, and when should you accept it? Naturally there are extenuating circumstances for any situation, and there may be hidden reasons why it is wise to fight for your writing when you ordinarily might not, and when it is wise to avoid it. Defending your creative expression is a complex task, since arrogantly ignoring criticism or slavishly following advice are extremes of a broad spectrum.

Before I begin, it is wise to discuss the term ‘fighting’. In Metaphors We Live By, Lakoff and Johnson remind us that martial metaphors shape our behaviour, and that conceiving argument as war makes it adversarial:

It is important to see that we don’t just talk about arguments in terms of war. We can actually win or lose arguments. We see the person we are arguing with as an opponent. We attack his positions and we defend our own. We gain and lose ground. We plan and use strategies. If we find a position indefensible, we can abandon it and take a new line of attack. Many of the things we do in arguing are partially structured by the concept of war.[1]

If we saw argument as a dance, for example, we might behave in a completely different manner. The same is true of ‘fighting’ for your academic writing. If you choose to ‘push back’ firmly but respectfully, you will have a much more productive experience (editorial or scholarly) than if you go in ready for war. Mutually supportive scholarship should be about being good to each other, as Inger Mewburn of The Thesis Whisperer reminds us in her post on Academic Assholes and the Circle of Niceness. If researchers and editors stick together and refuse to be in conflict, then pushing back is no problem.

Here are six scenarios when I feel that it is and is not wise to push back against criticism:

Push Back

  1. Defending experimental modes of writing – It is not necessary for your collaborators or editor to fully agree with your chosen style of writing. It is easy to fall into a habit of conformity out of fear that your work will be misunderstood. At some point, however, it is essential to push back if you feel that your ideas will be bawlderised. It is necessary, however, to pay keen attention to critique, and to remodel your work in sympathy with feedback but in a manner that is faithful to your original vision.
  2. Normative modes of publication – This is an increasingly powerful debate. There is no obligation to select outlets for your publication based on their putative prestige if you feel that this will limit the reach of your work. In this day and age, there are a growing number of high quality academic publishing outlets that are open access and maintain a rigorous peer review and editing process. Do not feel pressured to conform, but it is equally important to aim for quality. Fortunately, established scholars are increasingly breaking from old conventions, and provide an opportunity for those newer to their field to draw inspiration.
  3. Conservative peer review – If the peer review advice for a revise and resubmit would make your work unrecognisable and inhibit your original creative vision, do not compromise. I would also potentially classify PhD supervisors in this category. This is a difficult problem, but there is scope to push back, to argue for certain elements of your original work to remain while taking other pieces of advice. If you are truly at an impasse, consider this: in ten years, what do you want to look back on? A piece of writing that is not what you wanted, or one that your laboured to protect? This may involve changing your choice of outlets and, as I said above, there may be reasons why this is not possible, but do not be afraid to defend your experiments. This is a path to growth.

Don’t Push Back

  1. House editors – As a former house editor (the person at the publisher who takes in your copy from the academic editors and turns it into a final product) I may be biased when it comes to this point, and freely admit it. When house editors tell you something cannot be done, they are not trying to trammel your creativity. There is a logistical, stylistic, or business reason why something is being asked. It is wise to question your editors if you are confused or they have changed the meaning of your words, but treat them as colleagues deserving of respect and dialogue rather than adversaries. If a change is possible then they will consider it, but antagonism is poisonous to the author-editor relationship. This is doubly true if you are the editor of a themed journal issue or edited volume.
  2. Non-conservative peer review – There are so many amazing but initially disagreeable pieces of advice that I have received that eventually turned out to be indispensable. I would also definitely classify PhD supervisors in this category. Ask yourself: is this advice pushing my work forward within its own internal logic, or is it making it something that I disagree with? Good advice can radically change your creative vision and even force a complete rethink, but it will always come from a position of understanding. If the peer understands your vision, they will only critique it on its own terms. They will urge you to create the thing you are capable of creating but have not yet imagined. A conservative peer wants you to create something that they can understand, that is what they would have created.
  3. Collaborators – There will be times when you disagree with your colleagues and collaborators in an editorial project and have differing creative visions, but once again, antagonism is poisonous in the extreme. If you cannot reach a compromise that is satisfactory to all parties and fair to the representatives of all disciplines, then it is not a compromise. This is especially true of interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary projects. A recent guide to evaluating interdisciplinary research reveals that true interdisciplinarity requires ‘genuine collaboration’ without tokenism. Working in good faith without jostling or egoism allows a hybrid creativity to emerge that moves beyond personal vision.

I hope that this has equipped you with some tools to make difficult decisions. These six points are based on my experience and personal opinion, and I present them as such.

[1]   George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press) 1980 [2008], p. 4.

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Creativities of Academic Writing

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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.