Four design quotes applied to editing

Handcrafted marbled endpapers of a book manually bound in France around 1880 (Giacomo Leopardi, Œuvres, vol. 2). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user Aristeas.

Greetings to you all,

Today I am going to use four quotes taken from Margaret Kelsey’s excellent and oft-updated list of 72 Quotes about Design and Creativity on the InVision blog to discuss some of the aspects that I consider crucial to good editorial design. This will focus more on the ‘macro’ scale of editing – book design, project management – rather than the line-by-line ‘micro’ dimension. Having said this, I strongly believe that these principles are relevant at any scale, from word to paragraph to chapter to book to entire series (as point one discusses).

Without further ado, here are four of my favourite design quotes from Kelsey’s list applied to editing:

1) “Where do new ideas come from? The answer is simple: differences. Creativity comes from unlikely juxtapositions.” –Nicholas Negroponte

This is an aspect of editing and project design that is often overlooked. A lot of academic innovation is made through cautious, incremental change, but some of the most interesting, the boldest, books and articles are brought about through the combination of forms that are unexpected. When it comes to the design of an editorial project, rethinking the format can be key.

To give an example, I’ve recently been very impressed by the ‘Contemporary Writers: Critical Essays‘ series released by UK-based press Gylphi. Why? Because they have applied excellent design to the task of editing. They have recognised that writing critical anthologies on still-living 20th and 21st century authors is a difficult process, and requires a new juxtaposition of elements.

2) “Everything is designed. Few things are designed well.” -Brian Reed

This is a particularly important principle for editorial interventions. Everything is edited in some fashion – it is impossible to write without editing. The question you, as the author – and your readership – should and will ask is this: is it edited well? Elegance of design jumps out, and is unmistakable. From the right front matter (the contents of a book such as the table of contents, preface, etc.) to an elegant arrangement of chapter, every publication is dependent on good design. Without it, a publication risks being perceived as ugly, dull, pedestrian, obtuse, or writerly rather than readerly.

A well-designed piece of writing invites the reader in, points out its salient features, provokes surprise, pleasure, and occasionally joy – or maybe that’s just me being a little too keen. Sometimes these features are simple. Sometimes they are profound. Innovative thinking is possible, even in the most formulaic publication.

3) “There is no such thing as a boring project. There are only boring executions.” –Irene Etzkorn

This is a particularly relevant quote for those at the outset of an academic publishing project. There is a common belief among academics with a certain attitude to scholarship or from a certain background that their research is not exciting or charismatic, even if it is extremely relevant, impactful, or important. Although recent years have helped to dispel this myth – the public are interested in many more ideas than academics give them credit for, but presentation is key – it is still very easy to let down a significant project with boring execution.

Is your project new, relevant, and exciting? Do your colleagues love it? Has it won funding from a scholarly organisation or government scheme? Good!

What about your publications? Choice of venue (do you pick the big established press or the small plucky one?), structure (do you follow the prescribed format of your discipline, or try something new?), and method of presentation (is the publication cheap or expensive, Open Access or restricted?) are all key. Even those seeking to reassure their reader by publishing through traditional outlets can still shine when designing their Table of Contents, arrangements of essays, use of editorial commentary, and so on.

Don’t let down an exciting project with a boring publication! Even if the ideas have the potential to excite, a dull presentation will obscure rather than reveal. Published research can always surprise and delight, and yet it takes good execution to do so.

4) “Design is so simple. That’s why it’s so complicated.” –Paul Rand

The point that I take away from this quote in the context of editing is this: a good publication takes a lot of time and effort in the planning and design phase that is rarely blindingly obvious to the reader, except in the elegance of the final product. Good editorial design is not in-your-face: it consists of simple decisions (typesetting, layout, use of images, arrangement, cross-referencing, appendices, and so on) that accumulate to make a well-designed book.

Clean copy makes a good book, but good editing is also about the receptacle that these words find themselves within. Even the best writing struggles to escape from the stifling effect of a boring design, or to appear coherent without the careful cultivation of content.

If you don’t believe me, take a look at an academic book review section in a journal and see how many reviews mention design or editorial decisions. Readers notice, and the more they read the more they notice. It may seem simple, but it takes a lot of painstaking work to design a publication.

Reconciling Creative Identities

Bundles of charcoal sticks, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user Stephhzz

Today I would like to talk about academic creativity in the context of multiple creative identities. An increasing number of academic researchers, myself included, do not have an academic identity in the singular. Rather, there is a bundle of identities: researcher, freelancer, tutor, writer, creative, administrator, and so on, that we draw on to live our lives. The list of potential identities is endless. What I would like the suggest today is that identities, like ideas, work better when they are reconciled. Feelings of guilt, underachievement, confusion, or alienation can result when we feel out of balance.

If someone wants to express themselves creatively as a researcher, is it irrelevant that they are also creatively motivated as, say, a fiction writer? An editor? These are more obvious links, but the potential list of identities is endless. Preparation through practice and time to think through identities can yield interesting results: those with a creative writing degree. for example, have bound their identities as author and scholar together. Those in the US who have graduated from MFA (Master of Fine Arts) courses before undertaking a PhD understand that being a poet, or a writer, or a creative of another stripe can be part and parcel of being a researcher. Those who have completed double degrees have struck out in different and yet complementary directions, and their future lives are better for it. Certain topics of research lend themselves to synthesis more readily than others, it is true. And yet, I think it is fair to say that an exercise in reconciliation is good not only for one’s work, but also for one’s overall happiness.

As I have mentioned in a previous post, finding yourself through research improves scholarship, but also cultivates the self. Tightening the bundle that is one’s identities gives them strength, but also consolidates energy, identity, and motivation. In a world of uncertainties—a difficult academic job market, a generation of drifting millennials, an increasingly atomised work life replete with tasks and ad hoc gig economy activities—it has become increasingly crucial to find happiness not in one thing that we do, but in all of them as a whole. Passions need not be partitioned: they can be combined. Sometimes a wonderful job appears that reconciles passions—I know someone who combined over a decade’s experience in editing with a passion for clothes-making to become editor of a sewing magazine—but sometimes it takes a lot of work to identify synergies between identities.

The stakes are high. To neglect the integration of creative identities is to neglect the wholeness of the heart, to put it a little fancifully. Although some find comfort in partitioning themselves, there must also be a core wellspring of motivation that drives life. To be divided between passions is to dissipate energy. Balance is key to a happy life, but the combination of reconciled faculties, creative drives, and abilities brings something more than balance. It brings self-understanding.

What does this mean in practical terms for those seeking to enhance their creativity? This goes beyond writing or research alone, since we live in an era when all of us will be called upon to be many things, and the notion of a traditional career is looking very shaky, if not defunct. The gig economy will likely grow and this new reality, while disruptive to traditional academic notions of career, achievement, behaviour, interpersonal interaction and self-presentation, offers us the chance to shape activities for ourselves that deploy not only a single skill, but multiple skills.

So how can we think about reconciliation of creative drives? Perhaps the most important action to take is this: think about things you love to do, and why. Can they be merged? Do they share a root faculty or ability? Is there an intermediate skill-set that could bridge them? Is there a way that you could undertake an activity (paid or otherwise) that draws on two or more skills? The answers may not be easy or quick to achieve, but thinking through such quandaries can lead to more satisfying work, an enhanced sense of personal worth and ability, something unique to offer the world, and some innovative ideas for research and scholarship.

Defending your creativity (or Not)


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.

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.