It’s time for another guest post, and I was pleased to receive this one from Laura Stevens. I met Laura years ago, via BookCrossing, watched with interest as she took an Archive Studies postgraduate course and enjoyed proofreading the resulting dissertation. Laura’s also very much into her creative writing, and so she’s well-placed to offer this interesting discussion about the similarities between academic and creative writing. Oh, and I didn’t ask her to put the bit in about spelling and grammar – honest!
I was very pleased to be invited by Liz to write a guest post for her blog. At first, I was not sure what insights I could offer. Currently I am a recovering academic, after handing in my Master’s dissertation last September. In recent years I have returned to a childhood love of creative writing. This lead to becoming a moderator at a writing website called Write in for Writing’s Sake. As I began to think about what I could write about for my blog post, it struck me that academic writing shares a lot of characteristics with its creative cousin.
Let’s take a look at academic writing first. When I was planning this blog post, I jotted down what came to my mind when I thought of ‘academic writing’:
• Requires the use of disciple based vocabulary or, to use the vernacular, jargon.
• Formal style is preferred: using an informal style can be a risk.
• A set structure is required. For example, you would not put an abstract at the end of a journal article.
• Lots and lots of research is required before you put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard).
Looking over this list, I began to realise that a lot of these ideas could be applied to creative writing. Requires the use of jargon or specific vocabulary – check. Choosing the correct style – check. Following a set structure – check. Carrying out research to help your writing – check.
Making this list made me realise that the worlds of academic and creative writing are not so far apart. I began to recognise that I had been applying similar principles in both areas of writing.
1) Engage your audience: choose the first sentence wisely
The first sentence will either draw your reader in or send them wandering off to seek other material. Academic writing does have a certain advantage in this area. Individuals are going to seek out your writing, especially if you’re looking at a specific topic. Creative writing has to work a little bit harder to draw people in. The first line has to plant a question in the reader’s mind. Let’s use an example from a personal favourite of mine, We Need To Talk About Kevin (Shriver, 2003). The book opens with “I’m unsure why one trifling incident this afternoon has moved me to write to you”. Already questions are being raised. Why is the writer so formal? What happened that made the writer sit down and write a letter, in this age of email and social networking tools? Who are they writing to?
To compare, I have chosen a first sentence from an academic article from Archival Science (Wallace, 1994): “Archivists normatively position themselves as impartial and honest brokering custodians of the past, immune from the pressures and persuasions that conflict the rest of contemporary society”. Impartiality is a consistent hot topic within this professional field which guarantees the author an audience for his article. Questions are raised by his use of ‘normatively’. Is he suggesting that archivists can no longer consider themselves impartial? What about being honest? What does this article have to offer the professional archivist?
By asking questions of your audience, you engage them through the written word. Once you have planted little questions in the reader’s mind, you have them hooked. This brings me onto the next similarity.
2) Bring a topic or subject you are interested in to life
Any writing project I embark upon always begins with the phrase “I’d like to find out more about that”. If you are bored, then it will show in your writing. The one piece of advice I always give when discussing a writing project is “Choose a topic you will enjoy working on”. Researching and writing a dissertation can take up at least four months of your life. I have been told by professional writers that it takes a minimum of six months to research, write and edit a novel (NaNoWriMo doesn’t count!). It would be awful to spend all that time on a topic you had little interest in.
It’s fine to change your mind halfway through the research process. That’s one of the beauties of academic and creative writing. Sometimes a great idea comes from an article just published in a journal or a tiny marginal note scribbled on an archival document. However it is not a great idea to change your mind during the writing process. Creative writers can have the advantage here. If they change their mind, and don’t have a looming deadline, they can down tools and head off in another direction. I once heard a bestselling author at a lecture say that they have pressed Delete on 50, 000 words of a novel. Gasps of horror echoed around the room as she announced this. The author looked puzzled and said, “There’s no point continuing if I think my writing is rubbish. If I know it’s rubbish, then my reader will know that too”.
So, you’ve chosen your topic, got some of the research done, made sure you’re enjoying the topic and you’re at the stage of writing. The next point is extremely important.
3) Good use of spelling and grammar
Words are the tools of your trade. Your reader is unlikely to meet you in person; your writing has to do the job of introducing you and your work. Careless spelling and grammar are like turning up to a job interview in dirty jeans and a ripped t-shirt.
I hold my hand up here: I am not the world’s greatest speller or grammar geek. So I have other tools to help me in this area. Liz’s blog posts are a great grammar bulletin and I do refer back to her posts if I’m unsure about the correct use of a word. Dictionary.com has also helped me out of a sticky word conundrum. At university, I lived off style guides produced by academic institutions. Most of them are written in a no-nonsense manner and accessible to even the most reluctant writer. Promoting good grammar skills is part of a university’s business card so you can guarantee the quality of the style guides they produce.
Marking schemes for academic work can include points off for bad grammar. The same goes for creative writing. Bad grammar can be a message to the reader that you stopped caring about your work. The dissertation became more about typing than thinking and writing. It was getting close to the closing date of that short story competition. On a personal note, it drives me mad to see long sentences without a comma. Punctuation helps the reader to breathe and digest your viewpoints. Most markers or editors are not going to read your work more than twice to understand your agenda. Inaccurate grammar can be a barrier for your reader. A well proofread manuscript can make all the difference between a first class award or being thrown onto the slush pile.
This has been a bit of a whistle stop tour through academic and creative writing! I have thoroughly enjoyed writing this blog post. Thank you, Liz, for the invitation to be a guest blogger. And thank you, reader, for taking the time to read this post.
Shriver, Lionel (2003) We Need to Talk About Kevin. London: Serpent’s Tail. p.1
Wallace, David A. (2011) Introduction: memory ethics – or the presence of the past in the present. Archival Science (11: 1-2) pp.1-12.