August 2013 -->

Walden University Writing Center

Where instructors and editors talk writing.

Does Creativity Belong in Academic Writing?

Based on the responses I sometimes get from students, it appears that some view the act of researching, formulating, and writing out an argument as the opposite of a creative endeavor. There is something about the endless rules, restrictions, and formulae of academic prose that can frighten even the most dedicated and hard-working writers. Most of us associate the words creative writing with the writing of fiction, or sometimes memoir and creative nonfiction, where the writer is in control of the basic structure and length of the piece. Whereas in academic work, your structure, sentences, and paragraphs are all subject to certain arbitrary standards of length, diction, and clarity.

Does creativity belong in academic writing?

However, I am here to tell you that restrictions, as needless and banal as they sometime seem, are a boon to creativity, not a hamper on such. In fact, I would go so far as to say that creativity without restrictions is no creativity at all, but rather free-form indulgence which too often lacks informational or artistic merit. We as humans crave basic structure and rules in our storytelling—it is why films like Iron Man 3 and The Hunger Games, which adhere to classic storytelling and genre rules, continue to break box office records, while deliberately avant-garde and anti-structure films are rarely shown in the multiplex.

I had a professor who once said that “all writing is creative writing.” It took me a while to realize this is true. No matter whether you are writing a screenplay about a charismatic superhero in red and gold armor or a study of post-recession hospital funding, the beginning of your journey is always the same: there is a blank page, and you need to fill it. After that page is done, you need to fill another one, until all your ideas are structured and presented on the page in a way you find satisfying. The way in which you structure your ideas and argument is where the creativity comes in. Even with the most boring and dry of theses, there are endless ways of presenting your ideas. How long do you want each paragraph to be? It is your choice. In what order do you want to analyze and synthesize your sources? Again, your choice. These choices you make, many of them imperceptible in the writing process, are each individual creative acts. Compound enough of them and what do you get? I call it creative writing.

Here is an example from my own life. When not reviewing Walden student papers, I write young adult books. My first book was a history of rap and hip-hop music for middle-school-age readers, and it was one of the most challenging writing assignments of my life. While I loved and could opine about the subject matter, I had trouble writing at a seventh- or eighth-grade level. I was so used to lengthy, digressive sentences that it became difficult for me to express my love for the music in simple, spare language. I struggled for a while to cut sentence after sentence to make it easier for my audience to read and understand what I was talking about. At the end, I had a book that was appropriate for my audience, even if I had to tear up my prose from its roots multiple times to get to that point.

Ultimately, this helped me become a better writer. By adhering to the restrictions of the form (in this case, writing for a younger reading level), I became able to simplify and reduce my prose to its barest essence, which is a useful skill not just in writing for children, but writing in general! In my case, I chafed under these restrictions at first, but by looking at is a challenge to overcome, I became a better writer and thinker in the process. Now when I write fiction for younger readers, simple declarative sentences come much easier to me. The restrictions of the form taught me something valuable that I carry to this day.

I urge all Walden students to keep this in mind the next time they feel helpless in the face of a blank page. The work will get done, even if it seems hopeless at first, even if you have to stare at a screen for a half hour. And if you find many APA rules hopelessly arbitrary, needless, and cruel, try thinking of them in this way: these rules are a challenge to overcome. They will help you state what you mean with more direct, specific, and well-researched claims. These rules are relevant in your academic work, creative work, and anything in between. At the end of your writing journey, you may be surprised at how satisfied you feel about the outcome. What you will be feeling, ideally, is the creative drive, momentarily satisfied. To me, there is no better feeling in the world.

Nathan Sacks

Writing instructor Nathan Sacks believes "in the social utility of writing and its power to unite people of different classes, races, and socioeconomic backgrounds." He lives and writes in Minneapolis.


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PEAS: Not Just Vegetables

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The MEAL plan is kind of a big deal around the Writing Center because it’s a catchy, easy acronym for remembering the essential parts of a paragraph and a basic form of paragraph organization: Main idea, Evidence, Analysis, Lead-in. You’ve likely heard us recommend the MEAL plan at residencies, in our webinars, in our paper reviews, and on our website.

That lead-in part of the acronym has always bugged me, though, and I know I’m not alone. The trouble is that students, understandably, see the term lead-in (also sometimes called lead-out) and think they should use the last sentence of the paragraph to transition to the next paragraph. However, the last sentence in a paragraph tends to work better as a concluding sentence that summarizes the ideas in the paragraph. In concluding the paragraph, the writer gives readers a chance to digest those ideas, which helps prepare readers for—or lead readers into—the ideas in the next paragraph. The transitional phrase or sentence that helps move readers to the next point is more effective at the beginning of a paragraph rather than at the end.

We’ve joked that MEAL sounds better than MEAC (Main point, Evidence, Analysis, Conclusion) and that you want to have a full MEAL rather than a dinner of only MEAT (Main point, Evidence, Analysis, Transition), but I still find myself thinking of new ways to discuss paragraph organization without the confusing term lead-in. I was at the local farmer’s market the other day when inspiration struck: PEAS.

The PEAS plan, like the MEAL plan, begins with the point that you’re making in that paragraph, supported by evidence and analysis. The PEAS plan replaces the term lead-in with the term summary, referring to a sentence that wraps up the ideas in the paragraph and ties back to the main point, reminding readers why the paragraph is important to the overall argument.
PEAS image

You may have heard the phrase “two peas in a pod,” but pods usually contain multiple peas. Similarly, in your paragraph, you will need more than one piece of evidence and one sentence of analysis, and the evidence and analysis sentences will be mixed and combined within your paragraph.

The image of several peas nestled inside a pod can help you remember that the order of the evidence and analysis is less rigid than the MEAL plan suggests. Not every paragraph should contain all of the evidence followed by all of the analysis. You might have some paragraphs constructed that way, but some paragraphs will use evidence and analysis followed by more evidence and analysis, and some will combine evidence and analysis within sentences. The evidence and analysis can sometimes be hard to distinguish from each other (that’s one reason why citations are important), but they are both vital to a strong paragraph.

PEAS image

Another component of a strong paragraph is unity. To push the PEAS acronym a bit further, think about how all of the peas (the multiple pieces of evidence and analysis) are nestled within the top of the pod (point of paragraph) and the bottom of the pod (summary). What this image means for academic writing is that the evidence and analysis in your paragraph should fall under the main point of your paragraph. When all of your evidence and analysis clearly connects to your main point, you have what’s called paragraph unity, which helps to focus your argument.

The MEAL plan remains a useful blueprint for paragraph organization, but if you have trouble remembering or understanding the MEAL plan, try following the PEAS plan.

Do you have a suggestion for another paragraph organization acronym? Share it in the comments! 

Anne Shiell

A former teacher of college composition courses, Anne Shiell is a self-described punctuation geek. She recently moved to Indianapolis.

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Emotions and Academic Writing

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At the Walden Writing Center, one of the primary issues that we focus on when reviewing student work is tone.  In academic writing in APA style, there is an expectation that the tone will be objective, free of emotional statements and evaluations that could indicate bias.

I often find myself thinking about this expectation, as I believe that it presents a particular challenge in the work students do at Walden. I would argue that the strength that sets Walden students apart as a group is the genuine and deep connection they have with their research. In order to realize the university’s social change mission, students often conduct studies on topics and settings very close to them, addressing problems with which they have experience. These are problems that affect them in their personal and professional lives. As a result, they have an intimate understanding of the search for solutions.

The passion that students bring to such work is part of what makes it valuable and meaningful. As a reader, when I can sense a student’s investment in his or her topic, the writing feels more alive to me, and I am more inclined to join the student in caring about the search for an answer to the research problem.

However, when their writing is too directly emotional, students risk losing their academic credibility. An over-reliance on emotional statements can indicate an under-reliance on analysis and research.

Scholarly writers must balance passion and objectivity

When I am reviewing dissertations and doctoral studies, I suggest revisions when I see statements like this (fictional and slightly exaggerated) example:

Countless teachers lament that the implementation of standards-based accountability measures has led to a horrifying crisis of epic proportions that has caused many children to suffer.

This sentence, with its broad claims and passionate language (lament, horrifying crisis, epic, suffer), comes across as an unsupported statement of the writer’s opinion. It might be appropriate for an editorial or speech, but it is out of place in an academic study. How can the writer convey some of the same ideas while retaining credibility?

As noted above, one problem with this sentence is that the words the writer has selected are too emotional. Keeping in mind that direct quotes (and non-peer-reviewed sources) should be used sparingly, the writer might try letting an expert express this sentiment, in something like the following:

In a 2010 editorial in The New York Times, [Name] wrote, “The No Child Left Behind legislation has had disastrous and unintended consequences for our educational system” (p. xx).

Ideally, the writer would then go on to present the range of opinions on the issue in the course of making his or her argument. The writer’s own language throughout this discussion should remain objective.

Another strategy is to support the claims with evidence. In my example above, the phrase countless teachers lament is both too broad and too emotional. How many teachers does countless refer to, and how does the writer know this claim to be true? Furthermore, what does it mean in this context for children to “suffer”?

Whenever possible, students should limit the scope of their claims to what they can defend with specific evidence from the literature. Perhaps a survey of educators has shown that many teachers hold the view the writer is seeking to express. In that case, the writer might try something like this:

In a 2009 national survey conducted by [X Organization], 72% of elementary school teachers indicated that standards-based accountability measures had not improved achievement in their classrooms (Author, 2010).

Through the use of supportive evidence and an objective voice, the writer can convey the extent of the problem without resorting to sweeping claims or emotional rhetoric. When this is done effectively, the work becomes more persuasive and gains greater impact, ultimately furthering Walden’s goal of promoting social change.

Carey Little Brown 
In her role as a dissertation editor, Carey Little Brown "focuses on helping students master APA style, avoid common grammatical errors, and use concise language to develop compelling written work."

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All About Gerunds

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  • Gerunds make nouns out of verbs.
  • Gerunds make simple verbs into verbs that indicate a state of being or action.


  • A simple verb: Today is the day I plan my recruiting process.
  • From verb (plan) to gerund (noun): Planning is critical in doing research.
    • The gerund in this indicates a state of being. Here’s one that indicates action: The project has now moved into the planning stage.
  • A short list of nouns and their gerunds: 

Here’s how you might find gerunds used (see below for examples):
  • as a subject
  • as a direct object
  • as a subject complement (an adjective/noun/pronoun that follows a linking verb, such as amisare, waswerehas beenare beingmight have beenbecome, and seem.
  • as the object of a preposition
In the following sentences, each gerund is in italics. (Thanks to the Purdue OWL for the format.)

As a subject:
Recruiting is the dissertation stage I’m at right now.

As a direct object:
For recruiting I plan to use the snowball method.

As a subject complement:
A common issue in doing a study is recruiting candidates.

As the object of a preposition:
I used the phone book for recruiting candidates.

There is nothing inherently wrong with gerunds. But like pronouns (see examples below), a gerund can be a problem when it’s unclear what it refers to.

Here are two examples of dangling pronouns, so called because it’s not clear what the true subject is:
  • John drove across town to pick up his sister and brother for the party but he was late. (Here, it’s not clear whether John or his brother was late.)
  • The student sent the same email to the participants and committee but they didn’t respond for several days. (Here, it’s not clear whether the participants or the committee or both did not respond.)
In the following examples, notice the similar lack of clarity when gerunds are misused.

Problem: Hiking the trail, the birds chirped loudly.
Fix: Hiking the trail, Squiggly and Aardvark heard birds chirping loudly.

Problem: Wishing I could sing, the high notes seemed to taunt me.
Fix: Wishing I could sing, I feel taunted by the high notes.
(with thanks to Grammar Girl, Mignon Fogarty)

Problem: While drinking  our coffee, the lions approached our camp. 
Fix 1: While drinking our coffee, we saw the lions approach our camp. 
Fix 2: While we were drinking coffee, the lions approached our camp.

Problem: After reviewing  the data, it was concluded that the experiment was poorly designed. 
Fix: After reviewing  the data, the panel concluded that the experiment was poorly designed.

Problem: Before sampling  the extract, the pH was determined.
Fix 1: Before sampling the extract, we determined its pH
Fix 2: Before the extract was sampled, the pH was determined.
(with thanks to Bruce Jaffee)

Here’s another trio of misused gerunds:

Problem: Yelping and whining, an early-morning jogger rushed to the werewolf’s aid.
Fix 1: Hearing yelping and whining, an early-morning jogger rushed to the werewolf’s aid.
Fix 2: Yelping and whining, the werewolf attracted the attention of an early-morning jogger, who rushed to its aid.

Problem: A consummate high-wire artist, he assumed her wobbles were feigned until she plummeted to the floor amid gasps from the audience.
Fix: Knowing Nadia to be a consummate high-wire artist, he assumed her wobbles were feigned until she plummeted to the floor amid gasps from the audience.

Problem: Enjoying her new-found freedom, the Greyhound bus trip to Vegas was a short one.
Fix: Enjoying her new-found freedom, she found the Greyhound bus trip to Vegas a short one.
(with thanks to the Grammar Sherpa)

If you run into one of these problems, or just feel unsure when using a gerund, try using the past tense of the verb. The following examples are based on those given above.

Problem: Hiking the trail, the birds chirped loudly.
Fix: The birds chirped loudly as we hiked the trail.

Problem: While drinking our coffee, the lions approached our camp. 
Fix: We drank our coffee and watched the lions approach the camp.

Problem: After reviewing the data, it was concluded that the experiment was poorly designed. 
Fix: After we reviewed the data, we concluded that the experiment was poorly designed.

Problem: Before sampling the extract, pH was determined.
Fix: Before we sampled the extract, we determined the pH.

Problem: Yelping and whining, an early-morning jogger rushed to the werewolf’s aid.
Fix: As it yelped and whined, an early-morning jogger rushed to the werewolf’s aid.

Problem: A consummate high-wire artist, he assumed her wobbles were feigned until she plummeted to the floor amid gasps from the audience.
Fix: He assumed the wobbles of the consummate high-wire artist were feigned until she plummeted to the floor amid gasps from the audience.

A final note: We use gerunds all the time, whether in speaking or writing. However, while a gerund error made in speaking can often be understood from context, it’s harder to understand a gerund error in writing. It requires careful rereading. It may even need a proofreader.

Tim McIndoo
Tim McIndoo, who has been a dissertation editor since 2007, has more than 30 years of editorial experience in the fields of medicine, science and technology, fiction, and education. When it comes to APA style, he says, "I don't write the rules; I just help users follow them."

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Abbreviations are useful because (a) they avoid excess repetition of phrases or names (especially when long or ungainly) and (b) they save space. Follow these tips:

  • Insert the abbreviation (within parentheses) after the first use of the phrase or name. Before final submission, recheck the text to make sure the very first use was found.
  • However, there is no need to provide an abbreviation if the term is used only two or three times in the paper.
  • Especially in the abstract, where space is at a premium, do not give an abbreviation unless it is used at least twice.
  • Do not add abbreviations to phrases or names in headings and subheads, whether in the Table of Contents or in the text.
  • Note, however, that some abbreviations are given as words—“not labeled abbr”—in the 2005 edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (see APA §4.24).
  • The APA Publication Manual offers this important reminder: “Use only those abbreviations that will help you communicate with your readers. Remember, they have not had the same experience with your abbreviations as you have.”

The Writing Center website lists further considerations such as plurals, Latin abbreviations, and units of measure. For complete guidance, see the APA Publication Manual, §4.22, p. 106ff. 

Tim McIndoo
Tim McIndoo, who has been a dissertation editor since 2007, has more than 30 years of editorial experience in the fields of medicine, science and technology, fiction, and education. When it comes to APA style, he says, "I don't write the rules; I just help users follow them."

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