Does Creativity Belong in Academic Writing?
Friday, August 30, 2013 Expert Advice
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.
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.
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.