Resources for Creative Academic Writing

I am delighted to say that creative academic writing is gaining in popularity and acceptance, at least in some parts of the world. I have been teaching creative thesis writing and creative academic writing at universities around the world since 2015, and I know many postgraduate students and early career researchers are keen to learn and to apply their learning. I know they also, sometimes, meet resistance from their supervisors or managers. The best way to overcome this resistance is to formulate an academic argument based on academic resources. I am happy to say there are now a range of resources people can cite as they outline the rationale for writing creatively in academia.

The main reason for writing creatively is that it makes your writing more interesting and memorable for your readers. I’m sure most of us want other people to be interested in our work and remember the points we make. However, the thought of writing creatively can be daunting for those of us who have learned to report as factually as possible. The good news is we don’t have to use creativity at a macro level, such as by producing graphic novels, epic poems or full-length screenplays – though for those of us with the talent and dedication, macro creativity is certainly an option. But we can all use micro creativity: sensory language, imagery, metaphor and so on. And if we’re not sure how, these resources will help.

The first is a book edited by Pamela Burnard, Elizabeth Mackinlay, David Rousell and Tatjana Dragovic: Doing Rebellious Research In and Beyond the Academy, and in particular, Part 2, which focuses on ‘rebellious writings’. I am not highlighting this book because Pam has kindly agreed to give the first keynote at the International Conference on Creative Research Methods next year. I am highlighting it because it is a wonderful, transgressive, boundary-bulldozing book. It was published in 2022 and uses colour and theory, poems and images, concepts and diagrams, prose and music, and a bunch of other devices to get its points across. This book is a real tour de force and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

The next book is edited by Cecile Badenhorst, Brittany Amell and James Burford: Re-imagining Doctoral Writing. This one was published in 2021 and is also available as an open access ebook. While it is evidently aimed at doctoral students, I think it could be useful to any academic writer wanting to work more creatively. I found it interesting, informative and thought-provoking, and I have been doing academic writing at postgraduate level and beyond since 1999.

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In 2022 a book was published focusing on creative academic writing in a single discipline. When that happens, you know an approach is taking hold. Edited by Francesca Cavallerio, it is Creative Nonfiction in Sport and Exercise Research. There is no paperback at present, only a very expensive hardback or a quite expensive ebook, so it is best to use if you have access to an academic library. Again, I think it would be helpful for people in any discipline wanting to write more creatively.

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So far, these are all edited collections. In 2021 a book was published written by Richard Phillips and, er, me, called Creative Writing for Social Research: A Practical Guide. We included 14 creative contributions from 17 researcher-writers to show how this can work in practice. I’m pleased to say we’ve had excellent feedback on the book so far. It even generated an online book club in the year of its publication.

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There are a couple of potentially useful open access journals, too, each founded in 2020. Both are aimed at the humanities, but again people working in other sectors may well find articles that are of use to them. One is from the Rochester Institute of Technology in the US, and it is the Journal of Creative Writing Studies. The other is from the UK National Association of Writers in Education (aka NAWE), and it is the Journal of Creative Writing Research.

I am quite sure this is not an exhaustive list, though I hope it will be a useful one. If you have other resources to add, please share them in the comments.

This blog and the videos on my YouTube channel are funded by my beloved Patrons. Patrons receive exclusive content and various rewards, depending on their level of support, such as access to my special private Patreon-only blog posts, bi-monthly Q&A sessions on Zoom, free e-book downloads and signed copies of my books. Patrons can also suggest topics for my blogs and videos. If you want to support me by becoming a Patron click here. Whilst ongoing support would be fantastic you can make a one-time donation instead, through the PayPal button on this blog, if that works better for you. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Why writing is never fixed or final

I am working on the third edition of my first research methods book. Books like this, if they sell enough copies, are regularly updated into new editions. There are a few reasons for this. One is that ideas develop and the world changes, which means updates are needed. Another is that a new book usually has a comparatively small word count to help keep the price down; when it is proven to sell well, there is a business case for an increased word count and a slightly higher price. A third is that authors and readers think of more topics which could usefully be included.

The second edition of this book had 12 chapters; the third will have 16. I only have around 12,000 new words to play with, but fortunately some of the new chapters are chapters which were already rather long and still need new material, so have been split into two. There are only two completely new chapters, and one of those also has a chunk of content which I have moved over from another long chapter in the previous version. So, while there will be around 12,000 words of new content, only one of the four new chapters has to be written from scratch.

I regularly teach creative academic writing (aka academic writing it’s all creative), mostly to doctoral students who are faced with the terrifying task of writing a book. It’s called a thesis or a dissertation, depending on which country you are in, which makes it sound different from writing a book. But it’s not really different. Even a shorter thesis or dissertation of 40–50,000 words is equivalent in length to a Mills & Boon novel. An 80,000-word thesis or dissertation is equivalent to a standard paperback, and 100,000 words would be a larger paperback. Nobody tells doctoral students that they have to write a book – but, in effect, that is exactly what they have to do. Most theses and dissertations have chapters, contents, acknowledgements and other such book-like features. As the saying almost goes, if it looks like a book and quacks like a book it is probably a book.

Students often think writing a book is a similar process to reading: start with ‘Chapter One’ and then it’s one word after another until you get to ‘The End’. Nope. It is always difficult to convey the process of writing a book to someone who hasn’t written one, because describing is not the same as doing, and the only way to really understand how it works is to write one yourself. Which is a really difficult task, even if you have written several already. All I can do is to tell my students, in as many ways as I can, that most of us start in the middle even if we think we are starting at the beginning; it is fine to write fragments, or lists, or mind-maps; all of your work will go through at least three drafts; nothing is fixed, even when it’s published. I watch the level of comprehension on people’s faces vary from ‘utterly bemused’ to ‘penny dropped’. I know it’s pretty much impossible to learn about a process without any relevant experience, and I throw out blobs of wisdom hoping some of them will stick. (Some do. I once had a tweet from a former student, 18 months after I taught their class, saying ‘I just realised what you meant when you said…’ – it was lovely to know one of my blobs had landed after all that time.)

Perhaps the part students have most difficulty with is understanding that writing is never fixed or final. It looks so fixed, when you make a mark on a page; it seems indelible. But it’s not. You can move, change, edit, delete, add… Even published work isn’t fixed or final. This published blog post can be changed if I see a need for change. And, as new editions of books show, even published books are not final.

Once you understand this, it is a useful counter to perfectionism. In fact, it is not surprising that perfectionism is an enemy of writing, because writing can hardly ever be perfect (maybe a few shorter poems). Writers need to put down any perfectionism they may be holding, and simply be willing to do the best they can today. We also need to accept that this day’s ‘best’ is rarely the same as the next day’s ‘best’. When you look again at something you wrote last month or last year or last decade, it can make you cringe and wonder what on earth you were thinking. Which does not mean you are, or were, a bad writer; it means you have learned new things since then.

This blog, the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, and the videos on my YouTube channel, are funded by my beloved Patrons. Patrons receive exclusive content and various rewards, depending on their level of support, such as access to my special private Patreon-only blog posts, bi-monthly Q&A sessions on Zoom, free e-book downloads and signed copies of my books. Patrons can also suggest topics for my blogs and videos. If you want to support me by becoming a Patron click here. Whilst ongoing support would be fantastic you can make a one-time donation instead, through the PayPal button on this blog, if that works better for you. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

A simple guide to ethical co-authorship

This post was originally published on the LSE Impact Blog in March 2021.

Ethical co-authorship is rarely discussed by authors and publishers, and even more rarely by research ethics committees. Yet co-authorship is a notorious site for unethical practices such as: plagiarism, citation manipulation, and ghost, guest and gift authors. For authors setting out on a collaborative writing project, two key aspects to ethical co-authorship need consideration: ethical co-writing and ethical co-publishing.

Ethical co-writing

Being invited to write with one or more others can feel flattering and exciting. Hold on, though, because before you co-write a single sentence, it is sensible to figure out whether you can work well together and to ask yourself some simple questions. Do you share enough priorities and values? If so, do you have similar working practices, such as attitudes to timescales and deadlines? While diversity of authorship will bring richness to your co-authored work, you need enough similarity to ensure that you can work well together. There is no shame in finding you can’t collaborate with someone; it doesn’t devalue your scholarship or theirs. But, it is worth ensuring you make that discovery early, rather than after you have already invested considerable time and effort.

Agree on the format for the work, and who will take the lead on each section or chapter. Different people can have very different ideas about format and structure, and again it is worth establishing this at the outset, rather than ending up with sections or chapters of wildly varying lengths and structures. This won’t impress reviewers and will create an unnecessarily large amount of work at the editing stage.

When you decide on deadlines, always build in contingency time. Things go wrong in people’s lives, particularly during a pandemic, and those affected need time to deal with their difficulties. Be willing to compromise or, in a group collaboration, to be outvoted. If you want to have everything your own way – write alone – though you will still have to deal with others, reviewers and editors; to adapt a famous saying, the sole-authored paper is dead.

Encourage your co-authors to adopt ethical citation practices. This means avoiding citation manipulation, i.e. excessive self-citation, excessive citation of another’s work, or excessive citation of work from the journal or publisher where you want to place your own work. It also means ensuring a good level of diversity within your citations. Who are the marginalised scholars working in your field: the people of colour, the women, the Indigenous scholars, the scholars from the global South, the LGBT+ scholars, and so on? Make sure you read and cite their work, engaging in co-writing can be an opportunity to reassess what literatures have become central to your research.

When you give feedback to your co-authors, make it constructive: tell them what they are doing well, what needs improvement, and how they can make that improvement. When co-authors give you feedback on your writing, accept it gracefully, even if you don’t feel very graceful. Respond positively, or at least politely, or at worst diplomatically. Maintaining relationships with your co-authors can be more important and may even take precedence over being right.

Do what you say you’re going to do, when you say you’re going to do it. If you have a problem that is going to get in the way of your co-authoring, let your co-author(s) know as soon as possible.

Ethical co-publishing

Academic publishing is troubled by ghost, guest and gift authors, if you are in doubt, COPE provides a useful flowchart detailing these practices. Ghost authors are those who have contributed to a publication but are not named as a co-author, perhaps because they are a doctoral student or early career academic and a senior academic has decided to take the credit for their work. This is a form of plagiarism. Guest authors are those who have not contributed to the writing of a publication, though they may have lent equipment or run the organisation where the research took place. Gift authors are those who have made no contribution at all, but are offered co-author status as a favour. None of these practices are ethical. It doesn’t matter if some co-authors do more work than others, as long as everyone involved is happy with that, but you should be clear about each co-author’s contribution to the work, and outline that in a statement in the final draft.

Another ethical issue in co-publication is the order in which authors are named. This varies between disciplines. In economics, co-authors of journal articles are named in alphabetical order, while in sociology the co-author who has made the largest contribution is named first. Heather Sarsons studied this and found that the system used in economics has an adverse effect on academic women’s career prospects, while the sociology system does not.

However, this does not mean the sociology system is perfect. What if two or three authors have contributed equally? An alternative option could be to write enough articles or chapters for each co-author to have first authorship on one of them, but this isn’t always possible or desirable. Some scholars use pseudonyms to ensure that equal contributions are recognised. Economic geographers Julie Graham and Katherine Gibson published several books and journal articles under the joint name J.K. Gibson-Graham, some of which were ‘sole’ authored and some with other co-authors. Geographers Caitlin Cahill, Sara Kindon, Rachel Pain and Mike Kesby have published together under the name Mrs C. Kinpaisby-Hill, and Kindon, Pain and Kesby have collectively used the name Mrs Kinpaisby. Professors EJ Renold and Jessica Ringrose work together as EJ Ringold.

This isn’t always an option, though, as publishers are not always happy to take an unconventional route. Book publishers for instance, will usually want as first author the person whose name they consider most likely to help sell copies. And, journal editors are sometimes reluctant to name participants who have co-authored journal articles, even when they evidently want to be named.

Acting ethically while co-writing is easier than acting ethically to co-publish, because authors have more autonomy while writing. Self-publishing may present opportunities for more creative representations of co-authorship practices, but self-published work is not generally valued by academia. Bumping up against the structures and priorities of big business, whether a publisher or a university, can make it more difficult for people to maintain an ethical course. Perhaps the most ethical option is to place work with a journal or publisher that is not for profit, so you are not contributing to shareholders’ dividends but to organisations that invest any surplus back into research dissemination.

To some extent, co-authorship is an academic virtue in itself. Co-authors learn from each other and help each other develop as researchers and scholars. Co-authored work is often stronger than it would have been if sole-authored. If we can also co-author ethically, that will further improve the quality of our collaborations and our outputs.

This blog, the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, and the videos on my YouTube channel, are funded by my beloved Patrons. Patrons receive exclusive content and various rewards, depending on their level of support, such as access to my special private Patreon-only blog posts, bi-monthly Q&A sessions on Zoom, free e-book downloads and signed copies of my books. Patrons can also suggest topics for my blogs and videos. If you want to support me by becoming a Patron click here. Whilst ongoing support would be fantastic you can make a one-time donation instead, through the PayPal button on this blog, if that works better for you. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Creative Writing for Social Research

Today is the official launch day for Creative Writing for Social Research, the book Richard Phillips and I have written, with 14 short contributions from other creative scholarly writers. I am so proud of this book! It is not perfect – no book is perfect – but I think it is the book I am most proud to have written. We will be on Twitter for much of the day: you can find all the launch information via #CreativeAcWri.

Every book has out-takes; good sections that, for sensible reasons, don’t make the final cut. To celebrate the launch of this book, I thought I would share one of its out-takes that I drafted, and was – am – fond of, but which just didn’t fit. It is about field notes, and centres on an excerpt from Eating Soup Without A Spoon by Jeffrey Cohen. That is an ethnography I love because, unlike most anthropologists, the author discusses his methods.

Here is the out-take:

“Ethnographers, who might spend years living with the people they are studying, were the first social researchers to use their own field notes as data. In the early 1990s, the American anthropologist Jeffrey Cohen and his wife Maria spent a year living in the rural village of Santa Ana del Valle in Oaxaca district in Mexico. Cohen writes eloquently about the complexity hidden by the glib term ‘field notes’ (2015:39-40):

Each night found me sitting at my desk writing notes; in fact, most nights found me writing at least two and sometimes three different kinds of notes.

The first notes, to which Maria contributed as well, were daily diary-like entries recording observations and exploring our experiences as we were introduced to village life. We wrote about shopping, about social life and the gendered divisions that defined what men and women were doing in their lives and around their homes, managing kitchens and the challenge of keeping a house clean.

I also described our home and the houses we visited, noting the physical trappings of life such as the layout of compounds, what people owned, and what luxuries were present.

A second set of notes was anthropological. Although they also explored our experiences in and around the village and market, they were organized around critical themes in anthropological theory… I would use these notes to think about economic change… family cooperation and reciprocity… the efforts to… not simply survive but thrive in the changing world… in my notes I could explore how [these efforts] worked, how they failed, and how they matched up to my expectations and training.

The third set of notes was much more personal and reflected my sense of self and my own experiences. On occasion I wrote letters to long-dead ancestors in anthropology. Looking back on that odd process, I can see it was one way I was able to deal with the ghosts of anthropology’s past that haunted me.

This is a lovely depiction of writing in practice as a method of turning experiences into data. It is also a clear illustration of writing as friend, teacher, and therapist. In the first set of notes we can see writing as a friend to whom Cohen recounted daily events, in the second a teacher showing Cohen how to think about his work and link theory to practice, and in the third a therapist who helped Cohen manage his feelings of being haunted by anthropological ghosts.

This kind of creative ethnographic writing can generate lots of rich data. The downside is the huge amount of work resulting at the analytic stage. For some people, this is so overwhelming that they never complete their research (Cohen 2015:150). Even for those who do find a way through the analytic morass, it will be ‘hard, exhausting work’ that is incredibly time-consuming (Cohen 2015:149). Though again, here, there are creative writing techniques which can help, and we’ll be highlighting some of those later in this section. However, unless you are doing this kind of ethnographic work, we would advise you to limit the amount of data you generate. Working with creative writing can be fun and interesting and so it’s tempting to keep on going. But as we’ve seen, this can present considerable difficulties for analysis, so we recommend resisting any such temptation.”

That should have given you a flavour of the book Richard and I have written. I use the conceptions of writing as ‘friend, teacher, and therapist’ in teaching creative and productive thesis writing to doctoral students. I tell them writing is a teacher; we learn as we write, often surprising ourselves. Writing can be a therapist: obviously an actual therapist is, generally speaking, more use, but if you have a distressing or complicated experience during research, writing about it can be cathartic and help you process your feelings. And writing is always there for you; sometimes annoying and disappointing, but reliable and reasonably predictable, like a good friend.

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $75 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $75 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!