creativity and academic writing – an oxymoron?

I’ve been pondering the question of creativity in academic writing. One of my research interests is creative pedagogies, including but by no means exclusively in the arts. I’ve been thinking that I ought to say more about creativity in relation to academic writing. You can probably already see, in my opening gambit that:
1) I hold that creativity can be found in the arts, but not exclusively so and
2) I don’t equate creativity in academic writing with arts-based methods or texts, although they might be that.
I think of writing itself is an art form, with multiple genres and media. The art form includes non-fiction, so why not academic writing too? However, saying creativity and academic writing can often seem like an oxy-moron.

This is perhaps because we find ourselves staying too close to particular conventions of academic writing. As James Clifford, the veteran anthropologist puts it:

We operate on many levels, waking and dreaming as we make our way through a topic: but then we foreshorten the whole process in the service of a consistent, conclusive voice or genre. (2001, p. 71)

Part of our problem is that journal reviewing processes and audit regimes such as the English REF can act as highly conservative frames to academic writing – unseen voices prioritizing and praising the ‘consistent, conclusive voice’, rather than the innovative, the eccentric, the different and experimental.

Breaking out of the mould cast by conventions may not easy. However, if we can find places to write other-wise, then we do need to be confident and comfortable in knowing how to do so. This requires us, I contend, to practice being creative.

I am reminded here of the ways in which visual artists allow themselves extended moments to experiment. They allow a lot of time for tinkering and improvisation. As much time as it takes. They have routines that they use to stimulate new ideas. This kind of ritual playfulness is perfectly acceptable in some art worlds, but not so much it seems in ours.

Perhaps because academic writing is often sent to the margins of the academic workday/night, we don’t have time to play. Perhaps we are always concerned to meet a deadline, to get something published, to get a text done. We just don’t have the time – or we don’t make the time – to just play around with our own artful academic writing. And maybe this is also because the dominant way of talking about academic writing is utilitarian – it is primarily about getting our research out there, as efficiently as possible, as if the writing was simply a technical matter rather than a matter of crafting, of creative authoring.

I am reminded of the experimental collaborations that some artists have – their interest is in what happens when different traditions, ideas, ways of working come together. The point of collaboration is as much procedural, relational and reciprocal, as it is about the product at the end. Yet we much more often hear of the problems of co-authorship in academic writing; we hear very little about the process, any joy in it, and how the end text came to be. We do hear a touch more these days about academic writers engaging with other art forms – film, digital art, theatre and dance for example – but there is still too little conversation about how collaborative work with artists changes academic practice including writing (but there is of course some discussion, see for example Live Methods, edited by Les Back and Nirmal Puwar and Kip Jones’ papers on filming Rufus Stone).

Creativity is not just about collaboration and time and imagination, but also about discipline and regular practice. It does seem that blogging might provide this combination for some people.

Blogging can help rattle academic writing. The regularity of writing combines with the blogging conventions of looser argument and more engaging prose. Many bloggers take the opportunity to offer tentative ideas, work in progress, and produce writing that wouldn’t ordinarily make it into the ‘foreshortened’ processes of academic writing that Clifford sees as problematic. The blog can become something more like the waking and dreaming through a topic that he imagines.

The challenge for bloggers I think is how to bring their textual experimentation more strongly into mainstream academic writing – or perhaps a less demanding expectation is how bloggers can work alongside other challengers/challenges to academic writing conventions.

So that’s my thought for this weekend … here’s to pushing away at the #acwri boundaries – audit regimes and the press for the H index notwithstanding. Here’s to thinking of academic writing as an art form.

An ethnographer in the field. James Clifford in interview. In Coles, A . 2001 (Ed) Site Specificity: The ethnographic turn. de-,dis-ex-. Vol 4. London: Black Dog Publishing

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic blogging, academic book, academic writing, creative writing, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to creativity and academic writing – an oxymoron?

  1. Megan says:

    Hi Pat,
    I think academic writing can be creative too. As an artist, I have found that when I take an overview of my art practice, looking at 5 years of artwork, it makes sense to me. There are common themes played out, and connections made that I didn’t think of the at the time of making. I think academic writing can be like this. Doing a phd part time gives me that perspective of “long” time played out in texts.


  2. Glen Speering says:

    Why not? Research demands creative thought to penetrate and reveal insights. Why not in the representation? Take a look at the article, ‘This is Not A Pipe’ by Tess Lea and co for an example:

    I see a lot of it in housing research, where there is a huge amount of crossover between architects/ planners etc, with social scientists, enviro scientists, anthropologists – where there is a nice blend of visual learners, creative types, and data types, who see images and visual representations as valid as the written word – because that is often the mechanism that is being used to shape the physical world around them.


  3. EH Kern says:

    To me academic writing is very creative. Conventions of your discipline set boundaries within which you have to be able to express yourself. It’s like writing a haiku or using iambic pentameter. I blog regularly about ideas I have regarding my academic research. It becomes, as you say in your post, a way of trying out new ideas and new ways of expressing myself. Moreover, I see blogs as yet another forum for, in my case, popular history, to reaching out to the public.


  4. Pingback: creativity and academic writing – an oxym...

  5. Jane S says:

    Academic writing strikes me as more of a science than an art. Science is rigorous, fact-based, can be ‘proved,’ but, as you say, Pat, perceiving creativity to be in opposition is not helpful.
    At first, as a creative, I found the discipline of writing-up research a strait-jacket. However, I believe this
    lengthy process of dragging myself through a difficult and recondite topic (and fearing I’m not doing justice to it) might elicit something of value as an end product. (Might!)
    A creative voice can find a place in academic writing by not stifling it, e.g., allowing the occasional flowering of a metaphor, the odd adjectival clause, etc., while avoiding jargon and dense dull overladen paragraphs.
    Simple scientific methods ARE useful, whether you’re engaged in drawing together threads of academic research or constructing a novel: they concentrate the mind, the train of thought. But a thesis will hold little appeal if no one understands what you’re getting at.
    QED ~ clarity is all.


  6. Kip Jones says:

    Thanks Pat,
    I touch upon many of the issues that you mention in my article, “Infusing Biography with the Personal: Writing RUFUS STONE”, including collaborations with artists and writing in a more poetic and, indeed, personal style, which developed directly from writing a blog.
    Published in Creative Arts Research (CAR) and also available here:


  7. Pingback: creativity and academic writing - an oxymoron? ...

  8. anna says:

    Home & Away; the female artist in academia.


  9. Pingback: Historical Reminiscents EP 39: Pushing Past Creative Barriers – Krista McCracken

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