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Writers' Road

Academic writing versus novel writing – the process

"Creative writing," as we used to call it in school, and in which one can still gain an undergraduate degree in some colleges and universities, generally refers to fiction, poetry, screenwriting and the like. Not to journalism and not to academic writing.

I have long dabbled in various kinds of creative writing. And because you, dear blog readers, are my trusted friends, I will share with you one of the worst rhyming couplets every written:

To want, to need, in the heart, in the soul,

A bottomless, endless, deep, black hole.

How's that for fourteen-year-old angst? I am not proud to claim authorship, but yes, it is mine (my poetry got much better sometime after that).

At this point in my already fairly long life, I have written many dozens of academic articles, two academic books, several dozen poems (many not from the same planet as the atrocity above), four complete elementary school musicals (play and songs), and – ta-ta – three novels published on Amazon. The novels are the reason for this blog and for these continued musings on writing.

That said, however, today I would like to look briefly, from my own and others' experience, at the process of academic writing, and juxtapose this with the process of novel writing. Clearly the products are different. Academic writing is about presenting data in a convincing way and contributing something new, however small, to a particular academic field. Novel writing is about telling stories. Just a minute, though. Academic articles and books certainly do tell kinds of stories. Novels certainly do strive to present something new. My two academic books felt just as much 'my babies' as the three novels. Academic work creates something original from data. Fiction is (often, not always) created from whole cloth – people and stories that spring from the writer's imagination.

If the products are different (though overlapping), what can be said about the processes of the two kinds of writing?

Searching for writers' reflections on the process of academic writing, it quickly becomes clear that one is hard-pressed to find such reflections. Academics write, we assume, because they must publish or perish. But they have to do it well in order to succeed. There is some pressure involved, perhaps some stress. There is craft involved – in communicating the message clearly, and in fashioning the writing according to the requirements of a particular journal or publisher. There is satisfaction in completing the task well.

In looking for writers' reflections on academic writing, I came upon one interesting book, designed to be a kind of high-level primer (oxymoron alert!) for those beginning on the path of academic writing. In this book (Passion and Politics: Academics Reflect on Writing for Publication, Institute of Education Publications, 2008) the mature academic writers interviewed say that academic writing is creative in its own right, and bridges the divide between academics and the genres generally regarded as creative. Some of these writers use artistic metaphors to refer to their academic writing processes:

I see my writing sometimes as if I'm writing a play, and I have to make judgements about which character is going to be on stage at any one stage, and how they're going to come in and out, and what weight you're going to give them … (Michael Reiss).

I tend often to have a very broad idea of what I might want to say, and then it's a bit like working at a bit of sculpture: you chip away, you add a bit, you go back, you shift. So it's a different creative activity … (Peter Moss).

Some of the musings could certainly find their parallel in the experience of fiction writing:

The thing with academic writing is it can be like a mask. You can use academic theory and academic conventions to articulate, in a very objective and distanced way, something that you've experienced yourself, but you're not really naming or implicating yourself in it … (Heidi Safira Mirza).

Though my own novels are infused with my experiences, values, dreams, loves and hates, I do not appear in the books – except masked! That is a very apt image to apply to fiction writing. I think it would be almost impossible to write fiction that did not come from a place in oneself.

And certainly, the feelings expressed by the academic writers find parallels in the feelings of fiction writers. One would be hard pressed to know that these quotes came from academic writers rather than novelists:

…the struggle and the feeling of vague excitement, that there's something here, that I've got something new, that I'm wrestling with it and that it's somewhere in the back of my mind … (Shirley Dex).

Some days the ideas will just flow and it comes together well. Some days it's like wading through treacle, it's really, really hard… you just have to stick at it and keep going, even when it's hard… usually I find you have to get through that pain barrier and it comes together later … (Jeni Riley).

Writing is creative craft, in whatever genre one writes. It is a personal outpouring, a writer's shaping of words, structures, plots and ideas. The academic writer and the writer of novels are cousins, at the very least.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this, gentle blog readers, perhaps to be incorporated (with your permission) into a future post. Till next time.

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