WriteCast Episode 42: Using Creative Writing Strategies in Academic Writing
© Walden University Writing Center 2017
MAX: Welcome to Write Cast: A Casual Conversation for Serious Writers, a monthly podcast by the Walden University Writing Center. I’m Max Philbrook,
CLAIRE: and I’m Claire Helakoski.
MAX: This month, Claire and I are excited to host WriteCast together. We’re talking today about creative writing and how it relates to scholarly writing. And now just a quick introduction, thanks for joining us. I’m Max, I’m a Writing Instructor here in the Walden Writing Center, and I’m the coordinator of social media resources. You might recognize my voice from our earlier podcast episode this year on mindful writing, episode 34 and episode 35.
CLAIRE: And I’m Claire. I’m also a Writing Instructor here at the Walden Writing Center. You might recognize my voice from episode 31 of the podcast, “Taking Your Writing Outside of the Classroom”.
MAX: You might be asking yourself, listeners, why is this podcast for me? You’re probably a Walden student doing evidence-based research, writing scholarly for your coursework and your capstone projects. But what we’d like to do today is show how you can use some of the tools from creative writing to help benefit and assist your role as a scholarly writer. This episode is aimed at anyone doing academic writing. We’re using creative writing as a filter to help you think of a different way to look at your writing. And so really this episode is for anyone who would like to expand the strategies they use to do their scholarly writing. Creative writing is a very interesting way to look at scholarly writing. And it’s really neat to have Claire here with us because Claire, you are very skilled in creative writing and you’ve actually had some creative writing in your background. And you’ve studied it in a scholarly way, is that right?
CLAIRE: That’s right, Max. So I have a Master’s in Fine Arts, which is an MFA in creative writing. Meaning, after I got my undergraduate degree in writing I went and got my Master’s in creative writing where I studied creative writing, and teaching, and composition theory, for an additional three years after my undergraduate degree.
MAX: That’s really neat, Claire. Folks, we’re lucky to have Claire here with us who can really show us her experience and really make these connections and strategies between the art of creative writing and the art of scholarly writing. So don’t be afraid if you’re here and you’ve never really thought about how creative writing can help you as a scholarly writer. That’s ok. That’s what Claire’s going to help us with today. And so, Claire, to start out, can you just kind of define creative writing as a field or as an object of study? What is it? And what’s involved with studying creative writing as an academic field?
CLAIRE: Sure! Creative writing in the way that I studied it for my MFA, is writing that’s done for an audience, it’s meant to be creative, it’s meant to express an experience that you’ve had in the world. And studying creative writing academically means studying sort of the way that stories and ideas are put together. Understanding different audiences, and how to connect with them, and sort of planning out that beginning, middle, and end of what you’re trying to write and communicate. And one of the main ways that creative writing is different from scholarly writing is that creative writing does not need to be based in research. So that’s a big difference for Walden writers, but the way that creative writing is put together and the way that you study creative writing is applicable to scholarly and other forms of writing.
MAX: When you were describing the process that you go through or that creative writers go through, it sounded a lot like the writing process that we try and teach to our students here in the Writing Center. What would you say are the most relevant aspects for scholarly writers to take from creative writing?
CLAIRE: That is a really good question. So, one of the main things about creative writing that’s important is to know where you’re going, and how you’re going to get there. And that it might take a while to figure out where you’re going and how you’re going to get there. And that’s ok. So in scholarly writing, you need to know what you’re going to say, what you’re trying to prove, what you’re trying to do, and how you’re going to end up where you want to end up, which might be proving your point, it might be leading to further research…And that it might take multiple drafts to get where you’re going. But that you want to kind of start out with a direction or an idea or a seed of research somewhere to give you sort of that direction and that motion forward in your work so that you can figure out where you’re going and how you’re going to get there.
MAX: Yeah, I like that. So you’re saying when you start out a piece of writing, you don’t know exactly what it’s going to look like from the very beginning. Do you kind of use the process of writing to help you get there?
CLAIRE: Exactly. Different writers work differently. So some writers like to have a really, really detailed outline and that’s any kind of writing. You might want a really detailed outline or you might sort of feel like you need that to keep going. Or, you might want to explore through different drafts, and that’s something that creative writing really emphasizes and supports, too, is that those sloppy first drafts, those exploratory drafts where you want to figure out what you want to write about or where you want to go, those are ok. And you really don’t need to put pressure on yourself about those drafts and about the time spent on those drafts. You want to focus on, is the draft that you’re going to actually show to somebody else. So you want to get to where you’re going, but it doesn’t matter what the process looks like to get there. Everybody’s is going to look a little bit different, but eventually you’re going to come up with something that you’re ready to show somebody else.
MAX: That’s fantastic. That’s really great advice. Claire, you mentioned writing to your audience in creative writing. And that’s a really big element of scholarly writing as well. Just knowing the conventions that your audience and that your readers are expecting. How does audience play into the work of a creative writer?
CLAIRE: So audience is important for any form of writing because we write so that other people will read it, in most cases. Which means that it’s important to know who’s going to be reading and why they’re going to be reading it and what experience you want them to have with whatever you’re writing. It’s extra important in creative writing because in creative writing you really want to draw somebody in and get the engaged with your story. Whereas in academic writing, they’re probably already interested in your general field or topic if they’re in there reading a scholarly journal you know, about psychology, then they’re already interested in psychology. Which is great. But you still need to know how to connect with those people who are going to be reading your work and what connections you need to make for them, what sort of background you need to draw and just what experience they’re going to have with your text.
MAX: I really like that point that you made about connecting to the audience. It seems like an easy thing to do, but it can be very difficult. And with scholarly writing, it is nice to have the built-in interest from the reader. The point you made about, there will already be some built-in interest from the reader of a journal or something like that, is really important. We are always kind of expecting someone to read what we write. I mean, I always talk about it in terms of being reader-centered when you’re writing, because without a reader there really is no writing. I think that that’s such, just such a really important point.
CLAIRE: So in considering audience, and in that we plan to have an audience for our writing, whatever form that writing might take, it’s really important to have a secondary reader. And it’s important in creative writing because you might be doing something different, you’re trying to tell this story, and you want to know if somebody’s having the experience you intend them to have with your work. And it’s the same thing with scholarly writing where you really need somebody else to read your work and make sure that the ideas that you’re connecting and explaining and providing evidence for, that they all make sense to somebody else. Because of course it’s going to make sense in your own brain, right? But in any form of writing it’s really important to have that secondary reader so that you can get a better feel for your audience and what their experience is and just have that second set of eyes. It’s really invaluable. And, of course, at the Writing Center we can help you with that if you come in for those paper reviews.
MAX: Absolutely. We have many sets of secondary eyes and we’re just waiting for Walden students to share their work with us. One thing that, that I’ve heard creative writers talk about is taking inspiration from the works that they actually read. Is this something that scholarly writers could employ in their writing process as well?
CLAIRE: Absolutely. And I think that’s one of the key things about creative writing and especially studying creative writing for additional time, like I did, that you really learn to do and use to your benefit to apply to your own writing. So in creative writing, we read pieces for the classes that we’re going to take and then we sit around and talk about them and the way that they’re put together and what impact that has. And we really break it down and break it apart. And that’s something you can do with any text. So as a scholarly writer, you should do that as well. Look at these texts that you’re reading for your course work or on your own to further your studies, and find some that you really like and pieces of some of them that you really like and try and figure out why. Look at it, and how it’s constructed, how they implement evidence, how they transition between the different sections, and figure out what is working really well for you that makes you inspired by what you’re reading. And find those pieces then try to work them into your own work in your own way. And once you kind of know what sorts of things inspire you and what sorts of things you think are scholarly and want to try to do in your own work, then you can set those goals and look for more examples and start to sort of internalize and use them yourself.
MAX: That is really great advice. So really what you’re asking readers to do is to deconstruct the piece of writing that they’re reading at that time.
CLAIRE: Yes. Yeah, absolutely. And you can do that while you’re reading for your coursework, as you’re taking notes, you can also, you know, highlight a transition that you think is working really well and come back to that later, or you know a particularly well-imbedded piece of evidence. You can just do that as part of your reading week to week.
MAX: Yeah, that’s really cool. And I like the idea of highlighting and using a transition or something kind of minute like that from the piece that you’re reading. And actually kind of borrowing that and using that as a strategy in your own writing.
CLAIRE: Right. And to be clear, we don’t mean taking what the original author said and using it in your own work, but just to look at how they did it and then try to do that yourself. So imitation rather than copying and pasting.
MAX: Great point. Very, very good point. Another way to think about this idea of deconstruction is not just taking what works well and employing that in your own writing, but you can also look at a piece of writing and look and see what doesn’t work very well. One thing you’ll find as you start to read more and more into your scholarly literature is that sometimes research gets published that’s not 100% effective or is not perfect in every way. And one thing, as a critical scholarly reader, that you can practice is looking to see where you get confused or where something is not perfectly clear. And then you can work on avoiding that in your own writing. So the door swings both ways. You can look and be inspired by what you see, but then you can also look and see what you’d like to avoid in your own writing.
CLAIRE: Right. It really just comes down to ownership of your work. Becoming more and more aware of these things is going to increase your awareness as an author and enable you to make different choices. You can think about what works really well and what inspires you and also what you want to try to avoid in your own writing and find the combinations that are going to work for you.
MAX: While we’re on the topic of being inspired by works, Claire, are there any authors that you are particularly inspired by or that you really enjoy reading their writing from a craft level?
CLAIRE: God, there’s a lot of them! There’s works that I really love and admire from a craft level. I’m a big, big fan of Margaret Atwood, she’s one of my favorite authors and one of my first real like favorite authors I just love the way that she writes and the way she constructs stories. I’m a big fan of Marcus Zusak and, let’s see, I was, I’ve recently been reading a lot of Helen Oyeyemi and she does these kind of weird, fairytale—twisted fairytales that are really interesting and play with structure.
MAX: Oh, I love that. When an author kind of takes a standard trope or something that we’re all very familiar with and turns it on its head in different ways. Very neat. I’m going to have to check her out. So, our previous conversation was revolving around how you can take the skills and some of the ideas from creative writing as a field and apply them to your own scholarly writing. And while that’s really good, of course there are major differences between scholarly writing and creative writing. Claire, could you highlight and identify and maybe describe some of these differences and why they’re important to this conversation?
CLAIRE: Yes. Yeah. So especially at Walden, we’re not only just writing scholarly writing, we’re following APA, which has its own unique set of guidelines. And so it’s important to know what the parameters are to work within to employ these different strategies. Although, I would say that they are applicable to any form of writing. For Walden students in particular, a big difference is going to be your audience. Like we talked about a little bit previously, your audience is going to be fellow scholars in your field. Right. They’re people who are interested in your topic and they’re looking for you to talk about it in an interesting and new way and sort of take a stance and explore that through research.
There are also some specific expectations, right? You’re supposed to sort of have a general format with the way that you format your introduction and the way that your reference list is formatted. And you have to keep those APA formats in mind as well as the format of whatever particular document you’re working on. So whether that’s just a general paper or I know there are some particular programs like nursing, for example, where they have some different types of documents that have a specific set of rules and sort of a general format that you need to follow.
Your tone is going to be different in scholarly writing than it will in creative writing. Creative writing is a lot more casual whereas APA and scholarly writing have a really particular, formal, scholarly tone. So you want to be formal, you want to be direct, and clear. That’s another big difference between creative writing and academic writing is that in creative writing we use lots of descriptors and adjectives and we use metaphors and things like that whereas in APA you want to be direct, precise, and clear.
And of course for APA you need to have those citations throughout your work whereas creative writing doesn’t have that citation format that they need to follow. And you as Walden students do. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t use these creative writing techniques of sort of that deconstruction and figuring out where you’re going and who you’re writing to and why. Those are the points about creative writing that really connect to any form of writing. And that you can use with these specific guidelines to enhance your work.
MAX: Yeah those are really important things to keep in mind as you’re starting to use some of these strategies that Claire is sharing with us. So these are really great differences to keep in mind between scholarly writing and creative writing. But one thing I’ve noticed in my time as a Writing Instructor here at Walden is that sometimes the types of papers that students write in their coursework, sometimes those actually require the student to do some creative writing. Claire, have you noticed that in your experience and how can students think about using the skills of creative writing in their particular assignments that they’re writing?
CLAIRE: I have seen this kind of assignment. And I’m going to call them “scholarly narrative writing”, rather than “creative writing,” just because we still want to keep in mind those, you know, kind of APA guidelines about being direct and clear and avoiding expression, but they have a different format than a lot of typical scholarly writing in that you’re supposed to recount something that happened to you or how you came to Walden or things like that in which case, you have a narrative to tell, which is much more something that’s done in creative writing and less something that’s done in scholarly writing. And when that happens, you want to really focus on making it clear what details are important for your reader to understand and it’s ok in those cases too to use first-person to describe those experiences. But what I often see is students get caught up because they’re so excited to share all these wonderful details about their experiences and their lives, but they can be a little distracting to a reader who hasn’t experienced your life and may not know which details are the most important to kind of answer that prompt or that assignment question. So really keeping your audience in mind and what they need to know is what I recommend most to kind of keep in mind as you’re working on those narrative assignments. To really think about, ok, what does my audience absolutely 100% have to understand to follow this story.
MAX: Yeah. I just love your advice, Claire, to be mindful of your reader and to keep that question in mind: what does my reader need to know? And, listeners, if you’re interested in learning more about the narrative elements of scholarly writing, we actually have a very helpful and useful blog series happening right now on our Walden Writing Center blog. If you navigate to waldenwritingcenter.blogspot.com, you’ll see that we have a number of Writing Instructors, including Claire, as well as one of our dissertation writers, who are each approaching this idea of narrative writing in scholarly work from a different angle. Including how to effectively cite information and use documentation skills in these types of assignments and for those capstone writers out there, dissertation editor Lydia is writing a blog post about how to capture that effective narrative style in a formal capstone document. So we have a lot more great information on the blog already and coming to you in the next weeks. So be sure and check that out at the Walden Writing Center Blog. Claire, thank you so much for talking today about your experience as a creative writer. What a great conversation.
CLAIRE: Thanks for having me, Max!
MAX: It is my pleasure, absolutely.
MAX: WriteCast is a production of the Walden University Writing Center. You can find past episodes on iTunes and on our website. We’d love to hear from you. Connect with us on Facebook, on Twitter @WUWritingCenter, and on our blog. Thanks for listening!