The Creative/Academic Writing Nexus: An Autoethnographic Interrogation of Modes of Academic Expression through the Medium of Text

Or, to use its short title: Why can’t we write more creatively?!

I’m going to preface this piece by saying I love reading academic works. I love reading monographs and journal articles, and then telling anyone who’ll listen what I think. It’s one of the things I love about academia. However, I also know that 90% of my friends, when they come round to my place, wouldn’t dream of picking anything up off my academic bookshelf. 

I appreciate that this topic isn’t particularly new. Plenty of people have written about it. But as I write another draft of my thesis, I begin to think: I’m not very good at the minutiae of technical writing. Of course, I’m a lot better than I was, and I improve each time I do it, but I’m definitely not a technical writing genius.

Creative writing on the other hand, I enjoy. I think this is why I probably enjoy those various bits of philosophy you see which are written in flowery prose, rather than in a more ‘scientific’ way. Perhaps the older forms of academic writing (at least in the Humanities and Social Sciences) can be seen a little more like this. Like the philosophers who ask you to ‘consider the butterfly: does he not make choices with no concern for those but himself, yet touch the fibres of every living soul? Forsooth!’ And so on.

This kind of writing is much more engaging to my eye. It’s more… fun. But of course that doesn’t mean it can be accepted wholesale in to academic practice. There’s a reason technical/scientific writing is so prevalent in academia; an academic needs to write in a way that will convey complex ideas and arguments, that will reinforce those arguments without leaving holes, and needs to do it in a way that doesn’t span pages and pages (and as we know, not even some of the best academics can manage that).

But using overly large words, some of which have been invented specifically for the field (problematise, anyone? I use this one all the time so certainly not pointing the finger at anyone but myself), isn’t particularly accessible. If one of the aims of UK academia moving to Open Access publishing over the coming years is to make academic work more accessible to a wider range of people, we are going to have to do something about our language.

Now, I’m  not suggesting we change how we write. Plenty of people have made arguments both for and against this. But we do have to start diversifying how and what we write. Not to mention it can only be good experience for your next job interview, where you have to convince the panel that you can write for the world and her brother.  What’s more, if we’re going to be honest with ourselves there are a fair few bits in the social sciences (I’m sure this is the same in all fields, but I can only speak for my own) that we find dry and boring. For me, it’s probably electoral politics and Psephology. Useful, without a doubt, but it just doesn’t get me going.

Yet what if someone was to write ‘creatively’ about the subject? I’m not talking about dumbing down here, but writing with a  bit more flair perhaps. Dare I say in a more pop-politics way? For example, I’ve a book called ‘You Kant make it up’ which discusses the thought of various philosophers using absurd situations. It’s a great book, though not great for me, because I’m already familiar with most of the arguments. But to get someone interested, it would be great.

It would be great to have more social/political scientists genuinely writing for a wider audience. Perhaps this will be more possible when impact is truly expanded. I want to point out that I am not advocating losing academic writing; not at all. I think academic journals and the writing styles we find within are useful, necessary, and not all that difficult to get your head around. But the only people who are really going to be reading journals are those with a reason to – even when Open Access becomes the norm.

I think what I’m trying to get at with this ad-hoc piece is that we need to give people more of a reason to want to read the journals and study politics/social science. Wouldn’t it be great to have more programming about various elements of politics past immigration, various parties an so on? What about a programme about soft power? It’s so expansive surely we can devise some fascinating piece of fiction to illustrate the point?

Yes, there are some historical examples of this – Thus Spake Zarathustra and Atlas Shrugged for example – And it’s not particularly easy (or even perhaps possible) to novelise some concepts and phenomena in politics. But think of all the writers who put in serious research in to their books to ensure the setting, context and characters are true to life. Well, we’ve already done the research – maybe we just need to work on the presentation?

Academic writing is a very specific form of communication, and it’s indispensible to what we do. We shouldn’t get rid of it. But because it’s so specific we seriously reduce the number of people who would ever care about it. Personally, I’d love to see a book about Foucault, Gramsci, Hegel, Language, discourse, welfare, citizenship (and so on…) that is so gripping and compelling, it grabs the attention of people who didn’t care to begin with.

Perhaps an impossible dream? Perhaps. I’ll probably stop thinking this after I’ve published a few more journal articles and got my thesis in to a book!

And as an academic counterpart to this, at some point in the not too distant future I’ll see if I can put together something about accessible writing and Gramsci’s idea of the ‘organic intellectual’.

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