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Unleashing the beast: creativity in academic writing.

Writing and freedom are intimately connected in my life. The writing process lets my thoughts roam where they please. Seeing the shape those thoughts take on paper is both exhilarating and intimidating. However, many college students experience only the intimidation. As a writing center tutor, I regularly meet students who have a tremendous fear of writing, especially academic writing. Academic writing, for them, is a threatening creature that stifles their own thoughts and voices. As writing center tutors, we have an opportunity to shatter that misconception and encourage students to write unconventionally by showing them that many modern scholars incorporate creativity into their writing, and we can offer students suggestions for enhancing creativity in their own writing.


At this point, it might be helpful if I define creativity. When I say that students should write creatively, I do not mean they should write fiction when the assignment is a research paper. Nor do I mean that every paper should be filled equally with poetry and facts. I simply mean that students should be willing to push the boundaries of conventional writing. Writing creatively is just cutting the rope, letting the creature within run free. Creative writing allows writers to "learn how to explore alternate modes" (Smith vii) of looking at things. Indeed, connection is a key part of creative writing. The originality that is a natural product of a new view or unexpected connection is what professors often seek. To be more creative, students may alter writing styles, change voices, incorporate literary devices, include anecdotes, or just find an unusual angle on a subject.

Sometimes it seems that creativity in writing has little value. However, it is important to realize that creativity increases the likelihood that writers will put thought into their papers. Wendy Bishop argues that creativity leads to "greater engagement and investment" (44). She goes on to say that this means writers will ultimately spend more time with their papers, a positive by any professor's standards (45). The more time is spent with a paper, the more likely it is that the writer has put a lot of thought into the essay. Bishop also suggests a link between engagement and good writing, citing Donald Murray and Peter Elbow to support her claim (44).

Connection between the reader and the text is another important effect of creativity. In Aristotle's world, the real world could be shown through "sense impressions" (Berlin 49). The words of the writer should clearly illustrate the truth being proven in the essay. Descriptive language may very well play a role in such illustration. Aristotle also believed in the use of pathos, an appeal to readers' emotions, and ethos, an appeal to readers based on the writer's authority (Berlin 50). Both pathos and ethos are forms of argument that may be best developed creatively. For example, more emotion may come into play in a line of poetry than in any other kind of writing. "The fiery blaze sinks slowly behind the mountain peaks," creates an experience that appeals to the senses, while "The sunset occurs each day in the Rocky Mountains," evokes nothing. Similarly, it will be easier for writers to establish their credibility with personal narrative than with stilted third person accounts. I have seen the importance of well-used pathos in my own life many times. Most recently, I had to read a book about the development of the musical scale, something I know nothing about. However, I was able to understand, and even enjoy, the book, because the author used anecdotes in addition to the necessary technical language. For example, one part of the book was about the invention of pianos. Instead of recounting only the mathematical reasoning behind the arrangement of the keys, the author also included a few stories from the life of an early piano manufacturer. The use of interesting stories drew me into the book. After I finished the book, I felt I understood musical scales much better than I would have had I only read about the technical aspects of scales. Students, too, can use creativity to create emotions that encourage the reader to keep reading.


Many college students seem to believe that creativity is always looked down upon by instructors. Even in an honors course, I recently heard a student say she felt she was being punished for her writing style. In his book Clueless in Academe, Gerald Graff describes the disbelief of his graduate students when he tells them that academic writing does not need to be filled with jargon: "One or two firmly insisted" that a certain level of confusion due to language was necessary to succeed in the professional world (134). Other students revert to words they may not be familiar with because they are not yet comfortable in a new setting (Williams 4). The vocabulary of the new field, though still strange, provides a safety net--students may believe that using the jargon will make it appear that they understand the subject. The natural side effect of the belief that technical language must be used is the fading of figurative, descriptive, and narrative language.

However, students do not seem to realize that even scholars have begun to move away from the stuffy, traditional writing style that once characterized all academic writing. Donald Murray provides wonderful examples of creative academic writing. His writing often uses clear, interesting language and catches the reader's interest with unexpected methaphors. An obvious example is the sentence, "Process can not be inferred from product any more than a pig can be inferred from sausage," from his essay "Writing as Process" (3). Later in the same essay, Murray provides a jumbled drawing that is meant to represent the writing process (11). Both the sentence and the graphic are inventive ways Murray caught the readers' attention. Another scholar, Gerald Graff, uses a similar writing style in his book Clueless in Academe. The book was written especially to encourage clarity in academic writing. Throughout the book, Graff refers to the fact that academic discourses are relevant to mainstream life, but people often cannot see the connection because it is buried under language that the general public cannot understand. Graff believes that this jargon only hinders the effectiveness of the author's argument.

Another recent trend in creative academic writing is the use of first person. A number of books and articles have been published supporting first person and semi-autobiographical writing. Liberating Scholarly Writing, Relocating the Personal, Personal Effects, and Personally Speaking are only a few of the many books on this subject that have been written since 2001. The message of their publication is clear: Academic writing needs to be invigorated with something new and unique. Many college students, however, are still afraid they will be punished for unleashing their creativity. The disconnection between what students believe is required of them and what instructors actually would like to see has been a problem for years, but as writing center tutors, we can begin to bridge the gap. By introducing students to writers such as Murray and Graff, and by helping students think creatively, we can show the students we tutor that scholarly writing does not need to be boring.


* Include personal narrative.

Scholars have already shown that personal narrative has the potential be an effective method of writing more creatively. Both Murray and Graff use first person very well in their books, for example. When used appropriately, first person can actually encourage creativity (Nash 2). Personal writing brings life into what could otherwise be an ordinary, flat piece of academic writing (Spigelman 2). Despite all the benefits of first person writing, tutors should still inform students about the risks of first person narrative. As I wrote above, personal narrative has the potential to be very effective. It is not always. A misplaced story could ruin a paper. Students should be encouraged to always question the relevance of their story. Does this illustrate a point I want to make? Before telling students they should use first person, the tutor should also find out if the professor will allow it. Although views toward first person are changing, some professors still believe that only third person should be used in scholarly writing.

* Have the writer write a few lines of poetry about the subject.

Poems are filled with vivid images and figurative language. Such language may help "forge new connections between seemingly unrelated objects and events" (Smith 41). That connection will help students see the subject of their writing in a new light. Coming face to face with something fresh, students may initially be a bit bewildered, but the most unexpected connections could spark ideas that can be incorporated into the final piece. Poetry, or poetic language, can also blow a fresh breeze into what could otherwise turn into a stale academic paper.

* Ask the writer to connect the topic to something in pop culture or how it could affect everyday life.

Often students in the writing center simply have no interest in what they are writing. This lack of engagement leads to flat writing. If tutors ask students to make something relevant to their own lives, it is likely that the student will become engaged in some way. By gaining the interest of the student, this exercise removes one of the obstacles to incorporating creativity. Like the poetry exercise above, this pop culture exercise also encourages metaphors. Making unexpected connections is a key part of an original paper.

* Discuss different writing styles; what makes them distinctive?

Most professional writers cross genres (Bishop 47). However, many students limit themselves to the socalled academic writing style. Encouraging students to analyze the writing styles of some of their favorite authors allows them to see what individualizes writing (Masiello 62). Does the writer write informally? Why does the narrator or character seem authentic? Does the writer use any special rhythms or patterns? Tutors should then ask the student what style of writing he or she wants the paper to be in. Bishop recommends what she calls "Something-likes": "Which kind of writing that I admire is something like the writing I'm doing? Then, what of those something-like writings--theme or style or both--might I import into this text?" (46) Ultimately, the purpose of this exercise is to help students find their own voice, not just imitate others. After all, where is the excitement if we don't each have our own voice? (Bishop 51)

* Imagine and experiment.

Bishop also suggests that we look at the possibilities of creative writing to determine which are most appropriate in a particular setting (48). There is wisdom in that statement; a heavy dose of creativity is inappropriate in some settings. However, convention should not always constrain students. There is a point at which the line between creativity and scholarship must be drawn, but where that line is varies dramatically. Tutors should encourage students to let their imaginations go wild. What would it look like to use poetry in a scientific paper or a metaphor in a paper about mathematics? It may be wise to have students write their thoughts down. Hazel Smith says that "experimentation is fundamental to creativity" (vii). Experimentation also allows students to see when they may have gone too far.


Although it sometimes seems to college students that academic writing can only be done well if there are a lot of technical words and complex ideas, students should not be fooled into believing that such writing is the only acceptable or desirable style in the academic world. There is an increasing movement toward allowing scholars and students alike to unleash their inner beast and write creatively. However, at this point, it seems that only scholars have begun to use their new liberty. Fear still forces many college students to hold onto the leash for dear life. Writing center tutors have the unique position of seeing both scholars and students' writing, and may be able to help connect the two styles effectively. Tutors, by engaging students in activities to start the creative mind, may help students begin to loosen their grips. Only after preconceived notions about academic writing have been broken will students begin to write in a style that shows both intelligence and artistry.


Berlin, James. "Contemporary composition: The Major Pedagogical Theories." The Writing Teacher's Source Book, Ed. Gary Take and Edward Corbett, New York, Oxford UP, 1988. 47-59.

Bishop, Wendy. "Is There a Creative Writer in the House?: Tutoring to Enhance Creativity and Engagement." A Tutor's Guide. Ed. Ben Rafoth. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 2000. 44-54.

Graff, Gerald. Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind. New Haven: Yale UP, 2003.

Holdstein, Deborah H., and David Bleich. Personal Effects: The Social Character of Scholarly Writing. Logan, Utah: Utah State UP, 2001.

Kamler, Barbara. Relocating the Personal: A Critical Writing Pedagogy. Albany, NY: State U of New York P, 2001.

Masiello, Lea. "Style in the Writing Center: It's a Matter of Choice and Voice." A Tutor's Guide. Ed. Ben Rafoth. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 2000. 55-66.

Murray, Donald. "Writing as Process: How Writing Finds Its Own Meaning." Eight Approaches to Teaching Composition. Ed. Timothy R. Donovan and Ben W. McClellan. Urbana: NCTE (1980): 3-20.

Nash, Robert J. Liberating Scholarly Writing: The Power of Personal Narrative. New York: Teachers College P, 2004.

Smith, Hazel. The Writing Experiment: Strategies for Innovative Creative Writing. Crows Nest, Australia: Allen & Unwin, 2005.

Spigelman, Candace. Personally Speaking: Experience as Evidence in Academic Discourse. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 2004.

Williams, Joseph. Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace. New York: Longman, 2003.

Jennifer Howard

University of Missouri--Columbia
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Author:Howard, Jennifer
Publication:Writing Lab Newsletter
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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