Balancing the critical and the creative - Composing

Success in Academic Writing - Trevor Day 2018

Balancing the critical and the creative

In non-fiction writing, composing is the act of writing in complete sentences that build into paragraphs. In most forms of academic writing, there comes a time when you have to move from planning, researching, reading and note-taking to writing flowing sentences (Figure 7.1). For many, this is the most challenging part of the writing process. This chapter explains approaches for making the shift to composing easier.


Figure 7.1 Composing as part of an academic writing process

In writing workshops and seminars, when I ask students which part of the overall writing process they find most challenging, typically slightly more than half say it is composing. This often applies irrespective of whether I am working with science, engineering, humanities, social science or arts students. It also seems to apply whether working with undergraduates or postgraduates. Reviewing and editing is usually chosen as most challenging by roughly one quarter to one third of students. Some students dislike reading and rereading their work, while others are unsure what to pay attention to in their writing, and just when to do so. For such students, Chapter 10 should be particularly helpful. Typically, about 10-20% of students opt for planning and researching as the most challenging. As considered in Chapter 4, this can be because they find it difficult to articulate exactly what they are looking for, and to narrow down the search for information accordingly, or because they find it difficult to know when to stop searching. Some find it difficult to create a plan, and wish to move swiftly on to composing without one.

7.1 Balancing the critical and the creative

According to Professor of English Peter Elbow (1981, p. 7), ’Writing calls on two skills that are so different that they usually conflict with each other: creating and criticizing.’ Elbow recognised that composing creatively needs to be nurtured, and can be undermined by self-criticism. Often, the educational system we navigated through in order to reach university encouraged us to ’get it right first time’ - at least in exams - because in a handwritten script, corrections are difficult to make and distracting for the reader.

Today, with the power of word-processing software to help us, when writing assignments there is no need to get it right first time. We can draft and redraft what we write. This works with the creative process.

Dorothea Brande, in her book Becoming a Writer, published in 1934 and still in print, recognised the importance of nurturing expression of the unconscious. I have sought to encapsulate the notion that writing involves both conscious (critical) processes and unconscious (creative) processes in Figure 7.2. In working with others, I have found this model helpful. It is simplistic, and I do not pretend that it is ’true’ in the sense that processes can be neatly separated into conscious and unconscious, critical and creative. However, this model does highlight that in the writing process, some of the time you need to allow creative, unconscious processes to come to the fore (as in composing your first draft). At other times, critical, conscious processes should be at the forefront (such as when reviewing and editing). I spend much of my time encouraging students to write in such a way that they allow expression of both their creative and critical faculties when writing. Much of what follows in this chapter is about managing these two dimensions of the writing process.


Figure 7. 2 Writing involves both conscious (critical) and unconscious (creative) processes. Both need to be encouraged