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How to be a Better Academic Writer? Take a Creative Writing Course.

May 20, 2024

Man is sitting at desk with a notebook in front of him, a pen in hand, and his phone next to the notebook. He is writing in a blank notebook by hand in his creative writing class as he learns how to be a better academic writer.

When one reflects on the question – how to be a better academic writer – I am sure a number of answers come up. Read more. Write more. Never write again. The idea of creative writing typically does not go hand-in-hand with academic writing, and for good reason. Academic writing is formulaic, passive, technical, and generally not good. These two writing styles are completely different.

But it doesn’t have to be this way! 

One antidote to academic writing is creative writing. 

There are so many benefits to engaging in creative writing. But unless you have the intrinsic motivation of Captain America and the innate natural skill set of Batman (you can see where my streaming hours are going), you might need a little support. This is where creative courses can help.

Caroline Malloy, PhD encourages scholars to take creative writing courses, saying: 

“Creative writing courses challenge (and encourage) scholars to think laterally about expressing their ideas – new ways of saying the same old thing. This is so helpful because as scholars, sometimes we lose sight of the fact that not only are we become professionals in our field, we’re adapting our writing style to our field. Creative writing courses force us to step back and rediscover parts of our voice we had forgotten or put aside, and the ripple effects of that rediscovery can be profound, both personally and professionally.”

And she’s 100% right.

In this post, I highlight, along with many other scholars, how to be a better academic writer by embracing creative writing as academics, scientists, and scholars. And one way to embrace creative writing is through enrolling in a course at your university.

Four Benefits of Taking a Creative Writing Course

1. It’s low cost.

Ah, the (few) benefits you get as a faculty member – the opportunity to enroll in various courses for free. It may seem like an impossible feat to teach courses, conduct research, attend all the meetings, AND enroll in a course at the same time. You could enroll in a creative writing course over the summer. You could enroll in an online course. At the end of the day, everything is finite and nothing, not even a semester of a creative writing course, lasts forever. If you really want to do it, you’ll find a way.

Not only is this professional development experience free, it also comes with an instructor/faculty member who can work with you to improve your academic writing skills. You can practice ideas, practice writing with different styles, and receive real-time feedback on it. This is crucial in learning how to be a better academic writer. 

2. It will help you exercise different parts of your brain.

Creative writing improves your brain functions

Creative writing is so completely different from academic writing. The practice forces you to use different sentence structure that may not involve third-person (or no-person), passive language, or sentences constructed of citations. How to be a better academic writer can be as simple (though not to be reductive) as sentence structure and word choice.

Randolph et al. (2011) argued that creative writing should be a vital part of training for English as a second language learners in higher education to help them become more effective academic writers. In his article, Randolph discussed how creative writing stimulates the brain more than academic literature, aiding vocabulary acquisition and command of English (Murphy Paul, 2012). Creative writing can also help students have a sense of control, ownership, and enjoyment of writing, promoting confidence and risk-taking (Eagleman, 2011; Medina, 2009), all activities that benefit native English speakers and English learners alike. 

Creative writing also exercises the brain more than academic writing, promoting brain health (Hortsman, 2011; Iacoboni, 2009; Jensen, 2008; Medina, 2009). How to be a better academic writer can simply involve exercising different parts of your brain.

Creative writing sparks creativity and innovation

It should come at no surprise that creative writing fosters creativity and innovation (Aslan et al., 2014; Root-Bernstein, 2003). Some creative writing outlets like poetry writing can provide “incubation periods” that give us space from the work; thus, allowing ideas to develop, helping us foster crucial creativity for innovation in our research (Januchowski-Hartley et al., 2018). Writing poetry can help scientists engage, learn, and generate new ideas. This can occur in the space between the scientist, the creative writing, and a problem they may be facing in their work (Ritter & Dijksterhuis, 2014).

Creative writing is uncomfortable to anyone who may not be an avid practitioner in the field. And because of this, creative writing can also help foster resilience, making us more comfortable with failure, and give us the ability to confront the unknown (Fernandez-Gimenez et al, 2019; Hunt, 2008; Stillman & Baumeister, 2009). These are all important factors for innovation in research and science. How to be a better academic writer means getting a little uncomfortable so you can find the good bits.

3. It will make you a better communicator.

Creative writing can help you tap into different words and flavor of writing, which can make you a much better communicator. And in turn, creative writing can help you be a better public communicator. The creative writing process can bring more clarity in how you think about your research and the problems you are trying to solve; thus, helping you better communicate to wider audiences. It also forces you to use less jargon and more succinct words.

Improved, enhanced communication is important for conveying complex scientific ideas to the public (Blythe et al., 2008; Januchowski-Hartley et al., 2018). For example, poetry writing can help scientists connect scientific topics to everyday activities, thus bridging the gap with audiences who may not read the literature (Follett 2016; Silverman 2016). In learning about how to be a better academic writer, you can become a better communicator overall. 

Graduate Student Writing & Careers

McVey (2008) highlighted the difficulties graduate students face in their writing. I can relate to the difficulty in writing and shifting language from lay person to graduate student to professor back to lay person. I could have benefited from a creative writing course as I navigated communicating through teaching and research writing. Instead, I took structural equation modeling, and look where that got me. McVey (2008) suggested that encouraging creativity in writing can help students find their voice, engage differently with texts, and develop vital skills for learning how to be a better academic writer.

Encouraging graduate students to take a creative writing course can also help their future careers, whatever route they go. At the core of everything we do, we communicate. 

4. It will make you more reflective.

Of course, creative writing can make you think – differently, deeply, reflectively – about yourself, your position, the world. Creative writing exercises can promote reflective thinking and writing (McVey, 2008). Existential in nature, creative writing offers an outlet for expressing ourselves, our emotions, our existence, among other things (Dewey, 1916; Murray, 2012; Peñaloza & Salamanca, 2019). 

Creative writing can humanize us. The practice of creative writing encourages ethical considerations and humanistic perspectives in scientific work (Atkinson, 2008). Reconnecting us to the human nature of science and research makes us better scientists and researchers.

Often we think about our work, its importance, and why we do it. If we don’t then we should. Creative writing offers this chance to reflect (Peñaloza & Salamanca, 2019). Creative writing can also help you come to terms with your roles as a researcher, writer, cog in the knowledge production system, integrating your persona as a human and scientist (Hunter et al., 2007). In learning how to be a better academic writer, we also learn how to connect with ourselves and our purpose.


Related post: Unleashing the Power of Research Communication Through Reflexivity


Recommendations

Deykute (2022) offered a number of recommendations to integrate creative writing into scientific training at the university level:

  • Creative writing should be treated as an essential academic practice rather than just an elective.
  • Poetry writing courses should involve not just individual creative work, but also research, collaboration, multilingual poetry, translation, peer workshops, and editing to maximize the benefits.
  • Universities should move towards integrating creative writing more systematically into curricula and fostering interdisciplinary connections beyond STEM.
  • The skills required for poetry writing such as tolerating ambiguity, synthesizing diverse knowledge, and exercising creativity, are highly valuable for scientists.
  • Exposing students to investigative poetics, multilingual works, experimental forms, and science-themed poetry can stimulate interdisciplinary curiosity and engagement.
  • Poetry can help scientists develop self-reflection, consider ethical implications of their work, and communicate ideas effectively to the public.
  • Establishing creative writing as a “necessary companion” to technological and scientific innovation at the undergraduate level can produce a paradigm shift in how we approach education.

Communication is key to building a better, more informed society. And creative writing not only helps us be better communicators, it also connects us to the humanistic side of science and learning. 

McVey (2008) argued that all writing (academic, technical, creative, etc.) involves a creative process of bringing something new into existence through language, experience, and imagination. As long as we look at all writing in this way, it may be easier to embrace a more creative writing style. And if you need a bit of focus and guidance, enroll in a course at your university. Encourage your graduate students to expand their communication skills by enrolling in a creative writing course. It will help us all in the long run. 

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Alicia Cintron, PhD

Research Public Communications Trainer & Coach + traveling Scholarpreneur

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