- The process of reaching analysis in academic writing is very similar to the process that leads to creativity in the arts.
- Psychologist R. Keith Sawyer has made a list of stepwise actions that create a platform for creative thinking.
- I’ve added a step for academic writers: talking about your ideas with knowledgeable colleagues, friends, or editors. Expressing your thoughts with speech helps your brain bring connections to consciousness and make new connections.
- Opening your mind to many types of new sensory input can help you make a final connection that brings a lot of ideas together.
Every academic writer needs to produce new analysis. But how the heck are you supposed to get that? Where does it come from? How can you get you some?
For most writers, this part of the writing task seems mysterious, almost alchemical. Some days it’s there and a lot of days it’s not. Sometime it feels as if you’re striving to push through an invisible barrier. If you could only break through, you’d be in the magical land of analytical thought, where it’s all hearts and rainbows and you are known for your brilliant mind.
Like any other aspect of writing, getting to analysis usually happens only after a considerable amount of work. Sometimes writers have a magical burst of insight that changes the topography of their entire field. But these writers are rarely novices in their field. They’ve done a lot of work to prepare their mind for that brilliant idea. The path to analytical insight involves doing many steps that will prepare your brain to do this extremely complex work.
Analytical thinking is quite similar to creativity; it involves many of the same steps. In both cases–analysis and creativity–insight sometimes comes in a flash of brilliance while you’re walking or taking a shower. But here’s the thing: that flash didn’t come from nowhere. Lots of work prepares your brain to put all the pieces together in an original way.
So I’m borrowing a page from R. Keith Sawyer, a psychologist who’s been studying creativity for over two decades. In the second edition of his Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation, he offers an excellent summation of the steps that lead to creative insight. It works just as well as a list of the steps that lead to new insights in academic writing.
Steps That Support Creativity (and Academic Analysis!)
- Find and formulate the problem. The first step is to identify a good problem and to formulate the problem in such a way that it will be more likely to lead to a creative solution.
- Acquire knowledge relevant to the problem. Creativity is always based on mastery, practice, and expertise.
- Gather a broad range of potentially related information. Creativity often results from alert awareness to unexpected and apparently unrelated information in the environment.
- Take time off for incubation. Once you’ve acquired the relevant knowledge and some amount of apparently unrelated information, the unconscious mind will process and associate that information in unpredictable and surprising ways.
- Generate a large variety of ideas. Unconscious incubation supports the generation of potential solutions to the problem, but conscious attention to the problem can also result in potential solutions.
- Combine ideas in unexpected ways. Many creative ideas result from a combination of existing mental concepts or ideas.
- Select the best ideas, applying relevant criteria. The creative process typically results in a large number of potential solutions. Most of them will turn out not to be effective solutions; successful creators must be good at selecting which ideas to pursue further.
- Externalize the idea using materials and representations. Creativity isn’t just an idea; creative ideas emerge, develop, and transform as they are expressed in the world. (Sawyer 2012, 88, 90)
This is an excellent description of the steps academic writers follow to produce writing that has depth and sharp analysis.
I would add two items to this list as it applies to academic writing.
6b. Be prepared to drop back to an earlier step in this sequence when you get stuck. Writing problems are just that: they are problems that need to be solved. Think of yourself as a doctor who needs a diagnosis when you hit an obstacle in your writing. Do you need more information? Go back to step 3. Are you finding that the sources you’ve collected aren’t producing the support for your thesis that you expected they would? Go back to step 2 or even to step 1–you might need a research question that’s more robust. Have you done steps 1 through 6 and still don’t know what your analysis is? Pay attention to step 4! Or move to step 6c, which is incredibly important for academic writers. It’s so important that I’ve made it its own section in this essay.
Talk about Your Ideas with Knowledgeable Colleagues or an Editing Professional
I’ve found in my work with struggling authors that talking can be magic. Most authors, even (perhaps especially) the ones who are struggling the hardest with generating text, can speak very eloquently about their ideas. When they talk, they draw on all their domain knowledge and speak of insights that are new to the literature. They just don’t realize that they’re already there because they’re struggling so hard with written words and that’s where their focus is. There’s something unique about using spoken language. It’s an entirely different cognitive process from generating text to express ideas. It’s much easier to talk about our work than it is to write about it. There’s a reason for this: engaging the cognitive tasks involved in speaking is something we do every single day. We’ve practiced that skill since we learned to speak and the neural connections in our brains for using that skill are dense and very strong. The part of our brain that generates speech is deeply connected with many other brain functions.
In contrast, when we work to express our ideas in writing, we’re drawing on skills that we’ve had much less practice with. Consider the number of hours you’ve spent speaking every day since you were two years old compared to the number of hours you’ve spent writing every day since you were about six. There’s a huge difference in investment there. So it’s no wonder that you struggle with some elements of writing but are brilliant when you speak. If you’re an academic writer, you’re on a journey to expertise that takes years. Your brain is learning new skills, strengthening the skills you already have, and generating new connections that link to what you know and all your past experiences. On this journey, you need every shortcut to new connections you can find.
Talking with someone about your work, particularly when that person has domain knowledge in your field or a field that’s relevant to your work, is one such shortcut. It will often help you clarify what your thinking is. You’ll be surprised at the words and phrases and ideas that will pop out of your mouth when you say them out loud to an informed and supportive listener. A skilled listener who plays multiple roles (mirroring back your words, poking around to see how you respond, noticing when you say important words that seem like the tip of an iceberg, pointing out when you say something that is a new idea for your field) will become part of the scaffolding that you use to produce and articulate your novel thoughts.
Use the cognitive skill that’s well developed to help you gain more depth in the writing skill you’re still developing. Talk about your work with anyone who’s willing to listen. And of course be prepared to return the favor!
Last Thought: Be Open and Patient
Sometimes an analytical idea is just around the corner. This often happens to me fairly late in my writing process. I’ve done all the steps: I’ve read new literature and taken notes, I’ve formulated a structure for the piece I’m working on, I’ve connected the new knowledge to what I already know, and I’ve started making notes about ideas I want to use. I know where I want to go with a piece. But I don’t have the key idea that will help me present my ideas so readers easily connect to what I’m saying. I don’t have the next-level thinking that will pull it all together.
This happened when I was drafting “Crush It.” I conceived of this title as a way to connect with the more recent use of this term to mean achieving a goal with style that is so devastatingly perfect that it stuns all observers. But I was also thinking of the meaning of breaking something into smaller and smaller parts.
I got stuck when I started to think about images. When I used “crush” as a search term in the online image libraries, I got lots of images of destruction. That was definitely not the concept I was going for. So I moved on to the idea of breaking something into smaller components. I hit on the idea of gardening–start with a picture of an entire garden, then move to a picture of a medium-level gardening task (mulching), then to a picture of a very discrete gardening task (deadheading flowers). But that was all way too disconnected from my idea of crushing it. I spent far too much time that day looking at pictures of “this is not it.” I went to bed that night feeling frustrated and knowing I hadn’t succeeded. I actually saw pictures of gravel in that work session, but my reaction was “Gravel! How boring can you get?” It’s almost embarrassing to write about how close I was and how unaware I was!
While I slept, my brain continued to work on my creative problem. And when I woke up in the morning, I instantly knew that boulder-pebble-gravel would be the perfect sequence for my images. Plus I could make up fun new adjectives. And that sequence worked very well with my entire concept.
This is how it often happens when you’re trying to reach a new idea or an idea to hang everything else on in a chapter or an article. If you’ve given your brain the material it needs to work with–getting new knowledge, taking notes on new knowledge, moving knowledge from working memory to long-term memory, connecting new knowledge with domain knowledge–it will be processing, processing, processing on your behalf quietly in the background. The idea you need is probably just around the corner.
There’s another element to this process. I call it being on the hunt. It’s a subtle process of opening your mind to stimuli. You may hear a phrase on a TV program or a snippet of conversation while you’re waiting in line at the grocery store. A word or a phrase might jump out at you while you’re leafing through a magazine. You may see something while you’re walking the dog. A family member may say or do or even wear something that jogs a particular memory. A song may come into your head that just won’t leave. You may have a dream that stays with you after you wake up. Any of these things might be the last piece of information your conscious mind needs to bring everything together. And that last piece may enter your brain in any of several ways–through your eyes, through your ears, through your memory, through a dream, even through a smell. Opening your mind to these bits of information, noticing what’s coming in through your senses, may help you take that last mental step toward the new idea you need.
Sawyer, R. Keith. 2012. Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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