On whether creative writing research is an oxymoron: Jen Webb’s contribution

These days most of my professional work, through our company Frontinus Ltd, involves working with researchers in engineering, together with allied sectors such as energy and construction. Such work can seem — indeed, often is — many miles from creative writing, the field in which we have published our Creative Writing Studies series.

Researchers in fields such as engineering are often sceptical about creative writing, at least as an academic discipline. How is best practice established? How can it be assessed? And the notion of creative writing research causes even greater perplexity: is there such a thing? how can it be real research?

Such doubts are understandable. I suggest the best way to respond to them is to present the doubters with a copy of Jen Webb’s Researching Creative Writing. There are various books available on research in creative subjects. For my money — and it was our own money that we invested in the project — Jen’s is the best of them.

Jen’s text provides a good example of the relationship between good writing and good thinking. Jen uses language in a clear, precise, and unpretentious way. She altogether eschews the kind of vague or airy-fairy phrasing that would send engineers, and others, scurrying for cover. The idiom is serious. The vocabulary is as close to the everyday as it can be, given the sophistication of the questions she explores. There is the unmistakable tone of rigorous thinking and argumentation.

We tried to capture, or at least evoke, these qualities in the abstract and selection of key terms:

ABSTRACT: Creative writers who are also students or academics face two apparently contradictory imperatives: the need to answer important research questions, and the need to produce works of the imagination. The two activities depend on very different thinking processes, use language differently, and address different audiences. Yet they are not irreconcilably different: writers, whether academic or creative, tend to investigate the world around us, explore what we as human beings know and how we know it, test facts and common sense, and try to establish what really matters. And whether the result is a scholarly essay, a poem, a novel or a playscript, the writer faces similar challenges: how to convey the ideas, information, logical and emotional aspects that were a part of the work. Writer-researchers need to attend to the formulation of research questions, the selection of methodology and research methods, such practical aspects of writing and research as dealing with other people, and how the outputs are managed, analysed, interpreted and disseminated. When these issues are managed appropriately, research practices can invigorate writing, creative practices can invigorate research, and creative writing can operate as a mode of knowledge generation, a way of exploring problems and answering questions that matter. 

KEY TERMS: craft of research; creative practice; creative writing; data management; methodology; reflective practice; research; research design; research methods; research writing.

One further point about the quality of the writing. In the training and mentoring I provide, I try to impress on research writers the importance of adhering to a style guide. We use the Cambridge University Press style guide. It always impresses me when authors take care to conform with it. In that, as in much else, Jen proved exemplary.

In our creative writing publishing we have, with some books, experimented with short-run hardback editions. Success has been patchy, but I’m glad to report that Researching Creative Writing has proved an exception.

 

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