Notes on words


It’s occurred to me that I have a problem with research and writing. My problem is that my undergraduate training was as a musician – specifically, a composition major. Let me explain.

When you are working as a composer (or as a performer, or as anything other than a musicologist really), the way you conduct and communicate research is vastly different to standard research practice. Your first task, before doing anything else, is to be a sponge. To listen and listen and listen to everything you can, analysing it and pulling it apart to understand its context, construction, execution and so on. This is a continuous thing that never really stops. But then – you create. You start writing (or practicing). Everything you’ve absorbed informs and shapes what you create, but you are using it as a foundation for a pure act of creation. You can create whatever you like, regardless of whether anyone else has created something similar before or not, and you are accountable only to your own informed and educated sense of aesthetic. You’re not required to stop every five bars and reference somebody else’s work. You’re not required to append a list of everything you listened to before creating the work to the end of each composition or recital. It is assumed that you have listened and read widely and that this is digested through your own creative processes to produce music. It is up to the listener to recognise influences and hear the stylistic shaping of the work of others.

This is my problem. I still behave like a musician, despite the fact that I now work in education research. Every day I am reading and analysing and digesting everything I can get my hands on. Articles and papers and posts and environments and spaces, nothing is safe. But when it comes time to create I come unstuck. I find it incredibly stifling that I cannot just write, cannot just create. I cannot say something without providing very specific references to somebody who has already said something similar. I am required to stop and reference somebody else’s work and append a list of everything I’ve read to the end of each creation. It is not enough to assume I have read and experienced widely, and I cannot leave it up to the reader to recognise influences and hear the shaping of the work of others. It is infuriating.

This became clear to me only recently. I had always just assumed I was a hard slogger when it came to writing and it wouldn’t come easily. But then, I started running Coffeecourses and keeping everything in a running ‘syllabus’ document. 11,000 words and counting, no problem. I was free to write as I wanted to and it came easily. Then it occurred to me this blog passed 50,000 words a while back. Same thing. It’s only when I am forced to write in conventional academic style that I come unstuck. When I cannot just create.

So perhaps this muso bent of mine has me at a disadvantage. I can’t be alone in recognising this as madness, though. Why can’t academic writing be like composing? Why does a fundamentally creative act have to be so stifled by convention? What would happen if we just stopped referencing Someone (2011: 16) every five lines and just relied on our informed and educated sense of academic aesthetic to identify a well-informed, well-constructed work?

8 Replies to “Notes on words”

  1. Q: “What would happen if we just stopped referencing Someone (2011: 16) every five lines and just relied on our informed and educated sense of academic aesthetic to identify a well-informed, well-constructed work?”

    A: The unquiet dead would rise from their graves and walk the earth craving the flesh of the living, the ice caps would melt, a third part of the stars of the sky would fall, swarms of carnivorous locusts would darken the sun, and a strange city of purple glass would rise in Port Phillip Bay, from which eerie music would drift at sunrise, driving all who heard it to ecstasy or madness.

    Acutally, my academic writing advice would be to write first, go back and justify later. Pinning down references is a good activity for when your brainpower is not up to actual creation, I find. If you can’t find the reference that originally informed your statement, you’ll find something that’s near enough, even if your collection of notes and downloaded papers is as disorganised a mess as mine is. Such is the beauty of “search” functions. 🙂

    (Just to establish my bona fides, I’ve written 60+ papers and book chapters since PhDing)

    1. I love this advice. It’s what I’ve been wanting to do but you tend to get dissuaded from writing something then finding someone who agrees with what you’ve said just for the sake of it. Nice to know this is a legit modus operandi :).

  2. I found this article explained really clearly why creative arts people sometimes struggle to write academically, and why they are sometimes feel ‘out of place’ in the academy. Thanks Sarah.

    And there’s certainly no reason why your first (rough) draft can’t consist entirely of your thoughts! That’s how I start to write too, and although I haven’t published as much as Chris has, I have taught academic writing and found this to be a great way to get students started in their own work. It’s what the ‘Shut up and Write’ and ‘Pomodoro’ thing is about – you’re not supposed to look anything up while you’re doing those bursts, just write.

    1. Ah – I didn’t realise the pomodoro/SUAW thing had this rule – I like :).

      And yeah – I’m a bit black-sheepy at the best of times but pure academic writing is completely counterintuitive to those of us raised on the research and production process in creative arts :).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *