The art of academic writing
Compares academic writing to various art forms: sculpting, drawing, painting, making music, and acting
Artist: Jos Harzing, Title: Mother with children and dog, Material: Polyester, Year: 1963, Location: Station restaurant Driebergen-Zeist
*Both authors contributed equally
© Copyright 2022-2023 Anne-Wil Harzing and Christa Sathish. All rights reserved.
First version, 5 September 2023
Table of contents
Writing is an art form, but can the same be said of academic writing? Academics certainly share some traits with artists. In this video on why academia can still be a great career, Anne-Wil compared academics and artists in terms of careers. In this white paper, however, we argue that there may also be similarities between academics and artists in day-to-day work practices.
We provide five different perspectives on academic writing: writing as sculpting (by reduction or by augmentation), writing as drawing (sketching and landscape drawing), writing as painting, writing as playing a musical instrument, and writing as acting (both theatre and movie acting). We find that each analogy provides us with a useful lens on academic writing as a process and/or as a product.
Finally, we conclude that academics might be more content with their chosen careers if they were able to re-focus on academic writing as a form of artistic expression and academic passion rather than as a simple "box-ticking" exercise for their CV.
Sculpting is the process of creating three-dimensional objects – representing things, people or ideas – by carving, forming, and modifying materials. Although sculpting is often thought of as stone carving, reminiscent of classical Greek and Roman statues, a wide range of raw materials can be used: clay, wood, plaster, metal (typically bronze), as well as many different types of stone. Below are some examples of Jos Harzing’s work in all these materials. Sculpting can be done by gradually reducing the raw material or by building up the raw material.
When working in wood or stone, the sculpturer typically starts with a rough lump of material and needs to gradually remove the excess material to form the sculpture. The first cuts will be rough cuts, with increasingly fine work needed to carve out the shape and then "polish the sculpture to perfection". This polishing is sometimes taken literally. The alabaster sculpture below for instance is highly polished, making the surface shine. At other times, it simply means to continue improving the sculpture until it is perfect.
Sculptures are often carefully planned, especially if they are commissioned. However, sculpturers can also get inspired by a beautiful piece of material and "see" a shape struggling to get out of the material. Or they might simply "discover" the final shape through working.
Academic writing – especially in the Social Sciences – shares many similarities with this process. This is true for both empirical and conceptual papers. After conducting empirical research and immersing themselves in the data, academics may suddenly "see the story" that the data is telling in the mass of raw material. This is especially true for qualitative research. Oftentimes, however, we only discover the story after we have started writing. It is the act of writing that allows the story to emerge, just like the sculpturer discovers the final shape through immersion in the process of sculpting. This is quite common in conceptual work.
The rough cut and polishing aspects of sculpting are clearly present in academic writing too. The first version of an academic paper typically contains rough ideas that still need refining, often through presenting the paper at academic conferences and seminars. Once a "final" version of the paper is ready, there is a lot of polishing to be done. Especially when writing for top journals that desk-reject most of the papers submitted, academics might go through many rounds of editing to polish their paper to perfection.
Sculptures can also be built up from scratch. In most cases, the artist will first create a frame to work on, and then gradually adds material until the final form has been reached. A sculpture can be built up in a variety of materials, but usally clay or wax is used. When working in clay the sculpture is kept moist until the final form has been reached and is then allowed to harden, usually using a baking process.
The creation of bronze and plaster sculptures involves first building the sculpture up in wax or clay. Then a mould is created around it and the plaster or hot metal is poured into this mould. After that, the plaster and bronze sculptures will still need work to remove excess material and polish.
Academic writing is often done in an additive way too, building up the article or book bit by bit, after first creating a frame for the article. In article writing, many academics have a favourite section they like to use as the start their writing process. For many this is the findings or methods section. These sections are usually quite straightforward to write and can help us to "ease into" the writing.
For others it may be the literature review section as this clarifies how to position the rest of the paper within the current academic conversations. Yet other academics may start with the abstract and introduction as they typically provide a mini-overview of the paper. The discussion and conclusion section are usually left till last. However, just like sculpturers academics writers typically plan out their article out before they start. We’ll talk more about this in the drawing section.
Where writing is different from sculpting is in its continued ability to change the object. In the process of sculpting by reduction one cannot re-add material that has been cut away. It is not a coincidence that people use the expression “this is [not] set in stone”; it signifies that change is no longer possible. In academic writing – especially since the age of computers – cutting and pasting is trivial. Many of us keep a file with "off-cuts" that may be re-integrated in the main paper, sometimes during the revise & resubmit process. At other times these "off-cuts" might be the seed of a new paper.
When engaging in sculpting by augmentation you can continue to shape the sculpture in any way you want; clay and wax remain malleable. However, once the clay has been baked in the oven, or the bronze is casted, changes are no longer possible. Once could argue the same is true for published journal articles, i.e. academic writing is changeable until the article is officially published. After publication, it is "set in stone" in the printed pages of a journal.
Like sculpting drawing is a visual art. It comprises multiple styles, instruments and materials. In the context of academic writing, we feel sketching and drawing a landscape are closest to how we experience academic writing.
Nila Sathish: Sketch Fun (2023, 2019)
Sketch writing is what many of us do when we are writing articles and are stuck, or when we have sudden ideas. This white paper started out as a piece of sketch writing. Similar to an artist, who uses rough outlines, different perspectives, different angles, shades and light, sketch writing involves drafting basic shapes and forms of writing ideas, which may add to the final "artwork". These are ideas that appear important but are not refined enough to be integrated into our main writing.
Sketching the ideas helps you to focus on your main work without deviating and integrating unnecessary topics. We typically start with loose ideas, using bullet points in a blank Word document or a separate section of a related document. Sometimes we create figures, tables or flowcharts. It is also possible to sketch write with pen and paper. Like artists, we have to choose the materials and tools that feel right at the time.
Refining involves a process of developing, adding to, and correcting sketched ideas. It may also mean discarding sketches that on second thought are not promising enough. Although sketch notes are developed consciously, the refining process is spontaneous and there is no timeline. You may not refine any sketches for a long time but then, similar to an artist, you can open "the book" and work on them intensively for a while.
Refining sketch notes during a writing day can lead to useful contributions for the main article, future research projects, white papers (like this one) or blog posts. Like artists who collect and store their sketches in books and journals, academics typically gather their useful writing sketches in a separate computer folder. Anne-Wil has a blog + books ideas folder on her desktop, which means it is easily accessible when inspiration strikes.
Starting from the basic shapes and background and moving towards the foreground and details, the process of landscape drawing is like a funnel. Similar to landscape artists choosing a scenery/idea, scholarly writing begins with careful decision-making about the topic, identification of the conversants (e.g., audience and scholars) and target journal. The first step in landscape drawing is to draw basic shapes. In scholarly writing, this step reflects the need to choose a title and drafting of a first abstract.
Nila Sathish (7yrs): From sketching and drawing to painting a landscape (June, 2023)
We can also develop an outline comprising the headings and key points of each section. The outline provides us with the logic and basic "shape" of our written work. This is comparable to a landscape artist who first outlines the basic ideas, shapes, and scenes. They can then add more details and ideas without needing to think about the "basics".
However, these ideas may change, and the artist may decide to work with different tools and colours during the drawing process. Similarly, as academic writers we may also change our ideas and approaches during our writing process. Nevertheless, the outline provides both the artist and scholarly writer with a "skeleton" that supports our and others' understanding.
The landscape artist is required to spot and record silhouettes and shapes that "stand out" in the drawing. Similarly, as scholars, we have to spot opportunities and emphasise how our research is different, enabling us to contribute to both theory and practice. We can use this "background" to guide our writing, as it helps us to create focus when attempting to participate in the conversation with other academics.
Like the landscape artist, we are working from the background to the foreground. Drawing and writing are both iterative processes that require multiple revisions and re-drafting of content. Drawing landscapes involves the constant comparison of tones and colours, with the aim of matching both the environment and the vision of the piece of art.
During the crafting of our academic writing, we also have a vision of the "bigger picture". We know the ultimate contribution we want to make and continuously add detail to our paragraphs and sections. Sometimes, we take a step back (e.g., a break) to think and look at our work with fresh eyes. While writing we also compare and contrast our work with others, and we need to make sure that our work communicates with our conversants. Just like the landscape artist, we have to find the right "tone" when communicating with the conversants in our target journal.
Nila Sathish (7yrs): Line drawing a landscape (September 2023)
The landscape artist may use the visual of the real-life scenery to support the "correctness" of colours and tones. As academic writers, we often use exemplars to learn how to tune and perfect our writing voice. Doing so may require multiple attempts and continuous refinements over several weeks or months. While landscape artists focus on one piece of scenery, as academic writers we have to focus on multiple conversants and our environment can be quite diverse.
Our initial outline supports our understanding of our writing "landscape". Once we have completed our first draft, we have reached the end of the landscape drawing "funnel", and our work comprises both background and details. Now, like the landscape artist, we have to go back to the beginning and inspect our writing. We go back to the background, moving slowly towards the foreground and continuously revise, refine and edit our writing until we arrive at our final manuscript.
When seeing academic writing as painting, the artist has the flexibility to use multiple layers to correct or touch up until the outcome is satisfactory. This flexibility to change and perfect is a core part of the textual iterations of academic writing. However, in this white paper we focus mostly on comparing the different styles of painting to academic writing. Every painter may have their own preferred style. Although there are many different classifications of painting styles they generally run from abstract to (photo) realism, with schools such as impressionism and expressionism falling in between these extremes.
Nila Sathish (left): Dinosaur footprints on a rainbow (January 2023); Suriyan Sathish (right): It’s a square life (June 2022)
There is a major difference between an abstract style, which is freestyle and based on imagination without borders, and (photo)realism where the artist attempts to capture a precise replica of a person or object. In academic writing, taking an abstract approach is less appropriate for producing journal articles or theses to the required standard. Abstract painting may have its parallel in free-style writing, journaling, or blogging, but most academic writing follows a certain structure based on the expectations of reviewers or examiners.
In contrast, (photo)realism is informed by predetermined knowledge of the required structure of a certain person or object. There is planning involved and a certain degree of research is needed about the size of the canvas, colour tones, material, and tools to reach the desired level of precision in the final painting.
(Photo)realism may be more closely related to academic writing. As academics we plan what we write based on the research we have conducted and the knowledge we have acquired. We review the literature, describe and justify our methodologies, precisely document our findings, and elaborate on these findings in the discussion. The knowledge we present is set within the context of specific literature that was chosen for its suitability to craft the final writing product.
Nila Sathish (5yrs): Zog (2021)
If academic writing would resemble an abstract painting, the context might get lost over time and the perception of the finished project might deviate from the initial goal of the piece of writing. But although the main academic writing process might be more closely related to (photo)realism, as academics we may add some abstract expression in our writing style and the language we use. For example, we may craft titles that stand out from the crowd (see also Your title: the public face of your paper).
Sculpting, drawing, and painting are largely individual pursuits, just like academic writing traditionally was in many disciplines. However, academic writing is increasingly a team effort. Hence, analogies with the performing arts such as acting, dance, and music (including singing) might be more appropriate. In this white paper, we focus on playing a musical instrument and acting.
However, other forms of performing art can be used to elucidate co-authorship arrangements. In opera and dance, there is usually a "prima donna" or "prima ballerina", the leading lady. In its benign form, this can be interpreted as being the lead author on an academic piece of writing. However, it can also take on a less positive notion, where prima donna refers to “someone behaving in a demanding, often temperamental fashion, revealing an inflated view of themselves, their talent, and their importance” (Wikipedia). Most of us can readily name academics falling in this category :-).
Nila Sathish: Piano (2022)
Like any other art, music is associated with passion, enthusiasm, and deep emotional experiences. If we decide to learn playing a musical instrument, it is most likely because we desire to experience and learn something new. We don’t know how to play an instrument, such as a guitar or piano, when we try it for the first time. Therefore, we usually need assistance from a tutor or a mentor who demonstrates how the instrument works. Learning to play an instrument is a gradual process. We often work with "exemplars" and are likely to be evaluated by tutors and assessors.
This is comparable with learning how to publish your first (single-authored) article as an academic. Even though it is something we might passionately like to achieve, we do not know how it works when starting to write our first, or even second or third draft. Just like playing an instrument for the first time, it takes courage and willpower to start (single) authoring your first article. Using exemplars and modelling your writing on other articles are powerful tools to support the development of your writing. Learning how to play an instrument may include the attendance of music lessons. As academics we may also engage with guidance material (e.g., books, articles, courses) or have mentors who critically review and support our writing and provide us with constructive feedback.
The process of learning to play an instrument requires resilience and continuous improvement. Repeated practice is crucial to mastering any musical instrument and it involves self-discipline. A simple music scale may be practised and repeated for hours or even days until perfection is reached. The same applies to academic writing. We may have to revise and refine a single sentence or paragraph multiple times. Sometimes, we even have to re-start from scratch. As academics, we have to be resilient and accept the need to continuously improve our writing until we reach the point where we are satisfied with its level, and are ready for "auditioning".
Having learned how to play our instrument, we may audition for a band, concert, or competition. "Auditioning" is comparable with the submission of our manuscript to a target journal and waiting for the decision. Our work may be desk-rejected, or rejected after review, and our audition may be unsuccessful. We, therefore, have to be well prepared for our "performance".
Practising our music pieces and writing for a top journal requires stamina, enthusiasm, and willpower. We may train and improve our skills until minutes before the performance takes place. Arranging a mini audience of friends or family who provide last-minute advice may also be part of the process. We can take a similar approach in our academic writing and let a friendly reviewer, friend or colleague read our manuscript one last time before our submission.
Playing an instrument involves a deep connection with the music and evokes emotional experiences. While we are playing a musical instrument our body and mind are fully connected and act in sync with the music. Comparable with theatre acting, the musical performance involves the telling of a story. It is socially constructed and there is a connection between the musician, the audience, and the stage. While we are performing, we can adjust our actions and make small changes.
As an academic writer, our manuscript tells our story to the editor and reviewers in the first instance. If our submission survives the desk reject stage we will be provided with reviews, which provide a (subjective) assessment of our performance. This differs from a music performance, because once we have auditioned for the target journal, our performance cannot be amended until the revision stage.
We are performing our writing before the audition, i.e. during the learning and preparation stages. During the preparation stage, we develop an emotional connection with our writing, and we are likely to involve other people (such as friendly reviewers, tutors, or mentors). Therefore, our work is also socially constructed.
Finally, music also provides a very good illustration of the many different types of academic authorship arrangements: vocal or instrumental soloists (single-authored papers), soloists vocals accompanied by a supporting instrument (PhD student or ECR supported by a supervisor/senior academic), an ensemble (a small group of co-authors working as equals) or an orchestra with a leading soloist and a conductor (a very large consortium of co-authors contributing only a small part each, with one or a few core authors leading and coordinating the entire research project).
Acting comes in many shapes and forms. In this white paper we focus on theatre acting and movie acting. Acting for TV or commercials might provide alternative analogies.
When comparing academic writing to theatre, the dramatic structure outlined in Freytag’s pyramid is useful. This pyramid comprises seven elements: exposition (setting the scene), inciting incident (reaction to the occasion that occurred at the start), rising action (build-up), climax (the top, greatest tension), falling action (shift of story after climax, reversal), resolution (problem-solving) and denouement (happy or dark ending).
In the same way that Freytag’s pyramid explains the flow of a story, academic writing follows its own structure that depends on the specific piece of writing. In article writing the scene is set in the introduction and literature review, the inciting incident may be interpreted as the research puzzle/gap the researcher has identified, the rising acting would be represented by the hypotheses or research questions, with the climax formed by the main findings. Subsidiary findings or robustness checks (in quantitative research) can be seen as the falling actions, with the resolution and denouement taking place in the discussion and conclusion (See also this video on storytelling in academic writing).
We can also compare script-based and improvised acting. In stage acting performers often engage in substantial individual expression; the individuality of the actor is always part of the act of acting. Whilst there is nearly always a script and a director, there is also an opportunity for individual performers to improvise and interpret even classic scripts differently (e.g. Shakespeare performances). Once actors have learned the script and no longer need it to perform the play, they will add their improvised touches to their role. This improvisation may even differ from performance to performance.
As academics we also work with our own individuality. Although we do follow certain "scripts" in our writing, the writing process is always influenced by who we are, our historicity, the places where we are located (perhaps different countries), and our personality type. Even though we are all individuals, writing like playing theatre can be likened to working with a group of colleagues, bouncing off each other and learning from each other, improving our performance with every new iteration, just like it does for actors in play rehearsals.
Writing can also be seen as movie acting, where every actor just comes in to do "their bit". Filming often happens in a disjointed order and actors may even not know how their performance fits within the overall scheme of things (the finished movie). These days many articles seem to end up more like a movie too: everyone just turns up briefly and does "their bit" (writing the methods, the findings, the theory, or even collecting some of the data and providing the funding) without clearly seeing how it contributes to the end product (the final article).
Most movies have a clear hierarchy in which the lead actor(s) get(s) huge billing in the movie credits and in the movie publicity. In academic writing, authorship positions are used to signify different contributions. The first author position usually implies the person with the biggest contribution. In laboratory-based disciplines, the last author position typically signifies the leader of the laboratory. However, disciplines differ considerably in their traditions – some disciplines even use an alphabetical order of authors – and the hierarchy is not as structured as in the movies.
In addition to the lead authors, academic writing also has its share of bigger and smaller supporting roles. Some supporting roles can be very small indeed, involving collaborators who only contribute a tiny part to a big project. For instance, in the Medical Sciences and Astrophysics, articles might have a team of hundreds or even thousands of collaborators. Interestingly though, in academic writing these contributors are typicallly acknowledged at nearly the same level as the lead actors in that they are all mentioned as co-authors.
Beyond the lead and supporting roles, many movies also feature a big group of unnamed actors: the extras. Extras are recruited for crowd scenes or small walk-on parts without text. They are usually not billed in the movie credits at all. Academic writing also has its extras, academics working in the background to keep the research project on track, such as laboratory technicians and software writers. Even though they are essential to the end product, they rarely even make to an official acknowledgement in the paper.
And then of course there are the movie megastars who only get asked for their brand name/fame. They are a drawcard for the audience, but often act like prima donnas, turn up late or unprepared, and – in some cases – are really "past it". I am sure you know some big-name academic writers who fit this description!
The megastar’s name is added to academic articles because the other authors believe that this star's fame will make it easier to get the article published. But these megastars often refuse to do any significant work. In some cases that might even be a blessing in disguise as their knowledge might be so outdated that their contribution hinders rather than helps. Even more so than actors, academics need to understand when it is their time to step back and let others shine!
We can take the analogy between artists and academic writers even further. First, both artists and academics have been known to steal each other’s work. We just have different words for it: forgery vs. plagiarism. Interestingly, whilst some artists have been jailed for forgery, we are not aware of any academics suffering the same faith, though some have been fired from their jobs. Maybe that’s because forging artists copy someone else’s work wholesale and then try to pass it off as the original artist’s work, whereas academics typically plagiarise only parts of their work and try to pass it off as their own.
We can also distinguish different types of artists and academic writers. There are those who mainly see their activity as "work" that they simply have to do for a living, to keep their job, get promotion, or become famous. And then there are those that see it as a realisation of their "creative passion". We typically have a more idealistic view of artists than of academics. In reality, however, both groups often have to compromise, even if they would prefer to work out of pure creative passion.
Jos Harzing teaching children in a community arts centre (1975)
Many artists take on commissioned work that might not exactly set them on fire. They do it just to "pay the rent". Many academics publish work that doesn’t excite them (anymore) just to get their line managers of their backs. Both artists and academics might use this to "buy time" to work on projects they are really passionate about. Moreover, both artists and academic writers are likely to spend part of their time on other activities such as teaching (see picture above), something they may variously see as invigorating, be indifferent about, or may thoroughly dislike.
Both artists and academic writers are also likely to see other people profit from their creative work. For artists, this may be gallery owners or agents taking a huge chunk of the selling price of their artwork. For academics, it is publishers who get our academic writing for free and subsequently make huge profits out of it by selling our work back to us at inflated prices.
Finally, as their work is their passion, artists often work until well beyond the official "retirement age". Many theatre artists have been known to "die in their harness". Unless arthritis sets in, drawing and painting can be done until an advanced age too, as can singing and playing an musical instrument. Sculpting is a little more physical. Even so, after his retirement from teaching Jos Harzing still worked on his sculptures once a week (see pictures below). He had his last exhibition in the year he turned eighty, more than seventy years after he made his first sculptures.
Jos Harzing working on a piece for his last exhibition (2012)
Similarly, many academics like their research and writing so much that they continue to do some form of paid work until their early or mid-seventies. Some continue for much longer, either in part-time positions or as emeritus professor. In fact, because they can give up teaching and administration after their official retirement, some academics become even more productive in their creative endeavours. Others spend the final decades of their lives mentoring and advising the next generation of academic writers.
There are many similarities between academic writers and artists, both in terms of their career (see video below) and in terms of their day-to-day work practices. Some of us might be drawn to the analogy of academic writing as sculpting, whereas others prefer to see it as drawing or painting, or feel attracted to the more collaborative notion of writing as expressed in the performing arts analogies.
Whatever the analogy used, we encourage all academic writers to see our writing not as "tick boxes" on our CVs, but as an art form expressing our academic creativity and passion. Doing so ensures our writing brings joy to our professional and personal lives and makes a positive contribution to the world around us.
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- How to get promoted in academia?
- Transforming academia
- The Academic Woman Interview (3): Research culture
- What are your current passions and interests?
- This little girl: message to my younger self
- How to prevent burn-out? About staying sane in academia
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Copyright © 2023 Anne-Wil Harzing. All rights reserved. Page last modified on Sun 10 Sep 2023 17:06
Anne-Wil Harzing is Professor of International Management at Middlesex University, London and visiting professor of International Management at Tilburg University. She is a Fellow of the Academy of International Business, a select group of distinguished AIB members who are recognized for their outstanding contributions to the scholarly development of the field of international business. In addition to her academic duties, she also maintains the Journal Quality List and is the driving force behind the popular Publish or Perish software program.