In school, especially secondary education and then university, we chiefly learned what is called “academic writing”. This pertains to writing essays, term papers, reports, and even dissertations. iUniverse wishes to call attention to the fact that this approach to writing, while valid in many respects, can get in the way of writing a novel. Below, iUniverse offers some distinctions between academic and creative writing, and how to prevent academic writing from becoming an obstacle.
Word choice: academic writing focuses on semantic precision (like the phrase “semantic precision”!), while also disallowing the repetition of the same word. In short, it relies heavily on the use of synonyms. In creative writing, you need not constantly find a synonym for a word, nor need you use a high-level word when a simple word will suffice (as Stephen King has advised many times).
Grammar and Punctuation: Punctuation will always be important, as it is one of the keys to helping the reader understand what you want to say. There are exceptions, as in the poetry of e.e. cummings, but these are few. In short, you need to know how to use periods, quotation marks, etc in all types of writing. As far as grammar, however, creative writing does allow you to take a break from the need for constant complete sentences – especially with regard to dialogue. Of course, creative writing should generally adhere to rules of grammar, but this is not required 100% of the time. Academic writing rigidly does not permit it.
Content coherence and relevance: Finally, this is an area in which the two styles diverge significantly, and where those practicing creative writing need to put aside their academic training. School and university prepare us for academic writing, which requires every aspect of your piece to be totally relevant. Have you noticed, however, that academic writing involves much shorter pieces? Aside from textbooks, academic assignments tend to be anywhere from 5 paragraphs to 25,000 words – much shorter than the word count required for a novel. (We’ve discussed the latter in a previous post; a typical novel should be at least 80,000 words, or 200 pages.)
In all, an academic methodology slows down the writing process. It also dismisses almost everything as “irrelevant”. Let’s face it: in a book of 500 pages, is everything absolutely relevant to the plot? Probably not. Academic writing is totally lean; creative writing is a mixture of lean and fat – otherwise, quite frankly, it is difficult to reach the required lengths for a novel. Like it or not, quantity, not just quality, is important to a writer’s success. The sad truth is that volume is still a selling point for readers and publishers.
If you can’t think of anything particularly substantive to the plot, then include something that entertains. Novelists such as Cervantes and Dickens often inserted stand-alone stories that helped to fatten up their books. While this is no longer common, it is not uncommon for writers to insert a chapter that merely serves as entertainment, such as one that describes a short trip or incident.
In short: For novelists, reserve using your academic-writing experience for the Editing phase. During the Writing phase, ignore it as much as you can.