Creative writing for social research

Helen Kara FAcSS has been an independent researcher since 1999 and an independent scholar since 2011.

She is the author of Creative Research Methods: A Practical Guide (Policy Press, 2nd edn 2020) and Research Ethics In The Real World: Euro-Western and Indigenous Perspectives (Policy Press, 2018).

Helen tweets from @DrHelenKara. ORCID: 0000-0001-7348-0963.


Image from the comic “Conversation with a purpose” | Concept and text by Helen Kara | Artwork by Sophie Jackson | Read about how this project happened.

On the 18th of July 2018, I got a message, through the contact form on my website, from Richard Phillips who had a University of Sheffield email address. The message was brief, and said: “Dear Helen, I would like to explore the possibility of involving you in a workshop on creative writing and social research, and have a budget for this. It would be great to hear from you and discuss. Thanks, Richard”.

I had never heard of Richard, but he had obviously heard of me. I don’t think he knew, though, that his message fell squarely into the category of “beyond my wildest dreams”. I don’t talk about it much online, but I have done quite a lot of creative writing in my time. I have sold stories for publication in magazines, and even had a novel published once (under a pseudonym and no, I’m not telling). I love creative writing, and use creative writing techniques when I teach my Creative and Productive Thesis Writing course, as well as in my own scholarly writing.

This post is an invitation to explore this mode of writing more in your research.

People don’t often see academic writing as ‘creative’.

Think about it, though: if you’re putting words together to make sentences, and sentences to make paragraphs, that have never been written before, that’s creative, right?

The techniques of fiction and non-fiction are not entirely separate. Good non-fiction requires good storytelling, just as much as good fiction. There is scope for academic writers to use storytelling techniques more often used by fiction writers, such as conflict, the creation of tension, and drama. A few writers know this already. One is Alice Dreger, the author of Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science, a fascinating book about the relationship between research and activism. Here is the very first paragraph:

Soon enough, I will get to the death threats, the sex charges, the alleged genocides, the epidemics, the alien abductees, the antilesbian drug, the unethical ethicists, the fight with Martina Navratilova, and of course, Galileo’s middle finger. But first I have to tell you a little bit about how I got into this mess. And explain why I think we now have a very dangerous situation on our hands.
(Dreger 2015:1)

That is a first paragraph that many published novelists would envy. Yet Dreger is writing, essentially, about research ethics – a topic usually regarded as tediously dry. All the ingredients are there: drama in abundance, conflict (with Martina Navratilova, no less), and tension. What is the mess she is in? What is the dangerous situation we have on our hands? As a reader, I have to know.

Of course, writing like this takes some skill, but it is a craft that can be taught and learned. Even small-scale techniques can have considerable impact. Here’s an example in another book about research ethics, Behind Closed Doors: IRBs and the Making of Ethical Research by Laura Stark, who did ethnographic research into institutional review boards (IRBs) and how they make decisions. The book is mostly written in a clear non-fiction style. The introductory chapter ends like this:

There is no dispute that the current research review system is flawed. On this everyone agrees: board members, administrators, and researchers. But the fact that IRBs provoke such heated debate is all the more reason to understand how these declarative bodies came into being and how they actually do their work. And so, on a dreary May afternoon, I stepped out of an elevator at Adams University Medical School, walked down a windowless corridor, and opened the conference room door where the IRB meeting was about to begin.
(Stark 2012:8)

In the last sentence, almost imperceptibly, Stark introduces sensory language to bring us with her as she steps out of an elevator and walks down a windowless corridor to observe her first IRB meeting. That is likely to evoke a memory for anyone who has also walked down a windowless corridor, as many of us have, and again it is very clever writing which makes the reader want to turn the page and find out what happens next.

Richard and I did run a workshop together, in Sheffield, over two days in November 2018. We invited all the people we knew who we thought would be interested. Most of them came, and most of those who couldn’t make it were regretful. We had a lot of fun and Richard and I ended up writing a book, Creative Writing for Social Research, which came out in January 2021. It includes 14 short creative contributions from some of the people who attended the workshop, including sports researchers, artists and makers, geographers, comics creators, education researchers, poets and animators. These contributions include, or are linked with, plays and poems, videos and comics, as well as stories in prose. The book’s companion website hosts complementary resources.

Our aim with the book is to show researchers some ways to use creative writing – and not only in your writing, because creative writing can help us to work with participants, generate and analyse data, as well as communicate findings.

There is so much scope for synergy between creative writing and social research. I am excited to see how this relationship develops over the coming years and decades.

9 comments

  1. Your approach excites me, is what I too do. I really want to get my hands on the book you and Richard have produced. I hope, though, that it doesn’t stop at creative writing and certainly doesn’t stop at theses. Not least there are research papers and articles to be included. But my big thing is introducing storytelling as the spoken word in, say, defences. In fact I will be producing a webinar soon on presentation at defence as a specific. Storytelling will be an element, together with explaining that seeing the presenter’s behind as he or she talks to a Powerpoint simply can never be interesting let alone captivating. Truthfully, it may well even be a very weak Powerpoint, but equally truthfully we will never know. Our vision consumed by that backside. Our thoughts therefore consumed with “I don’t know. This is a special occasion. He might have ironed those trousers”.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Mark, thank you – and yes, it doesn’t stop at theses or creative writing (we could fit a lot more into our book than I could fit into this blog post!). One of my arguments, in this book and others, is that storytelling underpins all of our writing, interactions, performances etc. If you want to tweet me the link to your webinar @DrHelenKara I’ll gladly retweet; I work with a lot of doctoral students and am in contact with a lot of supervisors too.

    Like

    • Good to hear on storytelling being so comprehensively treated. I am a total believer. I don’t find anything magical in the idea that people prefer to be interested, to get involved, than to be bored, for eyes to wander to mobile phones. If they do I know I’ve failed. We don’t yet have a firm date for our Webinar, but thank you so much for the offer to retweet. For sure we will avail.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for that, Helen. An interesting and challenging article. I tend to be simplistic about a lot. I proceed by thematic analysis. Presentation of participants is highly fragmented. Largely that very fragmentation provides anonymity. However total anonymity is questionable. There could be specific audiences that can penetrate the “impenetrable”, but those are unlikely to be academic audiences. Where I hit ethical issues is in the legitimacy of of pursuing what’s not said, its meaning and its presentation. I feel that what isn’t said is often considerably more important and enlightening than what is said, or am I just staring into my very own crystal ball?

    Liked by 1 person

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