Creative research: Resisting the urge to be prescriptive

Image by HeungSoon from Pixabay

There isn’t a lot of research out there that investigates the information-seeking habits of writers and other artists but there’s something peculiar about the literature I am finding, especially the stuff that comes from the library and information science field. In a lot of cases, it seems like researchers who are interested in understanding how creative people do research are less interested in the role that research plays in the creative process than they are about the role the library plays in the creative process. Basically, there’s an assumption that the library is a necessary or appropriate component of this type of research. Or if it’s not, that it should be.

Respectfully, I disagree. I say this as a librarian.

Creative research is not academic research

I’ve mentioned before that research is contextual by nature. The search strategies you try, the types of sources that are considered appropriate, and how you use the information you find are going to be different depending on the goals and motivations of your research.

Academic research, for example, is research that students generally undertake as part of a course assignment. How exactly it works is going to depend on the discipline, but in general there’s some kind of assigned research topic, a search for scholarly sources to help build an argument, then a list of citations for those sources. This is the type of research that academic libraries best support with their databases of scholarly information, shelves of scholarly books, and tutorials on how to avoid plagiarism.

What exactly creative research looks like is something of a mystery because investigations of it are so few and far between and because even on occasions when writers do talk about research they’ve done, they don’t necessarily include any information on how they did that research. I’m sure that in some cases, creative research does involve the use of a library’s resources. But it could also involve an archive. Or a Google search. Or an interview with an expert, as when Stephen King did a ridealong with state police to learn about police work when he was writing From a Buick Eight or Anne Lamott called a local vineyard to find out the proper name of the “wire thing” on a bottle of wine for a story she was writing. The library could be a part of the creative research process, but it’s a mistake to think that it should be or that it has to be.

Librarians like standards

The thing is, librarians like standards. The ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards attempted distill the research process into a series of basic parts which also happened to codify the library’s role in that process. These standards were essentially created as a way for librarians to carve a place for ourselves in the landscape of higher education.

For a long time, these standards were a useful teaching tool. They provided us with a way to not only teach research, whether in the classroom or at the reference desk, but also to assess users’ research skills. This gave us fodder we could use in the never-ending battle to prove the library’s value to its institution and thus secure its continued existence.

But, to paraphrase Robert J. Connors, standards are more of a convenience of the instructor than a reflection of how research actually works. The fact that we’ve moved on from the Standards to the Framework shows that librarians are beginning to understand this. But even as we’re breaking free from our own limited view of research, we’re still trapped by an instinct to be prescriptive.

Descriptive versus prescriptive

Descriptive is when someone describes to you how they do something. Prescriptive is when you tell them how they should do it. The ACRL Standards were prescriptive when it came to research. The Framework is less so but still includes a lot of statements that imply that there are certain behaviors, mostly those associated with academic or scholarly research, that constitute research expertise.

When it comes to research on the information habits of writers and artists, what I’ve found so far is mainly descriptive. The researchers want to understand what types of sources these populations use and, generally speaking, what they use them for. But underneath the descriptiveness is a desire to identify what these research processes have in common. To distill them down into a series of basic parts so we can better understand how to meet the information needs of these populations, with the implication that if they aren’t already using the library, they should be.

Distilling the creative research process down into a single, basic process would have its advantages. For one thing, it would make creative research easier to incorporate into creative writing instruction. Standards, after all, can be a handy teaching tool.

But, as we’ve already established, attempting to standardize the research process in any form is folly at best and it would especially be so in the case of creative research because, I suspect, while there are certainly aspects of that process that different writers or artists will have in common, the exact methods are likely to be highly individualized and idiosyncratic by nature. This is actually true of all research, but I would bet that it’s even more true of creative research.

So trying to understand creative research as a standardized process would seem to be largely futile but also dangerous because research, like the act of writing, can be highly creative no matter who is doing it or what they’re doing it for. Standardization inevitably robs it of that magic.


The point of talking about creative research shouldn’t be to tell people how they should do it

All of this to say that my interest in understanding the role of research in creative writing isn’t necessarily to create some kind of standardized “how to” or a manifesto on “how creative writing research works.” I’m really just interested in learning more about that aspect of the creative writing process and also intrigued (and occasionally annoyed) by the fact that it doesn’t get more attention. I think writers need to share stories about this aspect of their work more. What matters isn’t so much how they do research (though that’s useful to know, too) but rather that they’re open about the fact that they do, in fact, do research.

Because it’s important, I think, for aspiring writers to know that in order to be successful, you don’t need to be in possession of some special genius that makes it so you never encounter a gap in knowledge or, if you do, endows you with a magical ability to use imagination alone to fill that gap. Even the best writers have to look stuff up sometimes. Hell, even Shakespeare probably had to do research. Writing is as much an opportunity to learn as it is to show what you already know.

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