Research is a process, writing is a craft (except when it’s a process)

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I have a note scribbled on a piece of scrap paper hanging on a bulletin board in my office. It says: “Research is a process, writing is a craft.”

When I wrote this note, I felt like I was having one of those exciting “a-ha!” moments. The trouble is, it’s been there since December and I still haven’t quite figured out yet where that “a-ha!” is supposed to take me. What does this mean for the work I’ve been doing trying to understand the role of research in creative writing?

Let’s see if we can come up with some ideas.


Writing as a process versus writing as a craft

If I had to say, the spark of this idea probably came from something I read in The English Department: A Personal and Institutional History by W. Ross Winterowd about the history of how English developed as an academic subject. In that book, Winterowd says, “In creative writing classes, students express their genius; in composition classes, they learn to manage the limited abilities they bring with them” (p. 67).  In other words: in composition classes, writing is a process. In creative writing classes, writing is a craft.

Processes have steps. The traditional steps of the writing process are prewriting, writing, revising, and editing. Students in composition classes learn to take their writing through these four steps while working in various genres and using various techniques which they’ve studied in the work of others. Though some students are more successful at this than others, you don’t necessarily need any special talent to do it.

Craft is more mysterious. In an essay called “Figuring the Future: Lore and/in Creative Writing,” Tim Mayers says that craft is “the faint gray area of overlap between genius and rhetoric” (p. 3) In what I’ve read about creative writing pedagogy, there seems to be some disagreement about whether craft can really be taught or whether it requires some kind of innate talent on the part of the writer. If it’s all innate talent, the purpose of a creative writing program isn’t so much to teach students how to write but instead identify the students who have that talent and help them hone their craft. This premise gets critically examined in the book that Mayers’s essay comes from, which is called Can It Really Be Taught?: Resisting Lore in Creative Writing Pedagogy.

So it seems like craft is the more artistic side of writing while process is the more functional side. Anyone can participate in the process of writing but only a privileged few can truly engage with the craft of writing.


Where research fits: process versus craft

Research is also a process. The traditional steps of research are outlined in the ACRL Standards. Basically, it starts with identifying a gap in knowledge, involves finding and evaluating information to fill that gap, and then ends with the ethical use of that information. While the Standards themselves are much more applicable to the academic research process, this general outline is flexible enough to fit here, though it does leave out some research contexts, like scientific research.

Anyway. Questions about the role of research in writing are usually about where research fits into the writing process. Most of the time, it’s treated as part of the prewriting stage. You’re gathering information to then write about. But really, it could come at any time.

Research is taught in composition classes because research is part of the writing process rather than part of the writing craft. Since creative writing classes focus on craft rather than process, they don’t discuss research.


The role of research in the craft of writing

This would all be well and good if all research processes looked the same. Unfortunately, they don’t. The research process that students learn in composition course probably shares some things in common with the process they would use for more creative purposes, but there are likely to be important differences, particularly in how creative writers use the information they find.

I would argue that the use of information, which is considered part of the research process, plays an important role in the craft of writing, whether you’re talking about creative writing or composition. How do you make decisions about what information to use and what information to ignore? How do you then incorporate that information into your writing, weaving it together with your own thinking?

We know how writers synthesize the information they find into a coherent argument as part of an academic paper or scholarly article because there are entire textbooks that explain what this looks like and how it’s done. But what about in a novel? If I want to, I can probably point to all kinds of details in the novels I read that are probably the result of research, like what Stephen King says about the taste of root beer in the 1960s in 11/22/63 (though to be fair, that might be based on his own memories) and what Diana Gabaldon says about the Native American culture her characters encounter in The Drums of Autumn. How do fiction writers weave this information into their work so that it can serve the plot in ways that seamlessly fit into the story they’re trying to tell?

This question seems especially important because so many of the creative writing how-to books I’ve read have been especially critical of writers who aren’t able to do this well, like Browne & King and their story of an aspiring writer who included an entire chapter in his novel about how different alarms function. Clearly, that author in question has been successful with the process of research but has not translated that success in such a way that is also successful in terms of craft.


The moral of the story

So I think what I’m getting at here is that research is generally viewed as part of the writing process, but not part of its craft. Yet there are aspects of research that are important if someone wants to be successful with the craft of writing. When it comes to creative writing, both of those ideas need to be talked about more because how the research process is carried out in creative contexts is likely to be much different from how it’s carried out in the academic contexts students generally learn about in composition courses.

I’m also tempted here to explore whether research could also be considered a craft. While anyone can perform the research process, it takes certain innate talent to be able to synthesize the information you find in a meaningful way.


Maybe a new idea to tack to my bulletin board.


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