Six Steps to an Original Contribution

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What is the Holy Grail for scholarly writing?  The Original Contribution.  How do you create an original contribution?  Through creative thinking.

Thinking creatively means that you get out of the old well-worn ruts as you look at facts, data, arguments, and theories, and see them from different perspectives.  You then become aware of previously hidden patterns and are able to identify new ideas, questions, problems, theories, models, and answers.

The work of Professor Theresa Amabile at Harvard Business School gives some strong evidence of how to increase your creativity.  She studied 12,000 people in seven different companies, having them fill out daily diaries of their activities, accomplishment, moods, emotions, and interactions with others. Here are six suggestions of how you can boost your creativity, the first five of which are based on her findings.

  1. Be clear about your own reasons for doing your work (this is called intrinsic motivation).  If you focus on extrinsic motivation, such as the competition, or the reward or recognition (or criticism) you will potentially get from the work, you will be less creative.For example, I recently helped a client realize that the best reason for her to complete her dissertation was to help her become strong enough to express her opinions without fear of what others would think.  This was more motivating to her than imagining how proud her parents would be when she earned her Ph.D.

    So focus inward, not outward.  Find your own reasons why you are jazzed to be doing your work, if you want to work creatively.

  2. Don’t expect to be most creative when you work close to a deadline.  Contrary to popular thinking (and even contrary to the belief of the people participating in Amabile’s studies), deadlines stifle creativity.  So those of you who are dependent on deadlines to force yourself to finish your writing projects are cheating yourself out of realizing your creative potential.
  3. Be happy.  I know; easy for me to say.  But the sad truth is that Amabile found that on a day-to-day basis, there was a negative correlation between fear, anxiety and sadness and creativity, In fact, she was able to show that creative days often came the day after a particularly happy day at work, as if associations are more likely to be percolating in the brain for hours after the work itself has ended.How to optimize your mood?  For academics, I believe that academic self-efficacy is important to enjoyment of your work, and therefore, for creativity.   Because I this is so central to satisfaction as an academic, I have structured our Academic Writing Club to help members achieve not just more writing, but a better attitude towards their work.  The progress questions in the daily log are oriented towards improving your mood and your sense of hopefulness in regards to your own work, in addition to providing structure, support and feedback.  The following quote from a member is representative of what we hear all the time in the Club:

    “I agree with you about how good it feels to work on your writing everyday and have that flow in thinking about a project. I was really lacking that before this writing club started, and the fact that I know I’m going to sit down and think about my ideas every day (if only for 20 minutes) has allowed me to feel really good about myself.”
    — ABD grad student

    Put another way, you might say “a productive writer equals a happy writer, and a happy writer equals a creative writer.”

  4. Share and collaborate.  Be prepared to debate your ideas and to take in the ideas of others.  A competitive mentality contributes to self-consiousness, anxiety and fear, and tends to shut down the creative parts of your brain.I would add to Amabile’s findings by suggesting that you talk about your ideas with people in other fields, or even those not in academia – the more off-the-wall their response is, the more it might trigger something new in your brain!  Many times, clients come up with new and creative ideas just by trying to explain their research to me, or by answering my naïve (but penetrating, searching, and highly intelligent) questions.
  5. Know that you can be creative.  Amabile’s studies, and others that I have read, show that anyone can be creative, if they remove the blocks to their creativity.  So be careful of the voice in your head saying “I just can’t think up an original idea.”  That voice is creating anxiety, which, as Amabile’s research has shown, is a creativity killer.  Creativity can be fostered, encouraged, and taught.
  6. Write in short, daily writing sessions.  This is my suggestion, but it fits so beautifully with Amabile’s research, that I couldn’t resist.  Short daily writing sessions should be the Holy Grail of the productive, creative academic writer.  That’s why they are the mainstay of our Academic Writing Club. They help you avoid writing to deadlines, increase your productivity and self-efficacy, and help you be more generative and creative.  Linda Naiman writes:Research has shown that in creativity quantity equals quality. The longer the list of ideas, the higher the quality the final solution. The highest quality ideas appear at the end of the list.

    Short, daily writing sessions will keep your work uppermost in your mind, even at an unconscious level, where your brain can work on it around the clock.  Frequent sessions will help you feel more positive about your work, and make it easier for you to share your work.

These comments from Academic Writing Club members illustrate many of these principles:

“I feel so good that I sat down to write and started thinking about ideas. I feel as if my brain is in gear and the ideas will continue to percolate after I stop working…it’s a good feeling.”
— ABD grad student

“Today, yet again I thought, NOW I’m really getting this, understanding why it is important to write 15 minutes (at least) each day. This keeps my topic more in the front of my brain, so that ideas can come to me all day.  ….And the beauty of it is, I don’t have to “get it,” or understand why/how it works, it (15 min sessions) just works, all I have to do is DO IT!”
— Grace Ann Rosile, Assistant Professor

In other words, build the time for writing, and the creativity will come.  Look for more about creativity in subsequent newsletters and on my blog!


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