The creative and the critical

By Professor Debra Myhill, Director of the Centre for Research in Writing, Pro-Vice Chancellor and Executive Dean, The University of Exeter

Children’s author, Tim Bowler, once wrote:

Why is writing so tricky? Because it requires mastery of two conflicting skills: a creative skill and a critical skill. The former is of the imagination, the latter of the intellect, and they come from different brain hemispheres. To write well, we have to employ both to maximum effect.

I have always used this quotation with my PGCE group in our own ‘Teachers as Writers’ session, because it sums up so aptly an essential point about writing – that writing demands both creativity and criticality.  The experience of working on this Teachers as Writers project has only reinforced this.  The Arvon residential lives and breathes this combination, with workshop sessions which give free rein to the imagination and tutorial sessions which bring in a critical eye and ear.  The professional writers working with our teachers frequently refer to both in their interviews, particularly in their emphasis on allowing time and space early on in the writing of a piece and their parallel emphasis on the central importance of revision.  Yet I am not sure that within the teaching profession we have fully thought through what this means at classroom level.  Sometimes creative writing is viewed rather romantically as the point where, in true sixties hippy-style we let it all hang out, in contrast to the emphasis elsewhere in the writing curriculum on getting it right and bringing in the critical hammer.  This misses the point that creative writing needs the critical touch but also, I think, that all writing, including arguments, persuasion, explanations benefit from creative space to generate and develop ideas, before the critical is brought into play.  Unwittingly, I think, we choose to position the creative and the critical as polar opposites rather than as the yin and yang of writing.

This was brought home to me recently at the Teachers as Writers dissemination event in London, attended by arts organisations, teachers, writers and educational groups.  Firstly, there was the surprise expressed by some that I was involved with this project at all: after all, I am known for my research on grammar and what could encapsulate the creative-critical binary better than creative writing and grammar!    For me, however, the two have always been intrinsically aligned, inseparable bedfellows.  My interest in grammar is not in the naming of parts, grammar exercises or correcting grammatical errors – rather it is in developing a feel for how language works through explicitly looking at the choices real world writers make and giving young writers understanding of the variety of choices available to them.  It is about opening up a repertoire of infinite possibilities, informed by writer choice and writer intention, not closing down writing to a set of formulaic checklists or prescriptions. The second thing that foregrounded my thinking about the creative and the critical was in the group discussion.  At one point, a teacher in the group was contrasting the richness of the Arvon experience with school where she had to concentrate on boring things like punctuation.  A professional writer in the group jumped in at this point and explained how much time he spent looking at the punctuation in his writing, deciding how best to punctuate it to help his reader read the piece as he wanted them to read it.   A perfect example of being critical.

All of this has made me re-think Tim Bowler’s distinction between the creative and the critical, and the idea that they are conflicting skills.  Perhaps being critical is part of being creative, rather than counter to it?  After all, an artist has to have the creative imagination to envision a painting and the critical skills to alter colours and shades subtly to realise that vision; a musician has to have the creative imagination to hear the possibilities of interpretation in a piece of music and the critical skills of hearing if they are out of tune or playing the wrong rhythm.  What I think Tim Bowler captures beautifully is that writing must embrace both the free flight of the imagination and the sharp edge of critical engagement.

Professor Debra Myhill
Director of the Centre for Research in Writing, Pro-Vice Chancellor and Executive Dean
The University of Exeter


The Teachers as Writers research findings can be downloaded here.

One thought on “The creative and the critical”

  1. Thanks for drawing attention to Tim Bowler’s distinction between craft and creativity. It’s absolutely right – and anyone who’s ever learned to play music knows that you need your clefs, and bar lines, and phrases, and dynamics to make notes come alive. Punctuation is about rhythm, and grammar is about coherence. Could it be that because it’s taught as a separate subject the connection isn’t sufficiently made? Which takes me back to the need to read; read those who know how to do it. Nothing is more thrilling than prose that leaps rhythmically from the page.

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