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Here is what makes some writing ‘world leading’

There is a wonderful scene in the film Amadeus that depicts Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart dictating, from his death bed, the words and music of his Requiem mass – a piece thought of as a requiem for the composer’s death which is now regarded as one of the greatest pieces of music ever written. Mozart dictates to the rival composer Salieri, who in equal measure admires and hates Mozart. A central theme of Peter Schaffer’s original play, which the film is based on, is the originality of genius versus “mediocrities everywhere”.

Building on my recent work on the philosophy and history of writing, I’ve been trying to work out what constitutes “world-leading” writing, and effective writing more generally. Over the past three years I’ve analysed interviews with the world’s greatest writers as well as examined renowned guides to writing styles and standards of language. I’ve also been studying young people’s creativity and writing. And, throughout my work, the composition of music has been compared with the composition of written text.

World leading is a big claim. Perhaps we would agree, just as the Nobel Prize committee did, that Peter Higgs’s and François Englert’s work in physics on the Higgs boson particle was world leading. How about Virginia Woolf’s contribution to literature? Or Andrew Wiles’s mathematical proof that solved the 300-year riddle of Fermat’s last theorem?

In addition to the work of people such as Mozart, Higgs/Englert, Woolf and Wiles, a sense of what is “world leading” is also fundamental to assessing research more generally. For example in the UK’s 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF) exercise, an assessment of research in all the UK’s universities that takes place every few years, 30% of research outputs across all academic disciplines were rated as world leading. These outputs included musical compositions and performances, artefacts and exhibitions, and, of course, journal articles, chapters and books. Across all these different outputs the most important criterion to demonstrate world-leading research quality was “originality”.

But what is originality? And how do people write something original?

How to be original

With regard to writing, one source of information about originality is in the words of world-leading writers themselves. For the Nobel Prize-winning author Ernest Hemingway, writing involved the creation of a whole new thing, a “birth” that – if it succeeded – would be immortal. Hemingway suggested that originality draws from things that already exist but also that the creation must be genuinely new, and even “alive”.

Originality is not just the preserve of fiction writers. The biographer Michael Holroyd said he disliked the “non” in non-fiction, preferring instead the descriptions “re-creative writing” or with an addition: “non-fiction stories”. Holroyd felt that there can be originality in the primary research that underpins an outstanding biography as well as the ways in which the story is ultimately told. Primary research is also part of the work of novelists. Marilyn Robinson’s first book, Housekeeping, was revered by critics. This success was achieved in part, according to Robinson, through careful scholarship including reading of primary historical sources.

Another source of information about originality can be found in psychological research on creativity. Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky saw originality emerging from particular kinds of thinking that combined unknown conditions with experiences recorded in memory. And psychologist Morris Stein’s definition of creativity included the idea that “the creative work is a novel work that is accepted as tenable or useful or satisfying by a group in some point in time”. So a feature of originality, in writing or other creative outputs, is that ultimately it can only be determined through the judgements of others.

A writerly ear

Comparison of musical composition with the composition of words can teach us more about writing. Melodies in music are like themes or lines of argument in writing. And musical metaphors are common in writers’ attempts to explain the more ethereal aspects of creativity. Jack Kerouac spoke of “blowing like the tenor man”, describing the improvisation of the saxophonist when playing jazz music, to elucidate his understanding of the improvisational qualities of fiction writing.

The ears and the mind engage with one another in the composition of music. This is also true of the composition of written text. My hypothesis, inspired by my research, is that the “the writer’s ear” is equally as important as that of the musician.

The writer’s ear explains the ability to “read like a writer”, which involves not only admiring writing, and engaging emotionally, but also perceiving the techniques that writers use. The ear of the writer is instrumental in the initial attention to a wide range of relevant sources for writing: for example the previous research in the field. This consideration of previous work is part of the writer’s drive for originality – the writer’s ear supports the selection of the original idea for research. The writer’s ear also ultimately attunes the rhythms of the specific written language, in a paper or book, that is also needed to convince people that the output is world leading.

But even those authors with a good ear for writing would never say the process is easy. When American novelist and essayist William Styron was asked if he enjoyed writing, he replied:

I certainly don’t. I get a fine, warm feeling when I’m doing well, but that pleasure is pretty much negated by the pain of getting started each day. Let’s face it, writing is hell.

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