What keeps readers of academic writing engaged? We have all likely yawned our way through research reports, or worse — stopped reading altogether. Since time is limited and attention spans are getting shorter, academic writers must be able to attract and retain a hold on their readers’ attention if their work has to have any impact. But how might we do this? Ronald Pelias’ recently published book, The creative qualitative researcher: Writing that makes readers want to read (2019) speaks to this issue directly, offering numerous strategies to practice and implement in our writing.
As can be seen from the titles of Pelias’ prior books, his work has focused on performative and autoethnographic writing. His other books include Writing performance : Poeticizing the researcher’s body (1999), A methodology of the heart : Evoking academic and daily life (2004), Leaning: A poetics of personal relations (2011), Performance : An alphabet of performative writing (Pelias, 2014), If the truth be told : Accounts in literary forms (2016). Pelias is well-equipped, then, to write a book that provides resources for scholars who would like to take advantage of non-traditional forms of scholarly writing.
The book is organized in two parts: Part 1: Qualitative Methods, and Part 2: Qualitative Writing Strategies. Part 1 includes chapters on four forms of non-traditional writing: autoethnography, performative writing, narrative inquiry, and poetic inquiry. Drawing examples from earlier work, along with new writing, each chapter provides numerous illustrations of what these forms of writing look like. Each chapter concludes with writing prompts in order to practice creative writing strategies, making the book an excellent resource for either the “lone navigator” (Le Guin, 1998) wanting to explore various forms of writing, members of writing groups, or for class use. The text provides plenty of ideas for instructors that could be incorporated into courses on qualitative research methods in addition to specific writing courses.
Part 2 of the book examines empathy and ethics, language and structure, citation practices, and finally, collaborative improvisation. In the chapter on language and structure, Pelias writes a second person account of the reviewer’s work. This was an excellent model of how fiction can convey the “truths” that speak to our everyday lives – I recognized all the steps described in this vignette and empathized with the reviewer’s task in responding respectfully to another author. After this vignette, Pelias describes how he wrote and revised this particular piece. This provides insight into the processes of writing and revision inherent in good writing that is typically obscured in published work. I was also drawn to the chapter on citation, since it offers alternative ways to make use of others’ work. Here, Pelias (pp. 172-173) begins by outlining four traditional approaches to citation (in the literature review to provide context for justifying research questions, to support one’s own claims, to mark disagreement with others’ claims, and in epigraphs). He then provides alternative practices of citation. As but one example, he calls on scholars to revisit their own work:
Return to a piece you have written and find some claim you now believe would benefit from revision. Rewrite your words and tell the story of why you want to change what you’ve written (p. 177).
I suspect we all have writing that could do with some of this sort of revision!
In the final chapter Pelias addresses the issue that many writers experience if not fear — that is, times when they are:
…blocked, frozen by the blank screen before them; they may have written themselves into a conundrum they cannot solve; or they may feel frustrated, knowing that what they have just written is not quite right but unsure how to fix it (p. 180).
Whereas other books on writing usually rely on free-writing strategies to come unstuck, here Pelias draws on his long career in performance studies to provide techniques and prompts for collaborative improvisation. These take in the bodily movement and gesture and encompass all parts of a research project from locating a project to editing. Writers can work with colleagues on the improvisational techniques, or explore these on their own. These strategies were new to me and made me further appreciate the benefits of interdisciplinary dialogue that is characteristic of the field of qualitative research methods.
Throughout the book, Pelias provides thoughtful advice and playful strategies to explore: all in a way that is empathetic, sensitive, and draws the reader in. This is an easy book to read; although it’s practical value will be missed if readers don’t also experiment with the prompts. (I confess that this is still on my “to do” list.) Pelias also offers good advice, some of which we already know. For example, it bears repeating that: “the only imperative you must follow if you want to be a writer: write” (Pelias, 2019, p. 150). For those unsure of where to start, for anyone wanting to experiment with new writing strategies, or for teachers of qualitative research wanting to inspire their students, The creative qualitative researcher: Writing that makes readers want to read will reward any reader and writer who experiments and applies the strategies outlined.
Le Guin, U. K. (1998). Steering the craft: Exercise and discussions on story writing for the lone navigator or the mutinous crew. Portland, OR: The Eighth Mountain Press.
Pelias, R. J. (1999). Writing performance: Poeticizing the researcher’s body. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.
Pelias, R. J. (2004). A methodology of the heart: Evoking academic and daily life. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.
Pelias, R. J. (2011). Leaning: A poetics of personal relations. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.
Pelias, R. J. (2014). Performance: An alphabet of performative writing. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.
Pelias, R. J. (2016). If the truth be told: Accounts in literary forms. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.
Pelias, R. J. (2019). The creative qualitative researcher: Writing that makes readers want to read London & New York: Routledge.