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The idea that research could be described as ‘4*’ came from the UK’s Research Excellence Framework (REF). Four-star research is ‘world-leading in terms of originality, significance and rigour’. In REF 2014, 30 per cent of research outputs across all disciplines were rated as world-leading[1]. These outputs included musical compositions and performances, other works of art such as artefacts and exhibitions, and the majority of outputs that were research journals articles, chapters and books.

‘World-leading’ is a big claim. Perhaps we might say that Mozart’s music for the Requiem is world-leading (as I explored in this piece for the Conversation). Or perhaps Elizabeth Jane Gardener’s art. In literature, Mark Twain’s work, not least because according to Ernest Hemingway, ‘All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn’.[2] In science the work of Charles Darwin is one of many examples considered to be world leading. And who would you nominate for education? An important aspect of the claim to world-leading for these people has been the test of time.

‘An overarching consideration about 4* outputs is how different academic disciplines frame expectations about writing.’

An overarching consideration about 4* outputs is how different academic disciplines frame expectations about writing.[3] Steven Pinker unproblematically advocates world-leading science writing as a model for writing more generally, ‘because the ideal of classic prose is congenial to the worldview of the scientist’.[4] Apparently, ‘Good writing starts strong. Not with a cliché (‘Since the dawn of time’), not with a banality (‘Recently, scholars have been increasingly concerned with the question of …’), but with a contentful observation that provokes curiosity’.

One of the most famous books about science ever written has this opening sentence:

When on board H.M.S. ‘Beagle,’ as naturalist, I was much struck with certain facts in the distribution of the inhabitants of South America, and in the geological relations of the present to the past inhabitants of that continent. 

This might fall into Pinker’s banality category and could hardly be described as ‘strong’. One problem with Pinker’s advice, ironically, is language: ‘good’ and ‘strong’ fail to capture the complexity of the writing process. Effective writing of any kind engages the reader – a social function. Whether texts are effective, including the words and grammar of their opening sentences, is not sufficiently understood separately from the whole text and its context, including the text’s origins, and the author’s purposes.

World-leading creative writing is an aim for students of the University of East Anglia’s renowned creative writing course, which recommends thinking about writing as gathering, shaping and finishing.[5] This suggests to me that writing is work in motion, at play, responsive to change and, until the dreaded deadline, never really finished. Students on the creative writing course are encouraged to write every day; to write about, or draw, ‘everything and anything’ of interest; to read widely – everything and anything; make long lists of words of interest; find their own ways of writing, including routines for writing.

Over the last three years I have undertaken a multidisciplinary exploration of writing processes, including comparisons between music and writing.[6] In addition to a systematic analysis of world-leading writers’ views about how they write I have also analysed some of the most famous writing style guides. Dorothea Brande’s classic book Becoming a Writer (originally published in 1934) uses the attractive writing device of fictionalised teacher-student interaction, reminiscent of Platonic dialogues, to present her advice. Brande is by turns intimidating and uplifting. If the writer fails at two fundamental requirements: agreed times for writing and agreed amounts of writing each day, then,

If you fail repeatedly at this exercise, give up writing. Your resistance is actually greater than your desire to write, and you may as well find some other outlet for your energy early as late.[7]

But more optimistically Brande is metaphysical in her belief that writing can be taught, and hence learned:

This book, I believe, will be unique; for I think he [the student or amateur writer] is right. I think there is such a magic, and that it is teachable. This book is all about the writer’s magic.[7]

One of the hypotheses I have developed is that the writer’s ear, e.g. for written language and for the sounds of music, encapsulates metaphorically how writing works, and therefore in the writing of a 4* output. 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. I juxtapose the linguistic distinction between seeing and reading with the musical distinction between hearing and listening. The writer’s ear 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. Given time the writer’s ear supports the selection of the original idea for research that will develop into a world-leading output. The writer’s ear also attunes the rhythms of the words, phrases and sentences, in a paper or book, that is needed ultimately to convince people that the work is world-leading.



[2] Back cover of Penguin Classics edition: Twain, M. (1985). The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Penguin. (Original work published 1884)

[3] Tusting, K., & Barton, D. (2016). Writing disciplines: Producing disciplinary knowledge in the context of contemporary higher education. Ibérica, 32, 15–34.

[4]  p. 12, in Pinker, S. (2014). The sense of style: The thinking person’s guide to writing in the 21st century. Penguin Books.

[5] Bell, J., & P. Magers (Eds.) (2001). The creative writing coursebook. Macmillan.

[6] Wyse, D. (2017). How writing works. Cambridge University Press. 

[7] p. 23, in  Brande, D. (1983). Becoming a Writer. Papermac. (Original work published 1934)