The Creative Process: Reading Sparks Creativity

Reading as part of the creative process? I've discussed reading, and reading loads at length in a previous series of posts discussing archiving, understanding different levels of reading and keeping up with the output.

Reading a lot and keeping up with your field is not only important to have an understanding of what is going on, but it actually fuels your creativity. One of the big wins I noticed during the development of my theoretical work, is that I immediately could link a question to a paper I had read in the past 3 years.

Let me give you an overview of the different ways in which a good understanding of the literature can help you in your creative work:

1. Don't do double work

It might sound obvious, but you wouldn't want to figure out that somebody has already done precisely what you were working on for the past months or maybe years, and has published that work already. Carrying out a literature review before starting is key to understand what has already been done.

2. Identify the boundaries of the current knowledge

So you are going to develop a theory that explains Life, the Universe and Everything in your field... And thus you sit down in a cabin in the woods with paper and pencil and work on your brilliant idea, right? Well, to have a clue where you should get started, provided that you want to advance your field, you need to know what has been done. And you should critically revise the work that has been done, testing the assumptions and wondering where the caveats lie. Through such an analysis, you can determine where to start from with your own work, by working on an open question that you come across when studying the state of the art. Asking questions with regard to the existing work can teach you much more than what is purely written in the existing papers.

3. Know where to find important bits and pieces

Developing theoretical work requires you to look up parts of theories that are already fully developed. If you have carried out a proper literature review, then you have a good overview of these theories. Once you need to implement these in your own model, it is crucial to have read and understood that material. A good background knowledge is of the utmost importance when trying to come up with a novel theory. If you run into an obstacle in your creative work, it is important to be able to quickly go through your memory to see if you've already come across a similar problem in the past.