Writing in the Humanities

Introduction to Writing in the Humanities

Academic writing in the humanities allows for some flexibility in style and voice, while still following specific conventions of format and documentation.

Learning Objectives

Define the subtypes of writing that exist within the humanities

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Generally, writing in the humanities falls into one of three categories: research writing, interpretive/analytical writing, and creative writing.
  • When writing a research paper in the humanities, you will collect (and cite!) information from a variety of different sources to support an argument.
  • In interpretive/analytical writing, you will make a claim about what a particular text (or film, or painting, etc.) means or how it goes about presenting meaning; you will make an argument backed up with specific examples from the text.
  • In some analytical writing, you may be asked to interpret a text through the lens of a particular theory—for example, modernist theory, psychoanalytic theory, etc.
  • Creative writing mostly comprises fiction writing, such as poems, short stories, novels, and song lyrics; however, there is also a type of writing called creative nonfiction, in which creative writing centers around real events.

Key Terms

  • literary analysis: A piece of academic writing that explores and interprets the meaning behind the story, characters, themes, and purposes of a text.
  • thesis: A claim or theory that must be supported with evidence to argue for or against a specific idea or position.
  • humanities: The collection of academic disciplines that study human expression, ideas, and thought.
  • expository: Of a type of writing that explains, informs, or describes a process or concept.

Writing in the Humanities

The ultimate goal in writing in the humanities is to explain or understand the human experience and human values. The humanities—also called the liberal arts—include philosophy, religion, art, music, literature, history, and language. These fields are a broad way of studying and understanding how people express ideas, information, and feelings—the experience of what makes us human. Sometimes mislabeled as the “opposite” of the applied sciences or professional programs such as business, the humanities are in fact at the core of every human endeavor to pursue, discover, and pass on knowledge.

There is no single, all-encompassing type of writing in the humanities. You might write a literary analysis of a novel, story, play, or poem; an analysis that explains how a written or visual text works to persuade a specific audience; an expository essay that shares personal experiences or explores ideas; a research paper investigating the history of a particular theoretical approach; or a persuasive article that works to convince a specific audience of your thesis. Generally, however, writing in the humanities falls into one of three categories: research writing, interpretive/analytical writing, and creative writing.

Research Writing

When writing a research paper in the humanities, you will likely be relying on a number of different sources to support a broader claim that you’re trying to make. It is crucial that you correctly cite and attribute all ideas and information that are not common knowledge and not your own. For example, you would need to provide a citation for a statement like, “60% of guns recovered in crimes are sold by unlicensed dealers,” which is likely written about in a specific study, but not for a statement like, “William Shakespeare was born in 1564,” which is common knowledge and referenced in many different sources.

Interpretive/Analytical Writing

An interpretation, or analysis, involves the discovery of meaning in a text (or film, or painting, etc.) or the production of meaning in the process of reading a text. As such, analytical writing focuses on the questions of “how?” and “why?” It tries to assist the reader in understanding specific events (literary, cultural, or otherwise) rather than just engaging in summary. Writing about literature (poems, short stories, plays, etc.) often involves making an argument that can be backed up with specific examples from the text. For example, a student writing an interpretive paper about a specific book may try to explain the author ‘s attitudes or views on a specific subject matter. The writer of the paper must then use evidence found in that book—specific lines, words, or phrases—to back up their claims.

Theoretical Writing

Theoretical writing involves writing on a topic from a particular theoretical perspective or combination of perspectives (e.g., modernism, deconstructionism, psychoanalytic theory, etc.). Often, students will be asked to combine the analytical and theoretical genres: to write a paper interpreting a specific text or film through the lens of a particular theory or theoretical text. For example, a student might write an essay on Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, investigating how its use of language fits into Nietzsche’s theory of human communication. Another example might be a paper interpreting a film using certain tenets of psychoanalytic theory.

Creative Writing

Creative writing attempts to achieve, or create, an effect in the minds of readers. Creative writing can also be used as an outlet for people to get their thoughts and feelings out and onto paper. Poems, short stories, novels, and even song lyrics are all examples of creative writing.

To some, nonfiction can also be considered creative writing because it is done from the author’s point of view and may be written in an individual style that engages the reader. In fact, many universities offer courses in “creative nonfiction.” Others like to separate nonfiction from creative writing because it deals with real events that actually took place, even if they are written about subjectively.