Challenges in arts and humanities writing

Writing from an appropriate distance

The arts and humanities often touch on subjects with personal impact for many writers. As a result, it can be easy to write a piece that is overly informed by your personal experience. You will write more effectively if you stick to an analysis that is informed by the text and authoritative secondary material (such as biographical or contemporaneous historical information), rather than allowing your writing to become too anecdotal or subjective.

Some essay questions set for students include wording like ‘What do you think?’ or ‘How do you feel about X?’ This formulation highlights that the question wants you to give your opinion and to elicit your ideas, but you must still provide an informed, substantiated and academic opinion. Do not be tempted to lapse into personal anecdote about your subjective experience, and always retain an academic tone:

In an early scene in The Great Gatsby, we meet Daisy Buchanan and Jordan Baker as they sit on a sofa. Fitzgerald gives the women an insubstantial quality with the image of their clothes ‘rippling and fluttering’ in the breeze. This contrasts with the solid presence of Daisy’s husband, Tom, who is described as ‘sturdy’ and having ‘a body capable of enormous leverage’.
When we meet Daisy and Jordan at the Buchanans’ house early on in The Great Gatsby, many of us will be reminded of people we know who are rich in material possessions but still not satisfied. Their clothes billowing in the breeze highlight their insubstantial nature, much like wealthy people in the real world whose many possessions mask a total lack of depth.

The impression that creative works can leave on their readers leads to another pitfall: it can influence your style. You may be writing about a text that is written in an unusual or distinctive style. This is a worthy subject of your analysis, but it should not influence the style of your own writing. A whimsical style is not appropriate for analytical writing, and will only detract from your message.

Return to top

Using the raw material to support your position in arts and humanities

Although arts and humanities writing is subjective, you still need to defend your position. Your task is to use the text or work as a starting point for a line of inquiry. Your writing may consider many different angles, including the content, language and tone; references within the work; and historical and cultural context.

Some subdisciplines can produce writing that appears to stand alone and requires little in the way of explicit sources, such as writing in philosophy with a focus on abstractions (although, even in this case, there is a tradition of thought that informs the writing). Other subdisciplines rely on a wide variety of sources. For example, in history and cultural studies, primary and secondary sources of many kinds – from private journals to institutional records such as censuses – are examined to inform interpretations. 

As you assess the raw material, you may select information that supports your proposition and illustrates your interpretation. This selection does not have to be systematic. In scientific writing, a nonsystematic method of selecting supporting information would be rightly criticised as ‘cherry picking’. Arts and humanities writers must flesh out their interpretation persuasively and be honest and forthright about their sourcing, but do not have an ethical obligation to communicate in a systematic way.

Caution! If you are writing about a text, quotations are necessary but not sufficient – your own analysis must be included with each quotation so that it is contextualised. Your task is to explain the significance of the passages you choose. They should be illustrative rather than decorative.

Be careful with quotes: each one must be checked for accuracy and attributed properly.

Note: Although most arts and humanities writing does not lend itself to providing a ‘proof’, one exception must be noted: the formal language used for proofs or refutations in philosophical logic. These differ from the arguments presented in other arts and humanities contexts because they are presented as a self-contained series of statements that, taken together, aim to provide conclusive evidence for a logical position. Proofs are only as valid as the statements that form them, and can only show what can be proven within a paradigm.

Return to top

Ethics and conflicts in raw material

Just because source material is available does not mean that it can or should be used. Information may have been collected about a person’s life or the traditions in a culture without the permission of relevant parties. For example, many of the traditional ceremonies and objects in Indigenous cultures remain sacred and secret to these cultures. Publishing information about these practices and objects without proper permission would be disrespectful and unethical.

Some individuals (eg minors, people with cognitive disabilities) might not be able to fully consent to their stories or information being used as source material. You must understand your ethical obligations when your conduct research (see Ethical, legal and professional considerations for more information on dealing with ethical conflicts).

Biography writers, drawing from the disciplines of both history and literature, must navigate conflicting viewpoints as they write the story of their subject. A public figure may have mythical status (often extreme – either ‘villain’ or ‘hero’) that should be deconstructed to reveal the facts, as far as they can be known. Further, much of a person’s life is made up of stories that live in the minds of friends and relatives – and each of these people has their own perspective.

You will need to construct a story that is convincing and based on your own interpretation of the material. You must explain how you arrived at your conclusions. Where possible, return as closely as possible to the original source, and verify information to the best of your ability.

Return to top

Avoiding biased and anachronistic interpretations

Arts and humanities writing highlights a particular viewpoint to the exclusion of others. The challenge for writers is to keep their primary viewpoint front of mind, acknowledge how it colours their interpretation, and consider whether another angle would allow them to understand the material more fully.

This is particularly important for history writers, who must bear in mind that ‘history is written by the victors’. For example, the writing of early Australian historians was framed by perspectives that would be alien or unacceptable to most readers and writers today. Consider the source as you write:

  • What are the source’s values and perspectives? (Do they implicitly endorse ideas that should be challenged?)
  • Who are they writing for?
  • Who and what are they including and leaving out?

As we examine historical source material, we bring a modern lens to our reading, but this risks anachronistic interpretations. A modern reader of a diary from the 19th century might read stories suggesting attitudes towards women strongly at variance with modern views. Consider the norms of the time in which it was written to gain an understanding of past events through these source materials, without overlaying your interpretation with modern values.

Return to top

Different approaches to history and historical evidence

Writers in the European tradition tend to establish the legitimacy of their ideas about history with the support of written texts and archaeological evidence (eg physical artefacts). Documentary evidence does not exist for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples before European contact. In addition, physical evidence and artefacts may be scarce for some Indigenous cultures.

You will need to consider the types of historical material that are available to you and incorporate what is available. Depending on the context, materials may include oral histories, stories about places or events, and biographies, as well as music, dance and visual artwork. Make sure that a lack of evidence does not lead you to incorrect conclusions:

Dark Emu: understanding a flawed Australian mythology

Bruce Pascoe’s 2014 book, Dark Emu, details the evidence for widespread agriculture, aquaculture, permanent housing, and established laws and customs among Indigenous Australians before European colonisation.

Pascoe also provides a detailed case study about how ‘cultural myopia’ blinded the first European settlers to Aboriginal achievements. Colonists’ ideas about Indigenous people as ‘savages’ led them to see houses and call them ‘hovels’, or see fields cared for by Indigenous farmers and wonder at how nature had created land that ‘looked as if it had been carefully ploughed’. These preconceptions were encouraged by a political agenda that aimed to erase any perceptions of the Indigenous people as settled or cultured, as this would delegitimise British claims to the land as ‘terra nullius’ (uninhabited land). Many of these misperceptions continue today – for example, with the continued characterisation of all Aboriginal peoples as ‘hunter-gatherers’ and place names that celebrate European explorers rather than the original inhabitants.

Other issues to take care with are as follows:

  • Time. The Eurocentric view of history emphasises the order in which events occurred. But some cultures may view time differently (eg many Aboriginal cultures perceive time as having a ‘circular’ form, or see more important events as being closer in time to the present). You should gain an understanding of how the culture you are writing about views time to communicate their histories effectively.
  • Death. In some Indigenous cultures, the use of names, voices or images of deceased members of the community is avoided. You should follow appropriate social conventions or provide warnings for these audiences.
Return to top

User login

... or purchase now

An individual subscription is only A$60 per year

Group and student discounts may apply

Australian manual of scientific style Start communicating effectively