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Postgraduate Research in Creative Writing

Creative Writing Research at PhD level

Creative writing research has been a growing strand within the wider research culture of the English and Creative Writing since 2008. The Contemporary Cultures of Writing Research Group engages in a number of activities including  running seminar series in collaboration with The Institute of English Studies in London, on topics such as the rise of creative writing study, life writing and creativity’s relationship with translation.

The PhD focused on Creative Writing presents particular challenges and opportunities because its core requirement is the creation of a book-length work of literature written specifically for the degree and perfected to a publishable standard. In tandem, it requires an accompanying critical/reflective thesis which elucidates the researches and creative strategies involved in the making of the work.

The two parts of the thesis are not separately conceived and realised – they must cohere and illuminate each other. The essence of the Creative Writing PhD is research through creative practice. The final creative piece emerges from and embodies the research questions, decisions and discoveries made in the course of producing the work. 

What constitutes research in Creative Writing?

‘Research questions’ in relation to creative works are the underlying reference points, speculations and questions that writers have in mind when approaching new work. For example, when planning a historical fiction, a writer might be interested in the legitimacy of inventing or embellishing ‘facts’ about real people or about how research and imagination might fuse. Or a writer might want to portray the subjectivity of a marginalised individual, for example, a character with severe learning difficulties. Here, the research question might be about how to render or imaginatively inhabit an unarticulated consciousness. For a PhD application, such driving research questions must be made manifest at an early stage.  

The PhD focused on Creative Writing includes several kinds of research:

Acts of writing, in their stages of spontaneous drafting, considered revision and redrafting, are recognised in the PhD as a form of exploratory research that emerges from and refers to the creative process. PhD researchers keep notebooks and a record of source materials. They supply accompanying commentaries with drafts of creative work. After supervisions, they write an account of the discussion including insights, agreements, and plans for future work. Through this process they devise and analyse their own system of ‘poetics’, which forms the groundwork for the eventual critical/reflective thesis part of the PhD.  

Research into craft and technique is performed through readings of comparable literature in the same genre or from studying the work of creative writers who have written about creative strategies from a practitioner’s point of view. Experimentation and adaptation of studied methods and evaluation of the effects are recognised as forms of research.

Most creative writing projects also require formal research to facilitate and authenticate acts of invention. Such research may involve field visits to explore locations; exploration of historical archives; interviews with experts; readings of relevant fictional accounts; the study of customs, beliefs, or work practice. 

Who should study for a PhD focused on Creative Writing?

Applicants should have a strong academic and creative record, usually with an MA in the subject and some relevant publications. They should be highly experienced writers of proven talent. This degree does not teach the basics of how to write a novel, for example. It is more of a place to test and enlarge existing capacities. It is suitable for writers who are prepared to have their ideas and pre-conceptions challenged and to move beyond their comfort zones. It requires stamina and commitment to work on a project for several years. It should only be considered by writers who are deeply interested in the critical/reflective aspect of the PhD as well as the creative work.

All PhDs are required to ‘contribute to new knowledge’ and the creative work in particular must contain elements of originality and create new insights and understanding in order to fulfil this criterion.  'Originality' in this context does not simply mean 'of the writer’s own making': the literary text must be a significant contribution to the art of fiction/life writing/poetry/scriptwriting for the degree to be awarded. The writing of the literary text is a project which demands the full exercise of the technical skills of the craft and a critical awareness of both the tradition and the current issues, practices and debates within the selected genre and form.

The PhD usually takes the form of the creation of a book-length work of 80,000 words in the student’s chosen literary form and a critical/reflective thesis of 20,000 words. 20,000 words is the required minimum for the critical/reflective thesis but it may, in certain cases, go up to 50,000 words. Variations on the 80/20 division may be negotiated but are more suitable for writers of poetry, scripts, or shorter fiction such as a novella or story collection. Because the creative element has to be a fully realised work of literature, novelists need to adhere to the basic 80/20 split. In fact, some novels may be permitted to exceed 80,000 words if the word limit would result in an aesthetically impaired work with obvious structural or plot gaps. Such cases have to be negotiated and approved.

For those who think their proposal might be more connected to Literature study, see the information about postgraduate research on the English site.

How to apply

Contact the research degree coordinator for further details about the application procedure or go to our Research Degrees website.

Fiction is the most common focus for the PhD but we are open to interesting and viable proposals regarding other genres.

Project proposals should be for a novel or collection of stories or poetry or for a book-length piece of life writing (biography, autobiography or memoir) or for dramatic script- or screen-writing as the core of the research. The critical/ reflective thesis may be an essay contextualising the work with others in its genre or in relation to critical theory. It may be more of a personal exploration of the processes involved in its creation.

A crucial part of the application is a substantial sample of your previous creative writing, at least 10,000 words of prose for a fiction or life writing proposal, or 20-25 poems for a poetry proposal, 60 pages of script for a drama proposal.

(N.B. Journalism or academic writing or writing for children/young adults should not be sent.)

Suitable applicants will be encouraged to apply for funding. Follow these links to find out about funding through the Faculty, financial support for research degrees and applications to The Arts and Humanities Research Council.

The support structure for the PhD

Students who are accepted on to the programme are provided with two supervisors who are published writers and recognised experts in the teaching of creative writing. They both read and give feedback on regular submissions of your work. The supervisors work together to help your development through written feedback, regular face to face meetings or video conferencing. The Research School provides a programme of training sessions in aspects of doctorate research and the English discipline runs occasional postgraduate research days that provide opportunities for networking and gaining practice in public speaking. Your progress is carefully monitored with detailed reports prepared by both the student and supervisors at six monthly intervals. There is a probation process near the end of the first year (second year for part-time students). Successful passing of this enables students to transfer from MPhil registration to PhD.

Current researchers

Discover the sorts of projects our recent and current researchers have been involved in and get a sense of their PhD experience. At the moment our researchers are working on novels and life writing but we would welcome proposals involving other genres.

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