Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Good technical writing: a critical reflection of what worked well in the paper.

Here I review a paper that I have found very good: informative, with useful and relevant discussion, pertinent examples and a style of writing that conveys the information easily to me.

This paper is by Geraint Wiggins, a major academic influence of mine (and really not based too far away from Sussex as he is in Goldsmiths in London - I should really try and get in contact with him at some point very soon when I have a little more reading under my belt and a little more developed knowledge). The paper was passed onto me by one of the MSc Creative Systems students, and describes an attempt to encode creative systems in a mathematically rigorous way (using set theory).

The paper's title is: Categorising Creative Systems. So for a start, the title is clear, concise and understandable. It is obvious that he is looking to make some effort to formalise the description of creative systems.

A major thing for me is that the paper is short - 4 pages. This is probably because it is a workshop paper published in 2003 at the IJCAI workshop on creative systems (a forerunner to the 2007 workshop I looked at in the last post). Wiggins packs a lot of information into this paper. (He is helped a lot in this because he is building upon a previous publication rather than publishing brand new work; but the paper is easily read as a standalone source of information as well). I have to admit that short papers are far more attractive for me - having read a lot of waffle (including plenty of my own), I am very appreciative of when information is expressed concisely.

(btw I know that this blog is the perfect example of inconcise expression - however I am not too worried about that as this fits in with what I perceive this blog to be: an arena to express my thoughts in words, in a raw form, 'warts and all', rather than a refined and highly considered format.... but at the same time, I apologise to Geraldine and my peer reviewers for the resulting length of verbal output in most of the entries of this blog!)

The three-sentence abstract again is easy to read - Wiggins introduces what he is about to discuss in the paper, what the aim of his work is, and a longer term view of the role of this work. Ideally I would have liked to see a little more detail of the exact work being presented in the paper, but this is only a small consideration for me - my prime concern is that I can understand the full abstract and have an interest in reading the whole paper, which this abstract achieves.

One thing I noticed instantly about this paper was the use of entertaining subtitles. In essence, the work that Wiggins presents is quite dry: using set theory to categorising creative systems. However subtitles such as Hopeless Uninspiration and Productive Aberration are quite interesting to see and definitely capture my interest! Alongside the more traditional titles such as Background and discussion, there is a good balance of standard academic presentation and an interesting style of writing.

In general the structure of this paper is very neat, with small sections, and an easy pathway through the surface of the content is given by just reading the titles and subtitles - I like that a lot as a way of getting a general overview. Wiggins also tells us in the introduction what each section is going to discuss (and each section does then indeed discuss that content!). The conclusion and summary paragraph, although brief, sums up well what the paper has told us and points the reader in the direction of future work, justifying the progression from this 2003 point to the future work suggested.

Looking back into the content of the paper, the language is understandable and just at the right technical level: not patronising but also not overcomplicated. It is easily accessible to those who have not read the previous work that has been cited, or to those who are a little rusty on set theory (me!) or creativity theory. In particular, the example that Wiggins uses to illustrate the abstract theory is very well presented. I possibly would question how he fits this example to Margaret Boden's original theory (which is the theory he is using as a basis of his theoretical framework); however this indicates that I do have a good understanding of the general more abstract notions that he is discussing, and can engage with this discussion as a result, to refine my understanding of smaller details and perhaps notice areas of the theoretical discussion that I would be able to improve on or highlight as needing further work.

Finally the 6 references that Wiggins gives are useful for directing the reader to further work that is relevant. He doesn't include any 'tenuous' references; instead you can see exactly where in the paper each reference makes an important contribution to the content. At the same time he has some important references there such as Margaret Boden's seminal work on creativity (The Creative Mind, 1990).

So in conclusion: the paper is well-structured, concise and expressed at a very good level of technical description. What could have been quite complicated set-theoretical discussion is made accessible to readers such as myself, who have some background in this area and want to learn about the resulting framework rather than spend time understanding lots of theory. This review is carried out after a few skim reads of this paper. I think I will follow up the leads next and make sure that I completely understand the theoretical framework he proposes, but I have a suspicion that this framework (now 5 years old) may have considerably been updated. This paper definitely leaves me wanting to find out more!

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