Invention

What is invention? How can I realize my creative potential? Review research and scholarship on invention. Explore how successful writers, entrepreneurs, and product developers manage their creative processes.

What is Invention?

Invention is

Key Concepts: Composing; Customer Discovery; Composing Processes; Growth Mindset; Shuffling


As humans, as homo sapiens, we are hardwired to invent. Since emerging from the Savannah Plain several hundred thousand years ago, we have been driven to solve problems and to advance human knowledge. On a personal level and a social level, we feel an urge to make the world a better place, to contribute to society, to help build the infrastructure future generations need so they can prosper and prepare a better life for their children and loved ones.

Also, economic incentives may inspire us to innovate. Entrepreneurs may be richly rewarded for producing original or derivative works.

[ Problem Definition | Customer Discovery | Problem & Solution Space ]

Levels of Invention

Inventions come in all shapes and sizes. The act of invention occurs on a spectrum: on the one end of spectrum you may create inventions that are original, maybe even transformative. On the other hand, you may create inventions that are derivative.

Original Works

Original works are texts, apps, products that are novel: they are unique in style and substance. Original works are not copies of other people’s works or ideas: they are written by an author or authors.

Original works may be valued for their uniqueness. They may be works of art or literature that create new ways of expression. Original works may be impactful: they may change the conversation on a subject, topic. They may change human behavior, such as the case of the iPhone or personal computer. Original works may change people’s perspective on a topic, their point of view. Original works are protected by intellectual property and copyright law.

Derivative Works, Shuffling Cultural Snow

Derivative works are works that recycle text from an existing text.

Derivative works may retell old stories. For instance, the Disney story of Cinderella in 1950 was a retelling of Perrault’s Grimm’s Fairy Tales in 1697. Frozen in 2013 was a retelling of Hans Christian Anderson’s Ice Queen (1845).

Derivative works may be new editions of texts. For instance, the 4th edition of Writing Commons includes articles from earlier editions, yet the new edition has new content along with edits and revisions to earlier articles.

motion pictured adapted from a noveltranslations
a new edition of a texta drawing based on a photo
a remix of songs or song lyricsa sculpture based on a drawing
a legal analysis a revision of an earlier text

Writers, speakers, knowledge workers . . . may not be in the best position to determine whether or not a particular work is original or derivative. A writer, speaker, knowledge worker . . . may create works that feel innovative to them yet would be perceived by subject matter experts to be commonplace. In the real world, most works appear on a spectrum with some elements that original and others that are derivative.

People are terrific imitators. We learn from one another. Consciously and unconsciously we are constantly reshuffling, remixing, what we see. This process could be called shovelling cultural snow.

  • Haruki Murakami introduced the metaphor of shovelling cultural snow in his novel Dance Dance Dance. In the novel, the protagonist describes his job as a content writer as shovelling snow. Here he meant that all he ever did was take the same old stories and retell them to different audiences. In other words, he didn’t believe he was contributing to the conversation: he was only repeating what other people were saying and doing. He was shuffling. Ultimately, this meant he was letting other people think for him.

Invention is a social act

Invention does not occur in a vacuum. Invention is a Socio-Cultural-Rhetorical Construct: What writers, speakers, knowledge workers. . . invent and how they invent is shaped by their personal, family, school-based, and work-based experiences.

Invention is shaped by

  • existing scholarship on the topic. The status of the scholarly conversation
    • the archive.
      • The archive is the record(s)of human knowledge. The archive includes the laws of nature, histories, traditions, sacred texts and creation stories of civilizations/cultures/communities.
    • Commonplaces, Topoi.
      • Commonplaces, Topi are shared assumptions, shared stories/narratives between writers . . . and audiences. This is an intersubjective space: it involves the intersection of the author’s subjective perspective with the reader’s subjective perspective.
  • Our educational training, our schooling introduces us, inculcates us, to literary traditions, styles of writing, canons, conventions, genre, media, and shared cultural texts. From schooling we first learn basic literacy. We learn information literacy, we learn how to keep up with current scholarship and research. We gain critical literacy.
  • Our workplace experiences introduce us to new ways of composing, communities of practice, discourse communities, genres, research methods, dissemination methods.
  • Our personal experiences, our day-to-day lives, present us with ample opportunities to weave in and out of different discourse communities. Our experiences serve as fuel for our imagination. As we are introduced to new ways of doing things and new information, data, we learn styles, research methods, perspectives. We learn the creation stories, the biographies, the narratives, of discourse communities, communities of practice. We remix what we see. We reshuffle cultural snow.

Invention & Composing, Composing Processes

Develop your creative potential. Open yourself to critique, collaboration, strategic searching, and a growth mindset. Work with your inner speech, felt sense, and heuristics.

For writers, speakers, knowledge workers . . ., invention is where the magic happens. Interviews of writers @ work consistently report that writers feel inspired when their writing leads them to discover new insights. Writers love the joy of discovery, the bliss of finding what they want to say as they write. Writers . . . feel great pleasure when they create new products, apps, applications, and services.

Invention is also theorized to be a stage of composing–one of the main intellectual activities of any act of communication. Since the 1970s, it has been commonplace in U.S. schools to encourage writers to engage in prewriting or invention exercises before writing a text. This practice prioritizes planning skills and rhetorical knowledge.

Collaboration
The people you know, the ways they respond to your ideas, shape what and how you create.
Genre
Genres reflect the shared histories, literary traditions, activities, and values of communities of practitioners. Stimulate your imagination by reading widely and learning new genres, new media, and new writing spaces.
Information Literacy
Writers work with information to generate topics, stories, and research questions to write about (see especially Scholarship as a Conversation). Hence, your relationship to information plays a major role in what is said and what is left unsaid.
Mindset
Invention is shaped by Mindset. The act of Invention is characterized by a spirit of openness, optimism, and play. For many people, invention is the best part of writing. Invention is, after all, where the magic happens–where writers are inspired by the joy of discovery, the bliss of finding what they want to say as they write.
Organization
Use citation tools to track your reading notes and references over time
Research
Disciplinary communities (e.g., engineering, nursing, chemistry) have long-standing traditions regarding how to posit and test knowledge claims. Learning new ways to develop knowledge claims empowers writers to join new communities which reinforces our social nature as humans.
Rhetoric
Invention has deep roots in rhetoric. Aristotle urged rhetors to think deeply about the audience they were addressing in their discourse. Aristotle encouraged rhetors to analyze what was commonplace between them and their audiences? IOWs, what shared information, data do writers and audiences possess?
Invention is shaped by rhetorical processes. The writer, speaker, knowledge worker . . stands at moment in time, a rhetorical context, where there is some exigency, some problem, some call for discourse. How the writer perceives and responds to this call for discourse is influenced by their positioning. Writers and readers are members of discourse communities, communities of practice. Their literary histories, communities/cultures, and educational experiences shape how they respond to particular exigences, particular rhetorical contexts.

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