A Formula to Play with Your Concepts and Generate New Thoughts


My children have a blast playing Mad Libs. If you don’t know this game, it has two parts. The first part you answer some questions without knowing how the answers will be used. On the next page, you have to fill in the blanks of a pre-written story with those answers.

The random combinations make for a real crazy story. Lots of giggling and silliness ensues. As in Dada, poop makes its appearance. But even without the scatology, children find it immensely funny to see language mashed up that way.

     And I have on several occasions admitted to my graduate students that in order to publish I have also “filled in the blanks” of certain demands made of me in the review process of an article, just to get through it and comply. And the results are kind of hilarious to me, especially when the madness gets published.

     But isn’t this part of the actual thinking process of creative academic work?

     We can play this game, what I call Academic Mad Libs, without the constraints of demanding reviewers and instead as a way to explore possibilities,

to use language itself to suggest its ideas to us.

     So what follows here is a game of open Academic Mad Libs that might be good when we are looking for some inspiration, for a twist, are not sure what we think, or when we want to exercise our openness and creativity. It is a very great thing for a writer to exercise writing.

     If possible, make 30 minutes available for writing, and go through these steps without looking ahead to the next one. No peeking!

Of course few will resist reading the whole thing. So instead, just try to to focus on the step in front of you. Be open to the different ways of doing this and open to different kinds of results: the result may be coherent, surrealist, dadaist, poetic, nothing, clunky, or strangely titillating and insightful.


  1. Make a list of 10 interesting adjectives and/or processes. Really go fast and write them down as with the least amount of thought as you can. Processes can be noun-ified adjectives like “globalization.” Interesting adjectives are always good fodder.
  2. Make a list of five objects or entities that are part of your research or topic or interests. These should be “distinct” objects and entities and things, and not abstractions like processes or concepts.
  3. Make a list of five abstractions or concepts related to your work, but not abstractions that could also be verbs, like “love.” These should be nouns only. They might also be noun-ified process words.
  4. Pick one from each list of 1, 2, and 3 above–adjective or process, object, abstraction– and combine them in that order to form a title for this piece, adding in any necessary connections, articles, prepositions, etc. For instance, “Through the indestructible ghosts of osmosis.” You can also repeat some terms, change the order, or of course go for the oldy-but-goody, the chiasmus-“The intolerable rebellion of ants and the ants of intolerable rebellion.” Now that you are in the middle of making a title- go ahead and indulge in swapping things out from your lists till you find one title you like.  This can be your title for the exercise.
  5. Now go to your object or entity word in your title, from step 2. Write a few sentences about it. Explain why it is important or interesting to you. (it came up in the exercise, so it stood out for some reason).
  6. Go to your abstraction word. Write a few sentences about this abstraction, but never name it. Write suggestively.
  7. Write a few sentences or phrases that suggest the adjective, but without naming it. Suggest its connection to the object.
  8. Now here is where we play with movement. Think of another object. When you think the previous object, what other thing does it make you think of? Write a line about that– your line could literally be “X suggests Y” or, a more elaborate sentence.
  9. Write a few lines that explicitly state how this second object changes your thinking from before, or evokes something new, or takes things into a new area.  The point here is to engage some speculative thinking, abstraction,  connection, conclusion, dilemma or question that emerges organically, and that causes a shift.


The shift from A to B is PLENTY enough for a chapter, or article, or even a book.

For most academic works, both stodgy and creative, there is a wide-angle plot movement:

ideas and/or data change thinking from one way to another way. Movement and writing go together.

And organic movement is fun to read. I could include a slew of other post-sale wrap-ups, but the important thing to remember is that all creative academic writing has some play in it, and it is often simple play, and that play is movement.

The other thing is: the point of this exercise is to be an exercise. Come to it with an exerciser mind, a training mind. Don’t look to it for direct results, or a kill-two-birds-with-one-stone approach, like for instance “ok I’ll play this game and also I will paste it in my document too.”

Maybe you will, actually, but it is important to come to it initially in a spirit of play.

The openness to exploration will create a far more productive window of agile writerly opportunity in the long run. So it’s not tossing progress aside. It helps immensely with the speed of your writing process, actually, if you practice leaving expectations aside and learn to associate writing with play. So remember in this exercise that this is Academic Mad Libs! 

And if this exercise seems to suggests to you that all anyone is ever doing in their brilliant writings is some form of Academic Mad Libs,

or that both more generally and more to the point–

that it is not us but language that is doing our writing

either rejoice and take heart in that, or just go ahead and forget this insight ever happened. We can always go back to the Matrix and enjoy our beef.

So… have fun with that.