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Creativity Is Just Like Mathematics – Addition and Subtraction-No, Wait! Come Back!

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We all create in slightly different ways, as all of us are unique people. There are common traits and styles though throughout everyone who creates, and if we take the time to discover some of the ways our creativity manifests itself and how we create our best work, it can be of great benefit to us in the long run.

One simple example of two different types of creativity is between creating by addition or creating by subtraction. You see, really, creativity is just the same as mathematics…

Seriously, something I’ve learnt myself through writing, especially when writing to a specific assignment or brief, is that by being aware of the way I create can make it much easier.

Back to the mathematics for a moment to explain.

Creating by addition is starting with nothing and adding a little, piece by piece, until your final work is complete.

Creating by subtraction is the opposite. Starting with a great mass of stuff, everything possible, then chipping away, carefully removing little by little until your final work is revealed underneath.

Here are some examples of the two different types:

Creating by addition -

Musicians and composers: Maybe begin with a single melody line, beat or sample and build up layers around it until the song or piece of music is complete.

Tapestry artists: Begin with nothing but an idea or design, then weave thread by thread, colour by colour and layer by layer, building up the tapestry gradually.

Poets: May write one or two lines at a time, adding to their poem slowly, each word carefully chosen and placed in the correct position and sequence and complementing all that’s been put there before.

Creating by subtraction -

Archaeologists: Start by having a vague idea of what may be buried beneath them then delicately and systematically remove the earth and debris material to uncover the treasures of a previous civilisation.

Sculptors: Typically will start with a huge chunk of their chosen material, granite or oak for example, then chip away gradually until the beauty of the sculpture beneath reveals itself.

Fiction Editors: Begin with a mass of words, sentences, chapters, then slowly remove the excess words and the weakest parts to expose the quality of the great novel underneath.

So how can this help you and your creativity? Well by being aware of which of the above two modes you prefer to work in you can make it easier for yourself to create.

In reality, most of us actually in practice use a combination of the two. When I’m asked to write a particular assignment I usually gather and write as much as I can, get all the possible ideas down first (creating by addition), then let it settle a while before returning to edit and slim down to the essentials (subtraction).

A colleague of mine instead begins with nothing, then simply adds a sentence at a time until he’s satisfied with the end result. He edits very little afterwards. By the way, his writing is of a very good standard, and he always finishes pieces of work much more quickly than I do!

To help improve my writing skills, and to help me save time doing so much editing, I often return to writing simple forms like haikus. Working to such strict and limited boundaries – such as the 3 line, 5 syllable / 7 syllable / 5 syllable western style haiku – can help greatly to train a writer to be more economical and efficient, and create more impact when writing longer pieces of work.

So which of these two types, addition or subtraction, do you use most in your creative work?

How can you incorporate more elements of each type to improve your creativity?

Finally, how can you experiment with creating in the opposite way to which you prefer to expand your creative style and techniques?

© Copyright 2006 Dan Goodwin.

Dan Goodwin - EzineArticles Expert Author

Creativity Coach Dan Goodwin is the author of “Create Create!”, a FREE twice monthly ezine for people who want simple and powerful articles, tips and exercises to help them unleash their creative talents. Sign up right now and get your FREE “Explode Your Creativity!” Action Workbook, at


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  • Posted On December 20, 2006
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