Jonathan Wlodarski is pursuing a Ph.D. in English and teaches introductory-level English courses.
The demand for creative writing on college campuses is on the rise: A 2017 report from the Associated Press reveals that in the last 40 years, more than 700 schools have started creative writing bachelor's programs for students who want to learn how to write fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and work for the stage and screen. Though overall enrollment in English majors has declined in recent years, Inside Higher Ed notes that the creative writing specialization has remained stable in terms of student enrollment.
Despite the popularity of the major, the debate continues to rage: Can creative writing be taught? According to some, creative writing is an innate talent, and good writers instinctively know how to evoke feeling and meaning through writing. Others argue that students must be taught how other writers construct their work until they have internalized the skills and can produce their own original material. It's the latter of these two assumptions that captures the aim of creative writing classes at the college level.
Though studying creative writing doesn't guarantee you'll land a job after graduation, mastering the craft has a number of benefits. For example, studying different genres of writing and learning to work within their confines sharpens problem-solving skills and teaches students to move freely through different modes of communication. The creative energy required to compose original works can also allow for evocative self-expression, itself an empowering, cathartic process.
Creative Writing Tips and Ideas: How to Learn Creative Writing
While many schools offer creative writing courses, majors, and even graduate-level degrees, it's important to remember that much of the work required to write successfully happens outside the classroom. Even with the best instructors, students who want to flourish in the world of creative writing must do a fair amount of self-teaching, too.
Read Books Like a Writer
When asked for advice on how to get started or how to improve one's writing, most writers will say the same thing: The easiest way to get better, whether you're self-taught or not, is to read. Pay attention to how a writer has put together their story. Study the poems or the fantasy novels you like and ask questions about the structure of each work as you consume it. Apply these methods to your own writing — how does the final product change when you make use of another writer's techniques?
Define Expectations and Outcomes
Having a sense of the piece you want to write can help tremendously in terms of finishing. In my own experience, the stories I've written aimlessly are the ones I abandon, and the ones for which I had clear ideas and intentions were easy to complete. It's important to understand what the essay you're writing is going to explore or why the screenplay you're writing will make a compelling movie. By defining your expected outcomes, it becomes easier to create a plot outline or even write toward a predetermined ending.
Revise With the "Big Picture" in Mind
Another common piece of advice is the mantra "writing is revising." This refers, of course, to low-level concerns like beautifying your word choices and making your writing more artful, but pay attention to the big picture, too. Often, it isn't until you finish the first draft that you develop a full sense of what you wrote, no matter how fastidiously you planned what the final product would look like. Reread your writing, keeping your previously decided goal in mind and asking yourself these questions: How successful is this piece in achieving that goal? What changes can you make that will enable the piece to succeed.
Creative Writing Prompts to Inspire You
1. Retell a Familiar Tale
Choose a myth or fairy tale with which you are familiar. Find a new way to tell it by choosing a different protagonist to reframe the narrative. Use the new perspective you've chosen to practice characterization by fleshing out the character's point of view. Observe how the details of the story change from this character's angle.
2. Write With Strict Conventions
Choose a poetic form that has very specific rules. A sonnet, for example, requires 14 lines of 10 syllables each that follow a particular rhyme scheme. Try writing a few poems using the constraints of the form you've chosen. The conventions will force you to approach language from new, exciting angles, which can lead you to create more innovative, interesting work.
3. Capture Dialogue
In screen- and playwriting, much of your writing will be dialogue-specific. Record a conversation between you and someone else, then convert that conversation into a script. Transcribing your words will give you a handle on how dialogue flows naturally, which can be helpful if you find the dialogue in your writing is stilted.
4. Engage the Senses
Recall a memory you experienced. As you write it down, focus on engaging with as many sensory details as you can. Refining your use of concrete descriptions of sight, sound, taste, feel, and smell can help your readers connect more viscerally to the experiences you're writing about — physical connection to the prose invites the reader to participate in the memory along with you.
5. Observe the Unobserved
One popular technique in poetry is making strange images out of familiar things. Study household objects and items that are very familiar to you, focusing on details that you might otherwise ignore. What sort of unfamiliar images might you create based on these observations? For example, you might notice the front-facing camera on your phone looks like a single eye — from there, a simile comparing your phone to a Cyclops is born.
6. Adapt Across Genres
Take a novel, story, or memory from your own experiences. Write it not in prose but in a stage or screenplay format. Pay attention to how information is conveyed differently without a narrator to observe. For example, dialogue becomes more important than descriptions of the environment when a stage or movie set provides the backdrop of your story.
7. Create a Character Sketch
Write a short story where a character's life is interrupted by something unexpected that forces them to make a challenging decision. Work on including information early in the piece that clues the reader in to the decision the character will make in the end. Writing several of these sketches will help you with your character development skills.
8. Explain a Family Tradition
One of the challenges of writing a memoir is learning how to think outside your own perspective. Which of your behaviors might be strange or unfamiliar to other people? Learning that others may not understand your peculiarities is an important step in writing creative nonfiction. Practice this by writing in detail about a family tradition you have, no matter how mundane — focus on explaining the reasoning behind each aspect, capturing exactly how it all unfolds.
9. Poetic Technique Internalization
Find a poem you really enjoy and study it closely to determine how it was constructed — what rhythmic choices do you see? How did the writer employ line breaks to make their poem more powerful? Where is the figurative language, and why did the writer use it where they did? Imitate this poem by writing about a different subject, but stick to the structure of the original poem as closely as you can. Using these devices in your writing can help you internalize the tools of other writers and learn how to better deploy them in your own poetry.
10. Plot Twist
Write a piece of flash fiction (a story under 1,000 words) in which a plot twist occurs at the beginning of each paragraph. Let each plot twist build naturally from the information that the story has thus far provided to the reader — the eighth paragraph cannot suddenly reveal the presence of dragons if their existence hasn't at least been hinted at, for example. Let this exercise teach you about plot: Why do you choose each plot twist, and how does it affect your decisions about the story moving forward?