Creative Writing 101

By Ali Hale

What is Creative Writing?

Creative writing is anything where the purpose is to express thoughts, feelings and emotions rather than to simply convey information.

creative writing

I’ll be focusing on creative fiction in this post (mainly short stories and novels), but poetry, (auto)biography and creative non-fiction are all other forms of creative writing. Here’s a couple of definitions:

Creative writing is writing that expresses the writer’s thoughts and feelings in an imaginative, often unique, and poetic way.
(Sil.org – What is Creative Writing?)

Writing is a form of personal freedom. It frees us from the mass identity we see all around us. In the end, writers will write not to be outlaw heroes of some underculture but mainly to save themselves, to survive as individuals.
(Don DeLillo)

Writing of any sort is hard, but rewarding work – you’ll gain a huge amount of satisfaction from a finished piece. Being creative can also be difficult and challenging at times, but immensely fun.

How to get started

Many people think that just because they’ve read a lot of stories (or even if they haven’t!) they should be able to write one. But as Nigel Watts writes:

There is a common belief that because most of us are literate and fluent, there is no need to serve an apprenticeship if we want to become a successful wordsmith. … That’s what I thought until I tried to write my first novel. I soon learnt that a novel, like a piece of furniture, has its own set of requirements, laws of construction that have to be learnt. Just because I had read plenty of novels didn’t mean I could write one, any more than I could make a chair because I had sat on enough of them.
(Nigel Watts, Teach Yourself Writing a Novel)

By all means, if you’re keen, jump straight in and have a go: but don’t be too disappointed if your first efforts aren’t as good as you’d hoped. To extend Watts’ metaphor, you may find that these early attempts have wonky legs and an unsteady seat. There are lots of great books aimed at new fiction writers, and I’d strongly recommend buying or borrowing one of these:

I’d also recommend starting small. Rather than beginning with an epic fantasy trilogy, a family saga spanning five generations, or an entire adventure series … have a go at a short story or a poem.

And if you end up chewing your pen and staring at a sheet of paper, or gazing at a blank screen for hours, try kickstarting your writing with a short exercise. Don’t stop to think too much about it … just get going, without worrying about the quality of the work you produce.

Tips and tricks for beginners

  • Do some short exercises to stretch your writing muscles – if you’re short of ideas, read the Daily Writing Tips article on “Writing Bursts”. Many new creative writers find that doing the washing up or weeding the garden suddenly looks appealing, compared to the effort of sitting down and putting words onto the page. Force yourself to get through these early doubts, and it really will get easier. Try to get into the habit of writing every day, even if it’s just for ten minutes.
  • If you’re stuck for ideas, carry a notebook everywhere and write down your observations. You’ll get some great lines of dialogue by keeping your ears open on the bus or in cafes, and an unusual phrase may be prompted by something you see or smell.
  • Work out the time of day when you’re at your most creative. For many writers, this is first thing in the morning – before all the demands of the day jostle for attention. Others write well late at night, after the rest of the family have gone to bed. Don’t be afraid to experiment!
  • Don’t agonize over getting it right. All writers have to revise and edit their work – it’s rare that a story, scene or even a sentence comes out perfectly the first time. Once you’ve completed the initial draft, leave the piece for a few days – then come back to it fresh, with a red pen in hand. If you know there are problems with your story but can’t pinpoint them, ask a fellow writer to read through it and give feedback.
  • HAVE FUN! Sometimes, we writers can end up feeling that our writing is a chore, something that “must” be done, or something to procrastinate over for as long as possible. If your plot seems wildly far-fetched, your characters bore you to tears and you’re convinced that a five-year old with a crayon could write better prose … take a break. Start a completely new project, something which is purely for fun. Write a poem or a 60-word “mini saga”. Just completing a small finished piece can help if you’re bogged down in a longer story.

Online resources

NaNoWriMo
Every November, hundreds of thousands of people just like you do something extraordinary: they write a novel in just thirty days. Want to be part of the coffee-fueled, manic-typing, adrenaline-rush that is National Novel Writing Month? (NaNoWriMo for short). Make sure you sign up by October 31st. The “rules” state that you can’t start writing Chapter 1 until 00.01am on November 1st but you can spend as long as you like before that planning…

Authors’ websites and blogs
I read lots of websites and blogs written by authors and these give real (sometimes harsh) insights into what it’s like to write professionally. One which has been a strong favourite of mine for many years is Holly Lisle’s. Check out her
advice for writers and her weblog. She also has an excellent newsletter which I subscribe to, and some very thorough and helpful e-books on various aspects of writing available for purchase.

Competitions listings
Having a theme and a deadline can make a startling difference to a writer’s motivation! If you’re in the UK, Sally Quilford’s competition listings are a comprehensive and regularly-updated list.

I Should Be Writing podcast
This is a practical and inspiring podcast: I Should Be Writing by Mur Lafferty. She describes the podcast as “For wanna-be fiction writers, by a wanna-be fiction writer” (though since starting it several years ago, she’s had considerable success selling her short stories) and focuses on science fiction and fantasy.

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165 Responses to “Creative Writing 101”

  • Natasha

    I, am also myself, working on a novel, that will most likely be more than one book; I, am posting as saw Dawn’s tips, they are very useful.

    Especially characters, no one likes a superman character, my main character in my dungeon crawler, called dungeon master, is strong, agile and it is explained why later, but she is vulnerable too and has weaknesses as well with the the other 3 members of the party, they are good at something special and lack elsewhere.

    Another tip is you do not need go into their backgrounds right away, give, teases of it then delve into it later it makes the reader want to know more about that particular character.
    Cliffhanger endings to chapters, are good as well as it makes them want to know what is going happen next!

    Happy Writing
    Natasha

  • DawnThrill

    A great article! Really inspiring. I am a young writer myself, and this article really touched upon the things that I struggled with, and still struggle (with some).

    I especially agree with trying to write for fun and writing in the morning, before your mind gets cluttered with other things.

    Here are some of my own tips for a creative writing:

     1) No matter how crappy the idea seems to you, write it down-if anything, it won’t clutter your mind as much anymore.

    2) Make sure your characters are two dimensional: with virtues and flaws, with quirks and the background. Have them work hard to accomplish what really matters, and it is okay if they fail a few times on the way.

    3) Spell check is your friend: use it.

    4) Always re-read and edit your works: multiple times if needed (as mentioned in the article, I admit).

    5) Welcome constructive criticism with open arms, but don’t let anyone discourage you easily.

    I hope that will help and inspire many of you 🙂

  • Shirley Mosley

    I always love to here great writers testimonies of how they gotten started. This is a great inspiring piece to read an get started from. C.J. you are so correct about taking writing skills as well as free classes. I feel like this will help a great deal. When needing to write professional their truly need to be some learning skills involved in-order- to be a perfected writer. Reading your material on what you need to do and need not to do was very helpful. Although the material said do not think to much and write more was great for me because that what I do. I think to much and love writing speaking to my audience in a most memorial way. Although I love writing I hope I get as good as you one day. Even though I hope that I know it will take much practice.

  • C.J.

    I highly recommend that wannabe writers take writing courses in adult ed. programs or community colleges, with or without credit. Even though I’ve been writing for years, sometimes I become lazy and bogged down with other projects. Taking a course forces me to produce. Also, each new instructor teaches me something new or forces me to look at a problem in a different way and classmates’ feedback can be helpful.

    My community college offers free credited classes to senior citizens. I can audit classes or take them for credit. I always take them for credit (even though I’m not going for another degree) because it would be too easy for me to blow off a non-credited class if I was tired, it was raining , or I didn’t feel like attending. Even though I’ve taught writing, I still take classes.

    I would say the advise to not worry about getting it right is essential. When I taught adult writing classes at a community college, one woman could not move beyond her first sentence until it was perfect. Of course, it would never be perfect no matter how many times she rewrote it.

    Finally, the only thing that worked for her was to make a list of the events in the story. I convinced her to choose a section in the middle to write. Then move to another section anywhere. It took her ten weeks to write one story whereas everyone else wrote a story at home each week, plus the short exercises we did in class.

    One other problem I often saw was that students could not seem to carry over one week’s lesson into another. For example one week, we talked about concrete details. When we talked about conflict, every one concentrated on conflict and forgot to include details.

    Eventually, I made a cumulative list. The first week I listed one thing on which to concentrate. Week two, I listed that one and one more, and so on. Before turning in the story, students were required to check off every item on the list. That seemed to help. One man complained because he ended up reading and revising his final story 10 times (one for each item on the list) by the end of the course.

    My response was, “Good for you”

    —-

    Response to Javier Oscar who thinks it would be cool to have a novel published and become famous: I suggest reading Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird.” It has lots of great advise about writing, but also some realistic comments about how difficult it is to be a writer, even after a novel is accepted by a publisher. (Warning: Lamott uses some graphic language. If that would offend you, skip her book.)

  • Tracey

    Thank you for such a detailed explaination on creative writing.

    It’s websites like yours that make a real difference to people who are new to the craft of writing.

  • Red

    Wow! This was great! And as seeing all the other comments I pretty sure many agree with me!
    I’m soooooo excited. I have three manuscripts finished now just lookin’ for a publisher! Yahoooooo!
    Yet soooooo many more manuscripts to finish!

    I heard of that national writing thing befre from some pals from a narnia site. I think I might try it.

    Thanks again for the article…made me smile to see that I’m doing things right…toodles!

  • Phil South

    I still think this is a great piece. Please visit my own creative writing blog on and let me know what you think.

    Love the blog, keep coming back for more every day.

  • Mari

    These tips were very helpful. Before, I was very confused if what I’m doing was right or wrong. I also realized that having an inspiration is a big help for us to write down what we feel. Now I know that as long as we are happy in what we do, we’ll succeed just if what we do is right, we love it whole-heartedly, and if we enjoy it. Sorry for my bad english. It’s not my first language kase! :))

  • Karen

    I’m more of a technical writer than a creative one, so I needed this for a creative writing job I just took on in a freelancing site. Thanks.

  • ben

    I am equally grateful for Ali’s piece of advice. For those who have ideas they need to share with others through writing like let’s keep up the spirit. I’ve been struggling to put up a piece of work, but now with the advice I believe I’ll be to share my with the rest of the world. Here in East Africa prof.Taban Lo Liyong, a literary icon, do reminds us of the need to nurture our talents be it in writing or any other field, and I strongly believe I’ll make it. My advice to beginners like me is not to lose track and more importantly to know the reasons why decide to write. Like the famous writer Eric Arther Blair (George Orwell) puts it: You don’t write for sheer egoism, but to express your to the world; the ones that can truly change the world however small a way it may be. Good luck, beginners.

  • Glenn

    I’ve been a “writer” for about 25 years now. A “writer” in the sense that I’ve been communicating my feelings, insights, and thoughts in writing for at least that long. I find myself currently interested in allowing myself to write without criticism or conflict from others about, not only the material, but the fact that I do put thoughts, feelings, opinions, and facts down in print. I’ve concluded that some don’t like written communication, even if the communication is only on the lines of thoughts, experience, feelings, or even conclusions. I’ve decided that, I’m allowed to write without fear of negitive feedback, criticism, or discussion about what I put in writing. I get my inspiration, usually, even before I get out of bed in the morning. I wake up with insightful ideas and an exciting need to put it all down in writing, the need to put it down before it’s forgotten. Kind of like a dream that you remember during and as you first wake up, but then is forgotten just hours or days later. Things are OK. They need to be. I’m not seeking to be a professional writer, but would like to be able to offer the “talent” I may have, if for nobody esle’s benefit, but for my own. I’ve been asked if I was a writer. This didn’t prompt me to write, but rather gave me encouragement to continue to do so. And so, here we go.

  • sengendo douglas

    I love writing it frees my minds , at time when am sitting some where or even walking i think of many things and that is where the feeling of writing comes from . I like expressing my ideas as a youth and probably share them with my fellow friends . I also believe that the only way my feeling can reach a great multitude is by jotting them down. I wanna be a writer and for sure am living in the dream.

  • Otevia Andy

    Writing is one thing I’d like to develop a penchant for, but like every work of art, I need to learn the needed skills. Is there a forum where beginners can meet and rub minds? I really need to develop my writing skills.

  • Javier Oscar

    I have been thinking… what if I publish my story and became famous… it would be cool but… I really dont know exactly how to do that maybe this website should like a tutorial about it…
    step by step of how to publish a book

  • Tom

    Short stories are quite a different task to novels.

    Short stories require different techniques. New writers can often find writing short stories to be more difficult than they first imagined because short stories are often mistaken as easier to create than novels.

    The main reason for this is that new writers think that, because short stories are short, they require less writing technique. In fact, short stories are equally, if not more demanding to create, *because* they are short.

    Shortness is not always easy to create. I have discovered this on many occasions. They require a lot to be moulded into a short space. Where as novels allow space for writers to create scene, back story, build characters, create set pieces, etc. over a large canvas, e.g. 95k words plus, short stories require all this in under 3k words (some times more).

    Back story, character building, scene setting, etc. all have to be done in a few sentences throughout the story, but mostly, and this is where short stories differ greatly from novels, these things will have to have happened *before the story began*. There is often little room to pause and establish back story as there is in novels.

    In brief, short stories begin *after* the main action has occurred. Novels begin before (just before some times) the main action as occurred.

    So, new writers should give short stories a go but not because you think they are an easy option to writing novels. They are equal, if not more demanding, for any writer.

    One of the best “Tips and tricks for beginners” I can offer because it works so well is this: Begin copying out in long hand the first chapter of your favourite novel. Try it! Magic happens.

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