“The Act of Writing Makes You a Writer.”—Julia Cameron
The best creative writing is both an art and craft. How is it an art? First, creative writers use a set of cognitive skills to discover ideas to write about. They learn to mine their memories, use their imagination, observe the outer world, apply their creative thinking abilities, and explore their curiosities.
Secondly, creative writing is the art of self-expression. Writers share their thoughts, feelings, and perspective about themselves and the world they inhabit.
Thirdly, writers use their creative talents associated with language to write imaginatively with similes, metaphors, sensory imagery, and more.
Creative writing is also a craft in the sense that writers must learn the rules, guidelines, and techniques of writing. To write, a writer must learn the rules of grammar, spelling, and punctuation. If the writer intends to write a poem, short story, or personal essay, the writer must learn the techniques of these genres.
Some people believe that writing cannot be taught. I don’t agree. I feel that anyone who is motivated can learn both the “art of creative thinking” and the “techniques” of creative writing.
In this article, I’ll explain how writer’s can learn to think more creatively by developing several cognitive skills, which can be used to find ideas and material. The following will be covered:
- Creative thinking
I will also explore the craft of writing. The following will be covered:
- Showing and Telling
- Literary techniques
- Poetic Devices
- Word choice/diction
- Sentence Variety
- Paragraph Development
The Art of Creative Writing
Creative writing is more than just writing about facts. It also is about using your creativity abilities to find ideas and collect material. It is also about thinking creatively so that you can discover a simile or metaphor to write a poem, or short story, or personal essay. In this section, I’ll explore a few ways in which you can learn to think more creatively.
You can learn a few creative thinking techniques, which will assist you in discovering new ideas and details for your writing. These techniques will also assist you in writing better metaphors, similes, and types of comparisons. Here are a few techniques that you can learn:
- Brainstorm a list of ideas. How? Find a topic, and then list all the ideas that you might want to write about.
- Ask “what if.” You can use this technique to write fiction or a poem. And then answer the question. Examples: What if you were diagnosed with a serious illness?…What if a meteor plowed into the earth?…What if you won the lottery?…What if you lost your job?
- Challenge your assumptions. You can use this techniques to find ideas to write about, to write poetry, to write fiction. What assumptions do you have about people, places, things, yourself, the world around you. Often truth is a matter of perspective. Your truth is often different than someone else’s.
- Ask the question: “Why?” Then answer the question. You can use this technique to find ideas and material to write about. You could begin by freewriting. Or you could do some research. For instance, why did 9/11 happen? Why do people write? Why do people smoke? Drink? Become murders?
- Change your perspective. Step into the shoes of someone else. Emotional truth (How did it feel?) is always a matter of view point. You can use this technique for fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction.
- Do some mind mapping. How? Take a blank piece of paper and draw a circle in the centre. Write down the topic inside the circle. For each associated idea, draw a line outward, and write the idea in a smaller circle. (Like a spoke in a wheel)
- Look for alternatives. There is always more than one way to write a poem, tell a tale, or write a personal essay. You can use this technique for any type of creative writing.
- Learn to make comparisons between different things. The easiest ways are to learn how to write similes and metaphors. A simile compares two thing by using “like” or “as.” Example: Writing a novel is like running a marathon. A metaphor compares two different things directly or indirectly without using “like” or “as.” Often the writer makes the comparison by using “is.” Example: Memorable writing is a work of art.
By learning to think creatively, you develop your artistic side.
Mine your Memory
Memories are the foundation of creative writing. Learn to mine your memories of people, places, events, and experiences. Here are a few techniques:
- Write about what author Brenda Miller calls “the five senses of memory.” We experience the world through our sense of sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing. For instance: What is your favorite smell? What is the worst thing you’ve seen? What is the most delightful thing you’ve tasted? Once you have an answer (and there is no one right answer), write about it.
- Do some focused freewriting. Sit down, write about something in your past, such as a birthday, graduation, first experience. As you write, you’ll discover that once you uncover a memory, you’ll discover related memories.
- Use a timeline. For instance, pick a year from the past. Find out what happened during that year in the news. World events, public figures, popular culture will bring back memories from your past. A good way to use a timeline is to conduct a Google Search.
- What are your memories of special occasions, such as holidays, vacations, birthdays, graduations?
- What are your achievements and accomplishments? What are your biggest mistakes?
- What are the memories of first encounters? First car? First girlfriend? First job? First accident?
- What are you happiest memories? What are your saddest memories?
- What are the family traditions?
- What are the turning points in your life?
For additional information on how to find ideas to write about, read “How to Write Your Own Life Story” by Louis Daniel.
Learning to dig up your memories is part of the art of writing.
Use Your Imagination
Most people are taught to focus on facts, truth, reality. They are not taught to develop their imagination. Imagination is about using your mind to create sensory details or mental pictures of things that are not actual present in your senses. The best creative writers know how to use their imagination to uncover ideas and details. Here are a few methods you can use to develop your imagination:
- Ask the question: what if? Then answer the question.
- Learn the writing technique of showing and telling. Showing is about writing a scene. A scene includes action, dialogue, setting, sensory details. Showing the reader also means writing concrete, significant, particular details. Showing is about writing sensory details.
- Practise freewriting. You can use focused freewriting or unfocused freewriting. If you use focused freewriting, you select a topic, and then begin to write. If you use unfocused freewriting, you write down whatever details rise into your consciousness. In both types of freewriting, write down the sensory details, and show the reader what happened.
- Practise responding to writing prompts. A writing prompt forces you to use your imagination to write in detail by using similes, metaphors, description. If you are interested in using writing prompts to develop your imagination, purchase a copy of ” The Writer’s Idea Book” by Jack Heffron or “The Writer’s Book of Days” by Judy Reeves.
- Ask and answer the questions that journalists use to develop a story: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? You can use this technique write a poem, short story, or personal essay.
Learning to use your imagination will enable you to write more creatively.
Observe the Outside World
As a creative writer, you must learn to observe the world in which you live and make note of what you experience with your senses. Here are three ways to collect details about the world around you:
- Live in the now. In other words, make note of what is happening or what you are seeing, or hearing, or feeling, when as the event or experience unfolds. This means that you don’t live with the auto pilot switch turned on. It means that you are aware of what is going on in the present moment.
- Make note of sensory details. When you observe an event or experience, make a mental note of what you see, hear, smell, taste, touch.
- Carry a notebook wherever they travel. When you see something interesting, record the details. Make notes using concrete, specific, significant details. Make notes of anything unusual. Make notes of any idea that pops into your mind that might be used for a piece of writing.
- Take yourself on an artistic date on a regular basis. For instance, visit the art gallery, buy a ticket to see a film, peruse the bookshelves of a bookstore. The artistic date will provide you with ideas to explore and write about.
The best writers are curious. They desire to know why? They desire to find answers to important questions. They have a passion for learning. They read books, magazines, newspapers— to feed their hunger for knowledge.
How can you develop your curiosity? Write down all the topics or subjects you’d like to learn. Take one of those ideas or subjects and learn about it . Read books, magazines, journals. Do it for pleasure. Conduct research to become a subject matter expert. Write about what you’ve learned.
As well, keep a writing journal, and make note of words, ideas, concepts, news events, that you don’t understand. When you have a question about something, write it in your journal. If it’s an important question, conduct research on the Web or visit the library. Then learn your material. Next, write about what you’ve learned.
Here’s an example of why curiosity is important to writing. Suppose you dream of writing a historical novel. Before you can write about that period in history, you’ll have to conduct research of that time period. How would you conduct research? You can search on the Web, visit the Library, and read books on the historical period. With this knowledge, you’ll be able to write nonfiction details in a piece of fictional writing.
The Craft of Creative Writing
Creative writing requires that you learn the craft of writing. You must learn the rules, guidelines, and techniques of writing. Otherwise, readers will not read your work, and editors won’t publish your work. Here are a few important techniques about craft you should learn:
Showing and Telling. If you intend on becoming a creative writing, you must learn how to show and tell the reader what happened . Showing the reader is about writing in scenes. It is about creating word pictures in the mind of the reader. Typically, a scene includes a setting, action, dialogue, and sensory details. These are details about sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing. Telling is about summarizing what happened. It is about compressing and condensing time. It is about excluding vivid details. Example: I woke up, read the newspaper, ate breakfast, then worked all day. It was an uneventful day.
Literary Techniques. You must learn the literary techniques for writing fiction:
- Plot Development
- Character and characterization
- Point of view
- Voice and Style
- Suspense, flashback, foreshadowing
- Showing and telling
You will use these to write poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction, such as a memoir or personal essay.
Poetic Devices. You must learn how to use the following poetic devices:
- Sound devices of assonance, alliteration, rhyme, onomatopoeia
You will use these to write poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction.
Word choice/diction. Use a dictionary to find the right word with the right meaning. Use a thesaurus to find the word with the right shade of meaning.
The Sentence. To avoid sounding dull, learn how to use a variety of sentence structures, including:
- Intentional fragment. Use of a phrase or dependent clause instead of an independent clause. A famous quotation. New words that interest. Lyrics from a song. Observations. Overheard conversations. Fleeting memories. Dreams. Photographs. Lots of odds and ends are included in my writing journal.
- Simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex sentences.
- Periodic sentence or climactic sentence. You begin with a series of details, and end with the independent clause. Example: Falling from the tree into the ice river, gasping for air, being then pulled by the strong under tow, I exerted all of my energies to swim to shore.
- Cumulative sentence. You begin with the main idea in an independent clause, and then add one idea after another. Example: I love the spring, the fresh air, sunny days, blooming flowers, green grass, watching baseball, and riding my bike.
To learn more, read “The Writer’s Portable Mentor” by Priscilla Long. She identifies the various types of sentences you should learn to write.
The Paragraphs. Learn how to create a variety of paragraphs. Author Priscilla Long, in “The Writer’s Portable Mentor,” identifies four paragraphs that you should learn to write. These include:
- The direct paragraph. This type of paragraph begins with a topical sentence, and then adds details.
- Climactic paragraph. It begins with examples or illustrations, and ends with the main, controlling idea or topical sentence.
- Turnabout paragraph. It is a paragraph that begins in one place and then turns in another direction in the middle. This type of paragraph contrasts ideas. You signal a change in direction to the reader by using the words, “but” or ” nevertheless” or “and yet.”
- Statement paragraph. Begin with a statement and then elaborate with a series of sentences.
Developing Your Writing Skills
Becoming a good writer takes time. And during that time you must learn and practise. What must you do? Here are a few suggestions:
- If you are just getting started, purchase a few writing tools: a notebook, pen, laptop, dictionary, and thesaurus.
- Begin keeping a writing journal. It will develop your habit of writing. Write in the journal each day. Write every day for 15 minutes or so. Write about anything that inspires you or is on your mind.
- Find ideas to write about. An easy way is to read the newspaper, books, and magazines.
- Learn the craft of writing. Learn the rules of spelling, punctuation, grammar, and writing style. If you don’t have a copy, pick up The Elements of Style by Strunk and White.
- Expand your vocabulary. There are many ways: 1) Learn a word a day. 2) Every time you bump into a word you don’t understand, look up its meaning. 3)Use these new words in conversation and in your writing. 4) Discover synonyms by using a thesaurus. For instance, instead of using the word “walk”, you might say plodded, dawdled, marched, strode, stroll, lumbered, wandered, traipsed, trekked.
- Read poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction for pleasure. Reading will inspire you.
- Read as a writer. This involves reading and analyzing the writer’s style, tone, and voice.
- Learn to write imaginatively. This involves learning how to write similes and metaphors and other poetic devices. It also involves learning how to show the reader what happened, how to write sensory images that appeal to the readers sense of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. It involves learning how to write concrete, specific, and significant details. A good book to help you is “Imaginative Writing” by Janet Burroway.
- If you are not interested in learning on your own, take a creative writing course in poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction. Or join a writing group. Or attend a writing conference. Or take a trip to a writing retreat for a few days.
- Schedule an artistic date with yourself. Author, Julia Cameron, in “The Artist’s Way,” suggests that you go on a “Artist Date” each week. This involves participating in something creative each week or two–such as visiting the book store, the art gallery, music concert.
If you desire to become a strong writer, you must learn the art and craft of writing. Begin by embracing the writing life. Write and read every day. Keep a journal. Get into the habit of writing. Learn the rules of spelling, punctuation, grammar. Learn the elements of fiction. Learn the literary techniques and poetic devices. Learn to show and tell what happened. Learn how to write free verse poetry, short fiction, and creative nonfiction. Experiment with your writing. Find inspiration. Learn to write creatively with simile, metaphor, sensory imagery, and vivid description. The act of writing each day makes you a writer.
For more information, read the following:
- The Right to Write by Julia Cameron
- Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
- Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
- Tell It Slant by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola
- On Writing Well by William Zinsser
- Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale
- The Elements of Style by Strunk and White
- Imaginative Writing by Janet Burroway
- How to Be a Writer by Barbara Baig
- The Writer’s Portable Mentor by Priscilla Long