How to improve your creative writing – The Creative Writing Programme Method
This is the first of a number of blogs on how to improve your writing in which I will outline the thinking that underpins the Creative Writing Programme. I’m not suggesting for a moment that reading it will improve your creative writing. Only hours of questioning and challenging yourself in the writing process will do that. But, I hope it will give you some sense of how we work and how what we do on the Creative Writing Programme is distinctly different from many more mainstream academic or commercial creative writing courses.
Part One – Words and how to use them
Writing is about writing
There are numerous online creative writing courses in the UK … and I’m appalled by most of them. They keep popping up on my social media feeds: ten top tips for writers, hit your max, max out your writing, follow these ten simple rules etc. etc. Please, do yourself a favour, give them a wide berth. Likewise, at the opposite end of the spectrum, don’t be seduced by university courses. I’ve taught on university creative writing courses in the UK and have had to deal with writers who were creatively crippled by the academic environment. Writing is about writing, not about applying critical templates.
Writing as a process
Writing is an art. It cannot be systematised into an academic discipline, neither can it be reduced to cheap journalism. What we are doing in our creative writing courses is teaching the open-ended creativity of writing as a process. We have developed an approach that is closely related to education in the visual arts and music in which we focus on creativity, composition and experience. It is an approach that recognises that the creation and appreciation of art as not only cerebral, but embodied.
This approach to teaching has required turning the traditional relationship between tutor and student upside down. In conventional teaching the tutor owns the content of the subject being taught. Our approach recognises that the student owns the content and our role is to help them express it in narrative form. This means, unlike many traditional creative writing courses, our tutors work closely with our writers to enable this process. A lot of online creative writing courses offer students modules in which they watch videos, read exerts, answer questions and complete a writing exercise without seeing their tutor. Our tutors, on both our blended and online creative writing courses, always interact face to face with our writers.
The Creative Writing Programme approach to teaching creative writing
On the Creative Writing Programme, we work from micro to macro, from the simple rendering of experience onto the page to the tension-filled continuities of longer narratives. We start with words. Through a deeper understanding of what words do and the effect they have on the reader we can position them in relationship to the storyline and make the reading process a more physical experience. Then we move onto technique and the mechanisms we have for guiding the reader through the story. Both of these approaches require us to unpack language and to think about it, but with the intention of turning what we have learnt into intuition, so it becomes an instinctive part of our writing process.
Learning how to build a complete story is complicated because ultimately it cannot be taught as a set of instructions or rules. There are rules of course, but like harmony in music they offer us an infinitely variable system. If we understand or feel these changes sufficiently then we can break the rules that stop us from doing what we want to do.
Improve your creative writing by understanding how to use words
So, in our creative writing courses in the UK and our distance learning courses, we focus first on words and how they work for us as writers. We talk about the power of words. This is not a grammatical or rhetorical look at language. It is primarily an artistic one. Though there are overlaps, the focus is primarily on how we recognise the expressive value of different types of words. You will learn to recognise classes of words not through their grammatical definitions, but in the way they help you build your story in the theatre of your reader’s imagination.
Words are the essential building blocks of a story. So, if you are going to improve your creative writing you need to understand how to use them. There is another complicating factor. Most people who haven’t had the time to think about language tend to believe their meaning is contained within the words they use and that what they mean is communicated when they speak or write, but this isn’t actually the case. The simplest analogy is that of pouring milk into a jug and passing it to someone else – they drink the milk that we pour. But language doesn’t work like this. Language is a symbolic code. You codify your thoughts into words and your audience decodes those words and gives them meaning. This means that if you’re not careful, if you’re naïve and think your reader will just ‘get’ what you think, you are likely to run into all sorts of problems on both the micro and macro level in your writing.
We’ll touch on this again later but let’s get back to how we deal with words on our creative writing courses. The most important words we use as creative writers are those that allow us to place images of things that exist in the real world into our reader’s imaginations. These are things that we can see, touch, smell etc. These words are clearly identifiable because they are visual. We see them in the real world and we see them in our imaginations. They can stand alone. Compare the word ‘crow’ to words like ‘feeble’, ‘abundance’, ‘muddle, ‘consequence’ etc. You can see the crow. The image in your imagination has an almost mythic resonance. Those other words are not visual. They need to be linked to words that we can see. The ‘feeble child’, for example. These intensely visual words have a name. They’re called nouns (from the Roman ‘nomen’ to identify or to label). You don’t need to know them as nouns, but you do need to recognise them and realise their power. Train yourself to recognise these words. Use them to build a tangible concrete world in your writing.
A common weakness in writing we see on our creative writing courses
One of the principle weaknesses of writing that we see on our creative writing courses, both the distance learning courses and the creative writing courses in the UK, is that writers do not use enough concrete language. The reason for this is that they feel they need to tell their reader what is going on beneath the surface of things and to do this they necessarily use language that is more abstract.
Abstract language helps us identify the qualities or characteristics of things, often things that can be identified in the actions of people but that don’t actually exist in their own right. Take the word ‘nervousness’ for example. The word ‘nervousness’ is an abstract noun. We can’t see it, we can’t pick it up and hold it in our hands but we can identify it in the actions of others. We can see if someone is nervous. The problem with abstract language like this is that it is visually vague and has less connotative resonance than a concrete noun.
Express the abstract through the concrete in your creative writing
On our creative writing courses we encourage writers to express the abstract through the concrete. Of course, this isn’t a hard and fast rule, but it is a good corrective to an initial tendency of writers to be too abstract. For example, you could describe a boy as nervous. ‘Tom stood in front of the door. He was nervous’, or ‘Tom stood nervously in front of the door’. Or, you could avoid using the abstract term ‘nervous’ altogether and infer it through more concrete description. ‘Tom stood in front of the door chewing his lower lip, glancing from side to side down the long, empty corridor’.
Good writing does not overstate the subtext. It infers it. If you do this you will let your story speak for itself, you will stimulate your reader’s imagination and instead of telling them what to feel, you will allow them to feel it. To develop this skill, you need to understand the difference between abstract and concrete language, realise the importance of the visual and the concrete and focus on choosing your words carefully.
Choose your words carefully
Choosing your words carefully is really important. A simple description, like the one above can be rendered in myriad ways. It’s like good photography. You can take the obvious photo … most of us do (like choosing the obvious abstract noun), or you can find a different angle, represent something in a different way. This is a technique that has been used in poetry and literature since people first started telling stories. It allows the reader to see the world in a different way – your way.
On our online and blended creative writing courses on the Creative Writing Programme we emphasise the importance of building stories in a concrete and visual way. We’ve talked about nouns, but there are too other important types of words that we need to understand: verbs and adjectives/adverbs. Verbs move the action through time or into character. They activate and dramatize your narrative. Used well they activate the reader’s physical response, reveal character through action, enhance the physical reality of your story and create drama and tension. Used poorly they do the opposite.
Some verbs have a strong ‘felt’ sense in that their meaning is clearly related to a physical action. Consider the difference between the word ‘grasp’ and ‘understand’. They can both mean the same thing, but the word ‘grasp’ has far more immediate physical impact. Understanding is a purely mental activity, grasping suggests understanding but also the act of gripping. Again, we are using the distinction applied earlier between abstract and concrete language.
There are also a number of weak, static verbs that we use a great deal in speech derived from the verbs to ‘be’ and to ‘have’, like: am, is, was, were, have, has etc. These verbs don’t have much visual power and don’t suggest character. Train yourself to detect them and if you sense they are proliferating in your writing, ask yourself whether they are serving the purpose of the story and if not, see if you can replace them with a more active, ‘felt’ verb.
English is rich in synonyms (words which have similar meanings to others). If you take the word ‘walked’ for example, you can easily think of a number of words which describe this action in different ways: ‘ambled’, ‘stomped’, ‘strode’ etc. Again, question your use of the obvious word. There may be times when it’s appropriate, but very often by not using it you will be able to think of another word that expresses this action whilst also suggesting character and reinforcing the felt sense of your writing.
Adjectives and Adverbs
Another tendency that we notice a lot of on our creative writing courses is the misuse of adjectives and adverbs. Adjectives are words that give us more specific information about the thing being described. The challenge for the writer is to balance the more specific definition offered by the adjective against the power of the noun. Get this right and you have a powerful image. Get it wrong and you will bleed power from the noun and lose visual clarity. Avoid the overuse of adjectives and make sure the ones you use add something new to the reader’s perception of what you are describing. Don’t use adjectives whose meaning is already implied by the noun. ‘Beautiful roses’ is clearly a weak descriptive linking of an adjective and noun.
The same thing applies to adverbs. These are the ‘ly’ words that you often find used in weak dialogue:
“Is that you?” she said innocently.
“What do you mean is that me?” he said jealously.
There is a danger when using adverbs that you, as the writer, end up telling the reader things that should be implicit in the action of the scene.
I’m giving you a lot of theory here and of course it helps if you understand basic word classes, but you don’t need to be a grammarian. I think it’s clear that this is not about grammar but about the way we can render the stories that we put together in our imaginations onto the page in such a way that they stimulate and come alive in the imaginations of our readers. It’s not as easy as it looks. Of course, on our online creative writing courses and our UK based creative writing courses you would approach all these ideas through practical writing exercises designed to allow you to explore the expressive power of words for yourself and to consider and discuss with other writers how best to apply these insights to your writing.
How to craft sentences
We’ve talked about words, now let’s talk about sentences. Don’t be afraid to write simply in short clear sentences. Try to avoid unnecessarily long sentences, or sentences that have got too much detail in them, or sentences that are trying to say two or three different things at the same time.
The full stop is your friend! Don’t fall in love with semi-colons – they’ll cheat on you. Commas too can play fast and lose. If a sentence feels uncomfortable when you read it. Ask yourself. Can I turn this into two sentences? Often the drama of the writing is enhanced by breaking events and time down into more easily assimilable units.
Remember. Each sentence is like a supermarket dash for your reader. They have to load themselves up with the ideas that you want them to take on board. If they drop or spill ideas, they may not fully appreciate or understand what you’re saying. Worse still, they may have to attempt the sentence again. That’s bad. A reader should only read one of your sentences for a second time if they are blown away by the sheer expressive beauty and power of your language – not because they don’t understand it.
Related to this is getting the information in the right order. Each sentence you write is an unfolding event. Imagine it as a section of film. Directors and editors spend hours in editing suites cutting together a sequence of actions from the rushes. The reason they do this is to make sure the action flows and builds. A good sentence should feel like this. Every element should arrive at the right time. Don’t write ‘He reached across and grabbed at it, his fingers slipping on the damp wet surface, then closing in around it, gripping it tightly behind its head, he lifted up the snake.’ Write, ‘He reached across and grabbed the snake, his fingers slipping etc.’ The reader must have the information they need at the right time to SEE the action. They mustn’t be left guessing as to what is actually going on. OK, you’ve got some leeway here. You can withhold to develop tension at times, but the basic principle is be aware of how your sentences unfold in your reader’s imagination.
Writing and anxiety
I’ve noticed a tendency amongst writers on our creative writing courses to become a little anxious when we encourage them to write simply and clearly. It’s easy to become anxious that your writing is not clever or literary enough and that your reader will not be properly entertained if the language on the page isn’t constantly erupting like a firework display. But your reader isn’t looking to be impressed by how clever you are. In fact, they don’t want to be impressed by you at all. They want to be impressed by the story.
The Special Author
One of the things we encourage on the Creative Writing Programme on both our online and UK based creative writing courses is something we call the ‘special author’. Instead of prescribing long reading lists we ask writers to collect together some of their favourite books and to search in them for examples of the techniques and use of language that we are exploring in our taught practical sessions. That way you build your own style out of a more detailed understanding of the writers you admire. This isn’t plagiarism, it’s theft! And it is the time-honoured process by which writers have found their own voice. Literary history is full of examples of great writers literally copying out, or writing in their own words stories written by their ‘special authors’. No matter how hard you try to emulate another writer’s style you will always end up being you, because the experience you draw on and the themes and conflicts you bring to your work can only be your own.
One of the ways in which we use the ‘special author’ on our creative writing courses is to ask our writers to template the prose of one of their chosen authors. To do this, take a section – say a paragraph – and keeping the punctuation and the number of words in the sentence, take the words out. Then identify the phrases within the sentence and what they are doing. For example, the first phrase of ten words describes a horse drawn carriage etc. When you have clearly identified the sequence of actions and descriptions in the paragraph, re-write it in a different way in your own words, trying to mimic the cadences and flow of the original. It’s a useful exercise that helps you to understand the power of good sentence and paragraph construction.
All our online creative writing courses and our UK creative writing courses build slowly from first principals, from the micro to the macro. So, you start small as we’ve been doing here, considering the expressive power of language, working on descriptions and vignettes. But of course, on the Creative Writing Programme it will be done through practical writing exercises and assignments set by your tutor and followed up with discussions and notes to consolidate learning. As you move through the programme you will sometimes return to themes to deepen your understanding of these ideas in a wider context. This is true of the idea of character. We start small, looking at the principles of characterisation, usually isolated characters against their own backgrounds, then revisit character later to look at interaction, tension and dialogue before studying the role of the protagonist and character development within full blown narratives.
I will talk about the need for objectivity in the writing process and the development of character in the next blog.
Creative Writing Programme Director