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Getting into creative writing

How to Learn Creative Writing

This article was co-authored by Melessa Sargent. Melessa Sargent is the President of Scriptwriters Network, a non-profit organization that brings in entertainment professionals to teach the art and business of script writing for TV, features and new media. The Network serves its members by providing educational programming, developing access and opportunity through alliances with industry professionals, and furthering the cause and quality of writing in the entertainment industry. Under Melessa’s leadership, SWN has won numbers awards including the Los Angeles Award from 2014 through 2021, and the Innovation & Excellence award in 2020.

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Creative writing is any form of writing intended for entertainment, although it may also inform or persuade. It encompasses fiction, poetry, song lyrics, scripts, biographies, and anything that combines these elements. Although creative writing is an innate skill, it can be taught, and its techniques must be learned in order to develop as a writer. There are a number of ways to learn creative writing; the steps below cover some of these ways.

Top tips for creative writing

Crafting an original work of fiction, poetry, or creative non-fiction takes time, practice, and persistence. While there’s no exact science to creative writing, the following tips will help you get started:

1 Write about what you know

Beginning writers always get told ‘write what you know’, but it’s good advice. Use settings, characters, background, and language that you’re already familiar with and create new stories from the world that you already know. This is like using research you’ve already done. And remember, your background, what you bring to the act of writing, is as valid as what anyone else can bring.

2 Write about what you don’t know

Use your imagination to create new situations, new characters, new relationships, even new worlds. Choose to write about a different period in history, or a place that you’re not familiar with. Where your imagination needs help, fill in the gaps with research. The best thing about being a creative writer is creating.

3 Read widely and well

Writers love reading. Make yourself familiar with the published landscape of writing in your chosen field, whether it’s modern poetry, literary fiction, thrillers, short stories, or fantasy. Nothing encourages good writing like reading good writing.

4 Hook your readers

Nobody is forced to read your novel or short story, so it’s important to hook readers right away. Your opening sentence or paragraph should encourage them to continue, perhaps by making them laugh, or exciting their curiosity, or just making them want to find out what happens next.

Consider the intriguing sting in the tale of the opening sentence of George Orwell’s 1984:

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

It seems like a very traditional opening and then – thirteen? You want to know more and so you read on.

Now look at the first sentence of Raymond Carver’s short story Viewfinder:

A man without hands came to the door to sell me a photograph of my house.

Just a short sentence but with so much that we need to have explained. We’re hooked.

5 Get your characters talking

We find out about the people we meet through what they say to us, how they say it, their choice of words, their accents, their verbal habits. Readers should be able to do the same with fictional characters. People on the page really start to live when they start exchanging dialogue.

Writing dialogue needs a lot of work – making it fresh and authentic, editing repeatedly to get it right – but it’s worth the effort.

6 Show rather than tell

Too much description, too many adjectives and adverbs, can slow up your narrative and cause your readers to lose interest. Where possible, it’s better to show you readers what a person, the atmosphere in the room, the relationship between your characters is like – show, that is, by what they say, how they interact, what they do. It’s more effective than telling the reader through wordy piles of information.

This is a tricky one. You have to do some telling so it’s important not to become obsessive about avoiding it.

7 Get it right first time

Try to get your first draft as near perfect as possible. Few writers manage this kind of quality the first time but no one ever wrote great literature by aiming low. On the contrary, aim for the best and do your best from the very start.

8 Keep polishing

If you don’t get it right first time, you can do what most writers do – polish and perfect through the editing process. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that editing is the same as proofreading; it’s about much more than correcting errors. Rather, editing involves carefully going through your work to see what to leave out, what to change, finding out what you have to do to improve your writing, make it sharper, tidier, better.

Editing can be hard work. It’s said that Ernest Hemingway took the last page of A Farewell to Arms through nearly 40 drafts, so don’t give up if you feel you’re getting nowhere.

9 Make the most of your opportunities

Many aspiring writers claim they simply don’t have the time to make the most of their ideas. Yet, if you analyse a typical day, there are always those intervals – using public transport, waiting for a friend, time spent in the waiting room of the doctor or dentist – when it’s possible to pull out a writing pad, a laptop, a tablet and just write. Identify your opportunities – five minutes is enough to get a few sentences down – and use them.

How to Start Creative Writing: 7 Ways to Fast-Track Your Writing

There are plenty of great reasons to begin a creative writing journey, whether your goal is to have fun, express your feelings, improve your language skills, or even become a professional writer. If you’re uncertain about how to start creative writing, the key is to start small. By taking things one word at a time, you can reliably develop your craft and habit — learning how to get your voice on the page while attuning yourself to a sustainable writing routine.

To help you get the ball rolling on your new life as a creative writer, we’ve compiled a list of approaches to try out. We’ll start with a few ideas that require little time and effort commitment, and grow more ambitious as we go. Y’all ready for this?

Start a journal

A journal doesn’t need to be a “dear diary”-style chronicle of your entire day. Instead, it can be the perfect way to get used to expressing yourself without feeling self-conscious, since no one will be able to read your entries. If having an audience motivates you, you could instead start an anonymous blog and post your entries there — just be careful not to share any information that might let people identify you.

Journaling ideas

Pick a moment and expand on it. This could come from your day or a recent experience. How did it make you feel? Why do you think you chose this particular moment?

Write about someone you saw recently. It could be someone you know or a passing stranger. Try to describe how they were feeling or what they were up to.

Reflect on a big question. What do you think you deserve in life? What makes you happy? What are your most joyful memories?

Take five and write anything. On days when you’re feeling emotionally charged, set a 5-minute timer and just do a word dump. The only rule is that you don’t stop writing. Just write down anything that comes to mind, from daily stressful thoughts and worries to your hopes and aspirations.

Write a secret letter. Take inspiration from Jenny Han’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and write letters to people from your past: your favorite teachers, people who wronged you, your first crush, someone who let you down. You don’t need to mail anything to anyone: the process alone can be cathartic and helpful in untangling how you feel about your experiences. Plus, you’ll be getting lots of practice in articulating feelings and writing about emotionally intense subjects!

Start an anonymous Twitter account

Like anonymous blogging, an incognito Twitter account avoids the self-conscious feeling that comes with attaching your name to your work. Anonymously putting tiny stories out into the ether means you don’t have to worry about the consequences — so long as your stories aren’t offensive, don’t defame anyone, and avoid the trap of spreading dangerous conspiracy theories, of course. Just remember, you’re not doing this to fool anyone into thinking that your account is real: be a good citizen and mark yourself a fiction account in your bio.

Twitter creative writing ideas

  • Challenge yourself to write tiny flash fiction stories that fit into Twitter’s 280 character limit, or build a thread of tweets that grows into a story.
  • Practise writing endings or last sentences for stories you haven’t written yet.
  • Try to capture the essence of a character in one tweet.
  • For one week, tweet from the point of view of an imaginary persona.
  • Follow one celebrity’s tweets closely, and write the tweets you think are missing from their timelines (without tagging them or using their name, of course!).
  • Tweet about your day in rhyme.

Give creative writing exercises a go

Sometimes practising writing isn’t so much about putting together a cohesive, polished piece as it is about strengthening a specific aspect of your craft. That’s where creative writing exercises come in!

Such exercises offer a low-pressure sense of direction for your writing — while helping you actively improve on particular elements like voice, building tension, or characterization. If you’re struggling with a certain part of creative writing, try out a writing exercise with that element as its focus. To help you out, we’ve identified some common problem points, and devised some example exercises to flex that specific writing muscle.

Example exercises

Plot: Write a short story (or a pivotal scene in your longer project) from the perspective of an outsider, someone who has no significant role in the story.

Character Development: Establishing how your character is perceived by others is a great way to give them deeper context. To give this method a go, write a scene in which your character is only present through candid descriptions by others.

Dialogue: The next time you go outside, discreetly listen in on any conversation between two people for five minutes. Then go home and “fill in the blanks,” using Person A and Person B’s cadences and speech patterns to complete the conversation yourself.

Try out some writing prompts

If your number-one writing obstacle is a lack of ideas, then meet your new best friend: this directory of 1000+ creative writing prompts. Ranging from suggestions for character studies to potential opening lines, the prompts in this directory are sortable by genre topic, so you’re sure to find one for every occasion (and for many you’d never considered before).

The best thing about writing prompts is that you can do almost anything you want with them: they’re inspiring without being too constrictive. Prompts can help you start a project, test your skills in a different genre, or stretch your creative muscles after a long time on the bench!

Prompt examples

  1. Create a ghost story where there’s more going on than it first appears.
  2. Write about a character who smells something familiar and is instantly taken back to the first moment they smelled it.
  3. Try writing a story that feels lonely, despite being set in a packed city.
  4. Write about someone who’s stuck in an elevator when the power goes out.
  5. Write a story that starts or ends with someone asking, “Can you keep a secret?”

Take part in writing contests

If motivation is what you’re lacking, how does a hard deadline and a little prize money sound? Writing contests are another fantastic way to dive into creative writing, especially if you sometimes need a kick in the pants to get to work (no judgment — we’ve all been there!).

This is the route we’d recommend if you haven’t written creatively in years, or if you frequently start pieces but never seem to finish them. The combination of competition, an inflexible due date, and the potential to win a prize or even have your work published is often just what’s needed to propel you over the finish line.

We actually run a weekly writing contest over on Reedsy Prompts, so you can segue from casual user to contest entrant without skipping a beat! Head to that page to check out this week’s contest and read our (fairly straightforward) rules.

Or if you’re looking for writing contests in a specific genre or medium, take a peek at our directory of writing contests which features some of the most prestigious open writing competitions in the world.

Sign up to creative writing classes

For a more structured, dedicated approach to creative writing, you can’t go wrong with a writing class. Classes on specific topics can really help strengthen your weak spots and build up new skills. On the other hand, you might prefer a more general, workshop-style class similar to a critique circle, in which everyone offers feedback on each others’ work.

Head to our list of creative writing classes to see some of the most popular online options. Whatever you choose, make sure you read the course description and reviews before you enroll: classes tend to be a bigger, pricier commitment than simply picking out a prompt, contest, or writing exercise. That being said, you can also find some excellent free classes out there — like this short story course from Reedsy Learning.

Free course: How to write a short story

Learn how to shock and delight your readers with this course from literary editor Laura Mae Isaacman. Get started now.

Commit to writing a book

If you’re not someone to shy away from a challenge, you also just take the plunge and try writing a book off the bat. ‘Writing a book’ doesn’t mean you have to write a novel — you could also write a book of creative nonfiction (e.g. personal essays) or assemble a poetry collection. You can even go mega-ambitious and start to write a whole series of novels, if you like!

Whatever type of book you choose to work on, the key is to write the whole thing, and be prepared for it not to be a masterpiece. It’s a learning process, and it’s not for the faint-hearted: it will involve coming up with a book idea, then planning, writing, and editing, before preparing your work for publication. It’s a long process, but the satisfaction you’ll feel when you finally write ‘The End’ will be all the sweeter.

Pro tip: If you think you’ll need an incentive or a deadline, consider signing up to National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), a writing challenge which takes place every November.

Free course: How to actually start writing your book

Take the leap with this inspirational course and become an author like you’ve always dreamed. Get started now.

Remember that the important thing is not to expect a magnum opus the first time you set pen on paper. Don’t overthink it, or spend ages obsessing over tips and books on writing if you don’t find them helpful: sometimes, rather than agonizing over how to start creative writing, you should just start writing.

There’s no right or wrong approaches to creative writing. All of these methods and many more are perfectly legitimate ways to put your creativity to use, and get better every time. And who knows? It could even lead to a creative writing job down the line.

In the next post in this series, we take a look at the various creative writing classes available on the web. Some are free, some not, but we’ve listed our recommendations for you to choose the best class for you!