Featured image of a woman sitting in a coffee shop.

The Important Things Creative Writing Classes Taught Me

Creative writing courses have a reputation for being useless. While I understand the sentiment, and I agree some should be viewed with caution, I’m against the automatic dismissal of any and all creative writing courses. During my three years at university, I’ve studied three creative writing courses: beginning, intermediate, and advanced. I won’t go into too much detail about the actual course here – that’s for another post, if it garners interest – but I will talk about the most important things I learnt from this course.

The reader owes the writer nothing.

The reader is not obligated to continue reading if they do not want to. It is our job as writers to convince them to stay. Not everyone will; we can’t, and shouldn’t, try to please everyone… but we should try to retain as many readers with a genuine interest in our genre, characters, and narrative as we can. The theory behind this is all the things you’ve inevitably heard before: a solid opening hook, a well-researched and edited narrative, and characters they are compelled to care about.

This sentiment applies to thinking about book reviews, too. Book reviews largely aren’t for the author: you should be getting feedback on your book, through beta readers and sensitivity readers, well before you publish. Book reviews are for book readers. They can be used as a marketing tool for the author, but again: the reader owes the writer nothing. If they don’t like your book, as frustrating as it may be, it isn’t your job, nor your responsibility, to change how they feel.

Experiment, experiment, experiment.

Looking back through my creative writing journal from the final advanced class, I’m glad I was willing to embrace the writing tasks set each week, regardless how abstract they seemed. This extract, for example, involved writing a single sentence that was as long as I could manage (while still making sense, of course).

We sit together in silence as she tells us, while I stare at my soup, which is rudely growing cold, and we’re both sat there, the soup and I, ignoring the sudden, blinding flare of information that none of us were prepared to deal with, and I stir my soup with the spoon in my left hand as my mind remains blank, devoid of any and all possible response, except for the fact that the soup is cold, and now I will have to eat it cold, with my cold hands and my cold heart because I am too cold to say anything, and I can’t stop thinking about how cold the silence makes this room feel, because when we were kids we always had so much warmth in our hearts for each other, but we have grown cold too quickly, leaving nothing in this house but six bowls of cold soup and six equally cold people, except my mother, who is growing far too cold, far too fast, and I think that even if we’re lucky, this family might never know warmth again, and I think about how much I hate cold soup.

I love this example for several reasons. First of all, the contrast between warmth and cold parallels the contrast between life and death. It also indicates the divide between the healthy family and the sick mother. Additionally, it is a great example of showing instead of telling: we infer that the protagonist is in shock from learning about their mother’s terminal illness. We also get a sense that the family used to be loving and emotionally healthy, but has since deteriorated, including the protagonist who is unable to express themselves and instead takes out their negative emotions on their hatred for cold soup.

Experimentation in my creative writing classes gave me the confidence, in a safe sandbox where I wasn’t expecting myself to produce anything immediately publishable, to try out new genres, tones and characters. It’s directly how I discovered my love for crime fiction and without creative writing classes, I don’t think I would have come across this genre as an area of such personal potential.

Using Verbs (The “–ing” Problem)

The problem with “verb-ing” is what my tutor described as a popular problem with amateur writers. At first I was sceptical about what she meant and how much it could change my writing, but now I pay constant attention to it and I’m a better writer as a result. Essentially, a lot of writers overuse (and misuse) adding “–ing” to the end of their verbs. To revisit: a verb is a word used to describe an action, state, or occurrence. It can be used to describe an action – for example, “running”.

The use of verbs with the added “–ing” are not, in themselves, wrong – but using them too often, and multiple times in the same sentence, is where writers can trip up. Take the example sentence: She lit a cigarette, pushing her sunglasses on to her forehead, and fixing him with an amused stare. Does something seem off? Reread it. This sentence states a woman has a lighter and a cigarette. At the same time, she pushes her sunglasses onto her forehead. At the same time, she fixes him with an amused stare. These three actions cannot possibly be all occurring at the same time.

A better sentence might be: she lit a cigarette, pushed her sunglasses back onto her forehead and fixed him with an amused stare. In this sentence, the only thing changed is the “–ing” verbs – yet, magically, it reads much better. The sentence is now a list of actions occurring in chronological order: she lights the cigarette, then adjusts her sunglasses, then looks at the other character. It is easiest to see why this works by taking sections of your own work and replacing most of the “–ing” verbs with alternatives. Don’t ban their usage – just reduce down and see how your work changes.

Find The Right Form (And Why Everyone Should Write Short Stories)

I have a habit of trying to pack too much content into one form of storytelling. The three forms we considered in class were novels, short stories, and poems. I’m definitely not a poet (my boyfriend can attest to how bad I am at rhyming words) so my focus went towards short stories. I saw this as practice for an eventual novel. All my life, I’ve been starting novels – but never finishing them. Creative writing classes taught me why. I pack so much complexity into one plot that I never have hopes of tackling it all. The process of writing short stories of a 5,000 to 10,000 word count taught me how valuable shorter forms are for testing your writing skills.

Short stories (or good ones, at least) require you to be precise. You need to create characters, settings, themes and plot points – all in as few words as possible. Ideas that are too complex or sections of prose that are too wordy will have to be edited down to their bare bones. Finding the right form for my ideas, learning to always be simplifying the stories I tell, and practice editing my writing down to be short, sharp and precise… were all skills that transformed how I write.

In conclusion, picking a degree including creative writing classes is the best possible decision I could have made. My university experience, particular in this final year, would have led me in a different direction with a pure English Literature course and I’m excited to see where my new found writing skills, and the confidence I’ve picked up alongside them, take me post-university.

Have you ever been part of a writing course or class? Would you consider doing so? Tell me your thoughts in the comments below!

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