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Posted on Nov 04, 2020

Creative Writing 101: A Beginner's Guide to Creative Writing

Whether for school, work, or a particularly eloquent email, everyone’s done some creative writing at one time or another — but that doesn’t mean everyone knows how to do it well.

If you’re reading this now, you probably enjoy creative writing from other authors and want to improve your own, but aren’t sure where to begin! Luckily, this primer will take you through everything you need to know about creative writing: what it is, how to get into it, and our top tips for refining your prose.

What is creative writing?

Creative writing is writing that takes an imaginative, embellished approach to the subject matter — in contrast to academic writing or news writing, which is typically dry and factual. As a result, most people associate creative writing with fiction and poetry. However, there’s also some brilliant creative nonfiction out there!

For example, though most journalism is considered non-creative writing, editorials and thinkpieces often slot into the creative category. The same is true of autobiographies and memoirs — anything written from a certain point of view, rather than a generic third-person perspective, is bound to describe things in a more creative way.

What are the elements of creative writing?

what are the elements of creative writing?

Again, point of view is a big one. Other elements of creative writing include narrative structure, the buildup of tension, recurring themes, and literary devices like similes and metaphors. Fiction-specific elements include plot and character development. You can learn more about creative writing elements in that literary devices post, or in this guide to rhetorical devices!

What are examples of creative writing?

The main types of creative writing include:

Needless to say, if you’re looking to do more creative writing of your own, you have plenty of options. Whether you’re inclined to weave fantastical tales of fiction, inspiring thinkpieces, or heart-wrenching poems, there’s absolutely a form out there for you!

How to get into creative writing

Speaking of which, let’s talk about where to look for creative inspiration, as well as where to submit your writing once you’ve polished it up. Here are four amazing places to start if you’re hoping to get into creative writing!

✍🏽 Writing prompts

If your number-one writing obstacle is a lack of ideas, allow us to introduce your saving grace: this directory of 900+ creative writing prompts, ranging from character studies to setting prompts to opening lines for your story! The prompts in that directory are sortable by genre, providing everything from fantasy to comedy to holiday-themed scenarios, so you’re sure to find a prompt 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; you can respond to them briefly or at length, in just about any form.

Use prompts to start a project, test your skills in a different genre, or stretch your creative muscles after a long time on the bench — the choice is yours! (Though if you're hoping to enter our Reedsy contest, your form will need to be a short story of 1,000-3,000 words; more on that in a bit.)

Here are a few of our most popular prompts, for those who want to jump right in:

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

🏆 Writing contests

Or if motivation is your issue, 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!).

Indeed, 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! Check out that page for rules and to see the latest contest.

And if you’re looking for writing contests in a specific genre or medium, try the directory linked above. Or if you’re a student, here are 150+ exciting writing scholarships for you to peruse!

🏋🏻‍♀ Creative writing exercises

Sometimes 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!

Like prompts, such exercises provide a low-pressure sense of direction for your writing — yet at the same time, help you actively improve on elements like voice or characterization. If you’re struggling with a certain part of creative writing, try out a writing exercise with that element as its focus.

Here are some exercises from the page above to help you out:

A) Plot: The Outsider. Write a pivotal scene in your WIP — from an outside observer's perspective, someone who has no significant role in the story.

B) Character Development: The Gatsby Method. 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 the candid descriptions by others.

C) Dialogue: The Eavesdropper. 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.

🤓 Creative writing classes

Finally, if you’re looking to take a more structured, dedicated approach to creative writing, you can’t go wrong with a writing class! As with writing exercises, classes on specific topics can really help strengthen your weak spots and build up your less-developed skills. Or you might prefer a more general, workshop-style class similar to a critique circle, in which everyone offers feedback on each others’ work.

Whatever you choose, make sure you’ve read the course description and reviews before you enroll, as a class is a bigger, pricier commitment than simply picking out a prompt, contest, or writing exercise. Or you can just sign up for a free class — like this short story course from Reedsy Learning.

Free course: How to write a short story

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

5 creative writing tips to enhance your craft

Now, as promised, here are five of our most useful tips on how to develop and improve your craft! Even if you’ve never done any creative writing before, these are sure to set you on the right path.

1. Find your voice

Again, perspective is essential when writing creatively. That said, even if you have a solid sense of perspective, it can still be tough to nail down your voice! You may know exactly how you feel and what you want to convey, yet still have trouble finessing the words on the page.

If this sounds like you, here are some exercises to help you find your writerly voice:

📝 List the writers you admire, then list the pros and cons of each writer’s style. Try to be as specific as possible; for example, you might have “cutting insights into the human condition” in the pros column and “overlong, rambling descriptions” in the cons.

Once done, consider how you might incorporate the pros into your own writing, as well as how you might minimize or eliminate the cons. (And obviously don’t just imitate one author precisely — otherwise your voice will no longer be yours, but theirs.)

📖 When reading, pay close attention to your favorite lines. This is a more granular approach, but great for figuring out what you want your voice to sound like! For instance, if you find yourself underlining lots of evocative figurative language, you’ll know that’s something to strive for in your own writing.

🌸 Keep in mind that flowery prose ≠ strong voice. Some writers seem to think the only way to achieve a respectable voice is to make every sentence as long and lyrical as possible. Do not do this! Some floridity is fine, if it comes naturally to you — but don’t force it, and definitely don’t turn every single sentence into a showcase of 50-cent words.

2. Show, don’t tell

You’ve likely heard this classic writing adage before, but for those who haven’t (or may not be quite sure what it means): show, don’t tell refers to using sensory descriptions and active language to immerse the reader in a story, rather than simply stating what happens.

The guide linked there will be massively helpful in your quest to show rather than tell, but for further illumination, here are a few excellent “showing” passages from recent winners of our Reedsy contest:

come to atlanta! | creative writing

“come to atlanta!”

“No Hard Feelings”

the witch's daughter | creative writing

“The Witch’s Daughter”

Though each of these authors clearly possesses their own style, they “show” these scenes using similar techniques: strong verbs, potent sensory details, and vivid comparisons (the sky to a bruise, the DMV to a dystopia, the tree to an old man).

Of course, not every passage has to “show” what’s happening in this way — again, it’s all about finding balance in your prose — but when you’re hoping to truly immerse readers in a scene, this is the tack to take.

3. Take care with pacing

Speaking of the Reedsy short story contest, one of the most frequent issues we see is poor pacing: stories that either unfold too slowly or much too quickly, causing readers to lose focus or become confused.

However, good pacing is crucial when penning short pieces, as you don’t have much space to get it right! You can check out that post for a thorough overview of what pacing is and how to control it in your story, but here are a few bonus tips:

🏗 Vary your sentence structure. Some writers tend toward longer sentences; others like ‘em short and sweet. Our catch-all advice for effective pacing is to actively vary your sentence length and phrasing — e.g. don’t start with the same word every time (unless you’re intentionally trying for anaphora!).

Think in terms of “real time.” Here’s an easy way to tell if your story is paced too slowly: if the reader takes longer to get through a scene than the character spends in that scene. For example, if you’ve got your protagonist musing on the scenery for what, to them, is 30 seconds, don’t spend 1,000 words expanding this brief interlude to the size of the universe.

👩🏻‍💻 Get a beta reader or editor. If you suspect something is off with your pacing but can’t put your finger on what, you may benefit hugely from a fresh pair of eyes! Consider asking a beta reader to look over your work — or better yet, hire a professional editor who’s trained to look for pacing problems and can provide concrete suggestions on how to fix them.

4. When in doubt, cut it out!

The very best self-editing tip we can offer is this: if you have even the slightest doubt whether something is creatively vital to a piece, cut it out.

This applies to redundant descriptions, extraneous characters and subplots, “deep” ruminations that are actually just navel-gazing, and more. If it doesn’t add something discernible, it dilutes your writing, and you should get rid of it.

Don’t believe us? Take it from Ernest Hemingway, who lived by this “rule of omission.” He claimed that 99% of the time, “you can omit anything… and the omitted part [will] strengthen the story.” (This connects to his Iceberg Theory, which you can learn more about here.)

And in the spirit of Hemingway, we won’t linger on this one. Instead we’ll move on to our final — and arguably most important — creative writing tip.

5. Practice, practice, practice

You can read all the writing advice in the world and it still won’t make you a better writer. The only thing that will, of course, is writing.

To that end, don’t wait until you’ve read more books by great authors, or absorbed more articles on writing craft, or hit upon the “perfect” idea. Just start writing — and then keep going! Every bit of practice, whether through prompts or classes or writing an entire book, will hone your skills — but you do have to commit to the act in the first place. As Louis L’Amour elegantly put it: “The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.”

Looking for more writing advice? Check out this post of super-detailed writing tips that covers every single aspect of the craft.

In any case, we hope this guide has given you a solid introduction to creative writing and plenty of inspiration regarding where to go from here! (You can also apply to some creative writing jobs to spice things up.) May your writing flow not like a faucet, but like a waterfall: abundant, uninhibited, and breathtaking to all who behold it.