What Is Creative Writing?
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If you studied "creative writing" in college, what would you expect to study? For the most part, non-writers or beginning writers I’ve met have at least a partially erroneous idea.

Misconceptions break down, roughly, into two camps. People think in terms of creative writing having an audience of one: the writer. Or, people think of creative writing in terms of at least a potential external audience yet have a limited idea of the kinds of forms that creative writing can take. Although I’ve met some people who apparently have gone to "creative writing" classes that teach the "self only" audience style of creative writing, I’d have to question the credentials of their instructors in such courses. I’m old enough to be some of these people’s mother and in some cases nearly old enough to be their grandmother. I hold several writing-related diplomas, degrees, or certification from various institutions recognized either as an accredited institution or within the communications industry, the earliest of which I’ve held for closer to thirty five than to thirty years. Industry-wide, generally speaking, the "no audience" concept of creative writing is not the accepted definition. Indeed, the two can overlap . . . such as when one retrospectively seeks to publish a personal journal (or parts of one) or a family history originally written for oneself. Generally speaking, though, the industry term for the "no audience" type of writing . . . among both professional writers and most academicians who teach writing . . . is not "creative writing" but "personal writing."

Although you could build a course or two around personal writing, you’d be hard pressed to build an entire Major around it . . . which you arguably can with creative writing defined as I know it to be defined.

For those that view "creative writing" as something directed . . . at least potentially and eventually . . . to some audience external to the writer, they still often have a limited view of what forms creative writing may take. Most think in terms of poetry both rhymed and unrhymed, novels, or short stories. In reality, creative writing . . . assuming we mean the term to at least include certain types of writing that seek such an external audience . . . can take a wide range of forms beyond the traditional poem, novel, or short story formats.

Still, the various forms we categorize as creative writing have commonalities among them for the most part . . . some poetry perhaps demonstrating the exceptions.

With the potential exception of some poetry, creative writing has as an end product something that: 1) seeks one or more readers external to the writer, 2) seeks to engage that audience of readers, and 3) uses some or all of a set of recognized storytelling techniques to capture and retain reader interest and engagement. Some poetry may demonstrate exceptions to the third principle, but not usually to the first or second principles. And you’ll find some poetic works that use some of those storytelling techniques as well. (Think: "'Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house . . . " or "Listen, my children, and you shall hear of the midnight ride of Paul Revere.")

Elements of story structure have a certain straightforwardness to them. Typically, a story involves one or more characters who experience (and usually eventually resolve or overcome) two or more of various types of conflict set within a story structure that has an observable beginning, middle, and end.

Structure-wise, storytelling is that fundamental. It’s the mastery of those storytelling techniques for application within a story (such as pacing, characterization, and description skills in writing) that define an author’s level of skill in any particular form of creative writing. And there are many forms of final product that qualify as creative writing under this definition yet tend to get short shrift.

That’s unfortunate, since some of these forms may hold even more interest to the typical novice writer . . . because of their potential practical value . . . than it might to solely learn how to go about writing a novel or a short story: both formats with limited markets yet that utilize the same fundamental storytelling techniques as many other forms of written material.

In a related article, I cover a survey of actual what we might call "genres" of creative writing that respond to the three-part formula given here and apply those storytelling techniques within that structure.

For now, though, let this article leave you with the idea that you just might find far more practical application than you anticipate to attaining a mastery of those fundamental storytelling skills.


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