Some people will tell you that creative writing can’t be taught and that there are no hard and fast rules for success, and to an extent this is true: you need a little bit of natural talent and a lot of luck to make it as a writer. However, that certainly doesn’t mean you can’t improve your chances by working towards your goals: as in any area of life, persistence pays off, and there are several general guidelines which the majority of writers believe you should follow. Here are some of the tips I’ve found most useful:
Work out what your inciting incident is, and include it within the first three chapters of your story
There are so many different distractions vying to capture our attention in today’s fast-moving world: music and films are available on demand, the internet offers endless entertainment and thousands of books are published each year in the UK alone. This means that, if you want your story to be a success, it needs to stand out. What is the event that disrupts the flow of your main character’s life and kick-starts the novel’s action? The earlier you include it in your story, the more likely you are to grab the reader’s attention and get them hooked on your book. What’s more, if you decide to pitch your completed novel to literary agents, they’ll often read just the first three chapters before they decide whether they want to see the rest of it. It’s important that they know roughly where the story is going within these three chapters so that they want to find out what happens next.
Character is key
Plot, setting and writing style are all undoubtedly crucial components of a good novel. But when you think about the books you’ve read and loved, what was it that kept you turning those pages? Chances are it wasn’t the gripping plot or the beautiful imagery, but a human concern for the characters and the desire to know what happens to them. The best characters are the ones who feel like our friends: we know them inside out and we want to spend time with them. Make sure your characters are fully fleshed-out and well-crafted individuals. Character profiles can help you keep track of their likes, dislikes, fears and dreams, as well as their appearances and backstories. Imagine what they’d do in different scenarios – is your main character the sort of person who’d save their enemies from a burning building or abandon them to the flames? The better you know your characters, the easier it will be to write your story – you may even find they take control of it for you.
Keep it slick
The key characteristic of any short story is that it’s, well, short. If you’re planning to submit yours to a magazine or competition, there will be a maximum word count and you’ve got to make sure that you tell your story effectively in this limited space. Here are some ways of streamlining your writing:
- Make sure you’re using exactly the right word for the job – thesauruses can be helpful here; don’t use a convoluted phrase when one powerful word will do
- Cut out adverbs – many writers agree that words like ‘quickly’ and ‘happily’ are unnecessary and a bit tacky
- Avoid the passive voice – ‘he kicked the dog’ sounds much punchier and less pretentious than ‘the dog was kicked by him’
Find extraordinary ways of describing ordinary things
One of the key functions of poetry is to help us view our world in a fresh way, so if you find clichés slipping into your writing, take a step back and re-evaluate. Generally, the more specific the imagery, the more it appeals to our senses and has an effect on us as readers, so don’t just say ‘the day was cold’ but tell us how cold – was it freezing, bone-chilling, or just a bit nippy? And what effect does the cold have on the speaker? Does it make their cheeks tingle, their fingers numb, their eyes water? Is it finger-numbingly freezing; does a cheek-tingling chill sweep through them as they step outside? Let your imagination run free and play around with language until you find a combination of words that gets across exactly what you want to say.
Read your poetry aloud
Centuries ago, when most people were illiterate, poems were read aloud for entertainment, and some of the key features which govern poetry today have their roots in this practice. Reading your work out loud – even if it’s just to your cat – will help you get a feel for rhythm and pace, and allow you to evaluate the impact of effects like alliteration. On a more basic level, it can be easier to spot mistakes when you’re forced to hear yourself reading your work as it enables you to view your writing in a different light.
Make sure your characters’ conversations aren’t just interrogations
Scripts for television or theatre are never going to reflect the way people actually speak: natural dialogue is too full of hesitations, mistakes and random digressions to be interesting in a dramatic context. However, it’s also possible to go too far the other way. When your characters need to convey important pieces of information to each other, it’s easy to fall into the trap of having them ask one another questions and give the answers straight away. For example:
JACK: Why are you leaving me?
JILL: Because I love John more than you and I’m fed up of your grumpiness. Why are you getting so angry?
In real life – even if someone’s being interrogated as part of a police investigation or appearing on a chat show – they’ll avoid giving straight answers and say things they don’t necessarily mean. Sometimes, the characters’ actions (expressed in your stage directions), silences and the things they leave unsaid speak louder than their words.
Read, read and read some more
You wouldn’t expect to become a professional footballer if you’d never seen a game: likewise, you won’t understand how to craft a good piece of writing if you don’t learn from the masters. There’s no need to be a literary snob: read anything you can get your hands on, whether that’s Renaissance poetry, children’s picture books or out-of-print science fiction. You’ll absorb the rules of grammar and the rhythm of a good sentence as you go along, and you may even pick up some ideas for your own writing!
Don’t just sit around waiting for inspiration to strike: take a look at some online writing prompts, go for a walk to get ideas or simply open a fresh notebook and crack on with it. Though it may feel difficult and unnatural at first, you’ll soon get into the flow of things and, even if the finished result is terrible, you’ll learn from the experience.
No one becomes a master of their craft without trying and failing dozens of times, and time spent practicing is never wasted. Who knows – you might even end up producing a masterpiece!
Don’t forget to edit your work
Whether you’re a ‘planner’ (someone who thinks things through carefully before you commit pen to paper) or a ‘pantser’ (someone who prefers to make things up as you go along), there will come a time when you need to go back and polish your work to ensure it’s the best that it can be. Think of yourself as a sculptor: the raw material is already there and you just need to chisel it into a more beautiful shape. Don’t be afraid to take risks when you edit – save different drafts of your work so that, if you decide to make a big change which doesn’t work out, you can always go back and start again.
• Try to make your writing eye-catching and original
• Ensure that you’re using language imaginatively and efficiently
• Don’t be afraid to play around with your work and make mistakes
• Master your craft by reading and writing as much as possible
Hannah is an undergraduate English student at Somerville College, Oxford, and has a particular interest in postcolonial literature and the Gothic. She thinks literature is a crucial way of developing empathy and learning about the wider world, and is excited to be Scholastica Inspires’ Literature Editor! When she isn’t writing essays about 17th-century court masques, she enjoys acting, travelling and creative writing.