Let’s Banish the Phrase ‘Creative Writing’
Damaging stereotypes about writing and creativity continue to reinforce troubling dichotomies about the nature of creativity, writes Cydney Alexis.
To many people, if not most, the phrase “creative writing” marks a genre. A man writes in a garret, his pages lit by the faint glow of a lamp. Ideas are spilling madly from his cerebral cortex to the page. He probably has a cup of coffee next to him. Or a dog. And he is writing a story — perhaps about a road trip.
I know that is the image in most people’s brains because it is the one I’ve read or heard described hundreds of times by the news media, in popular culture, by writers themselves, in books written by writers on writing, by my students and by friends. It is also the image most strangers (or distant family members) produce when I tell them my field is writing studies, a discipline dedicated to the academic study of writing of all kinds: college writing, digital writing and workplace writing, just to name a few examples.
Upon hearing that, a man I met in a hostel over breakfast asked me to listen to his poem to see if it was publishable, even though, not being a poet, I have no credentials for evaluating his text. My distant cousin, after years of asking at Thanksgiving dinners, still can’t understand why I don’t want to edit his novel. Most of us learn to laugh off the glaze that comes over people’s faces as we academics in writing studies explain what we, in fact, do write.
The problem is that one image of writing dominates the popular imagination and is weighted with value more heavily than all others: writing as “creative writing,” which is treated as if it’s interchangeable with fiction and poetry. Over the years, I’ve come to understand a few pervasive problems that stem from the view of creativity as tied to fiction and poetry, from the public’s lack of awareness of what academics and other workplace writers do, from problematic attitudes held within the so-called field of creative writing itself about what types of writing are creative, and from the ways we as writing studies/English scholars reinforce problematic ideas about creativity. Those attitudes include:
- One sphere of writing is marked off as “creative” while others are devalued.
- People who write everything except poetry and fiction — those who contribute the vast majority of writing to the world, in the form of lists, essays, emails, blog posts, texts, instruction manuals and so on — see their work as less creative and important.
- This mass of unrecognized writing and labor is virtually unrepresented in popular culture, and academics and other workplace writers are not part of the cultural narrative around creativity (save for some exceptional examples, such as the way writing is represented in the TV show The West Wing, often a powerful meditation on the importance of collaboration and revision in workplace writing, and in Her, a movie that celebrates the ghostwriting of love letters, not generally a celebrated writing genre).
I first took note of the emotional weight and impact of this phenomenon when conducting interviews for my dissertation on the impact of materials of all kinds on the writing process. I interviewed four dozen people and, in countless interviews, they expressed the heartbreaking sentiment that there once was a time when they wrote creatively (i.e., they wrote poems and stories), but now they are just academics or workplace writers. Even more troubling was that when asked if they considered themselves writers, they resoundingly answered no. Even for people who write daily for their trade, writing has become synonymous with poetry and fiction writing, which has become synonymous with “creative writing.”
I began asking more people whose livelihoods depend on the written word and who write daily if they see themselves as writers. I also began asking graduate students who came to see me at various writing centers where I worked whether they considered themselves writers. And again most said no. There was something in the identity label of “writer” that people have attached to a particular kind of writing. Deborah Brandt voiced this powerfully when she pointed out that while the identity label of “reader” is available to most people — meaning that most readers could confidently say “I’m a reader” — the identity label of “writer” is not.
In her book, Brandt demonstrates how cultural narratives around the importance of reading enable families to understand the value of this act and to support reading as a family value and practice. This practice, of course, has a long history — reading was not a solitary or silent activity until relatively recently. (Scholars debate exact dates, but some point to silent reading as a late-19th-century or even 20th-century phenomenon.) Writing, in contrast, has often been associated with privacy, secrecy and solitude, as Brandt asserts.
Writing is also associated not with workplace forms but with poetry and fiction. A question that comes to mind is that if a persistent narrative around writing is that the only creative writing is fiction and poetry, and if families do not see themselves as skilled in this way, how can they encourage writing in all of its forms as a family value? Brandt notes that in her hundreds of interviews with families, people rarely remembered writing around parents. For many families, being a writer is not seen as a valuable trade — it’s the stuff of fiction.
What persists are damaging stereotypes about writing and creativity that continue to reinforce troubling dichotomies about the nature of creativity. Consider the famous joke that “those who can’t do teach,” which parodies the work of people dedicated to fostering creative thinking in others, which requires them, also, to be constantly creating. Or consider that teachers and professors are almost always depicted in popular culture as practitioners, not talent.
For instance, in the 2015 film Me, Earl and the Dying Girl, Nick Offerman plays a bumbling sociology professor whose intellectual contribution to his field is portrayed solely via his penchant for wearing “tribal” clothing from around the world. His son characterizes him as a person who basically sits around a lot. When faculty members aren’t being ridiculed in popular culture, all sorts of other problematic stereotypes are propagated, such as the effectiveness of white teachers or teacher figures inspiring at-risk or inner-city students and/or students of color to be “creative” by writing fiction or poetry. (See, for example, Dangerous Minds, Finding Forrester, Freedom Writers, Up the Down Staircase.) Try to imagine those movies teaching writing skills that would actually potentially be valuable in today’s marketplace.
In Dead Poets Society, we even see the symbolic gesture of a teacher tearing up the syllabus, perhaps imagined to be the dullest of literary genres. But as a material representation of a 16-week experience, it is, I would argue, one of the most creative and rewarding of writing forms. Indeed, if creative writing is about world creation, as many people contend it is (although that, too, is debatable), what is closer to this than the creation of a new experience?
How did the field of creative writing, and the public’s idea about this type of writing, emerge? In The Elephants Teach, D. G. Myers traces the origins of this term, the genre and the workshop that has become the standard in English departments across America. Myers presents ample evidence that the institutionalized field of creative writing barely resembles the ideals and movement that produced it in the 1920s, when it exploded in popularity largely due to the writings of educator William Hughes Mearns. Mearns developed and popularized what’s considered to be the first creative writing workshop for junior high school students. He was tired of English courses that used literature as a means of drilling students on vocabulary or grammar or as some other means to an end.
Mearns proposed the practice of writing literary texts for self-expression, so that kids would enjoy literature, and for promoting an understanding of literature by writing it. His description of his creative workshop spread quickly and was rapidly adopted across the United States, largely because he traveled throughout the country presenting the model to teachers and schools and then published student work in various texts that were also publicly devoured.
However, according to Myers, in contrast with current conceptions of writing that treat fiction and poetry as more cultured than genres such as workplace writing, emails, lists or even theses, Mearns would not have abided by a view of creative writing as somehow more cultured or valuable. Neither would the prominent progressive educator John Dewey, Mearns’s influencer.
In fact, both Dewey and Mearns were highly critical of the notion of “culture,” which seemed to be a means of discriminating against the masses for abilities that people held due to various privileges and advantages (such as speaking “proper” English). Myers demonstrates how the rise of creative writing paralleled the rise of post-World War II college enrollments due to the GI Bill, as well as the rise of federal student aid. The growth of creative writing programs also divorced creative writing from its study of literary texts, and the field emerged as one that — rather than training future writers — trained future teachers of fiction and poetry. He notes that “Creative writing was devised as an explicit solution to an explicit problem. It was an effort to integrate literary knowledge with literary practice,” but that “what had begun as an alternative to the schismatizing of literary study had ended as merely another schism.” Now, English departments are divided, with the study of fiction and poetry quite divorced from other parts of the program.
An effect of popular attitudes about writing is that much public, popular and workplace writing is devalued, despite its ubiquity, importance, creativity and potency. The division impacts so-called nonfiction, too (a genre defined by a lack). As Barbara Tuchman articulates, “I see no reason why the word ‘literature’ should always be confined to writers of fiction and poetry while the rest of us are lumped together under that despicable term ‘nonfiction’ — as if we were some sort of remainder.”
Too often, binaries are leaned on in order to praise one thing and devalue another. This is the case with the phrase “creative writing” and just about every form of writing that is set apart from it. And also too often, what’s placed on the other side of the binary is work that is “critical” in nature. Consider an article by scholar and literature professor Graeme Harper, who, in championing the creative writing workshop, repeatedly utters sentences like these: “[My students] are required to write both creatively and critically.” When the critical is opposed to the creative, it’s easy to understand why public attitudes, and even those of academics and other writers who produce critical work, are so pervasively seen as uncreative.
Over the years, the students with whom I have worked, and particularly those who see me in the writing center, have reported that after I talk with them about some of these ideas, and after they begin thinking of themselves as writers, their positive feelings about writing intensify. No one wants to feel that the daily work they do is valueless, dull, uncreative. And everyone should be able to access an identity that they are proud of related to their trade.
I am concerned that narratives about what it means to be creative and a creative writer are to blame for much of what I’ve described. I’ve seen this in the various departments in which I’ve worked, where certain faculty members spurn the fields of professional writing and writing studies and reinforce the idea that teaching poetry, fiction and even literary analysis are somehow more desirable.
I would love to see English and related departments banish the use of “creative writing” in titling disciplines, tracks and departments. Instead, bring us all together under the banner of Writing Studies, Writing or Writing Arts. In my courses, I tell my students at the beginning of the term that they will not hear me use the phrase, and I tell them why. Most of my students are not going to be fiction writers and poets; they are going to be journalists, technical writers, emailers, texters, medical record writers, memo writers, proposal writers and list writers. And I want them to understand that if they enjoy this work, it is as valuable to them as fiction and poetry.
It’s time we banish the idea that certain writing forms are creative and certain aren’t. And that academic writing is dull. Let’s challenge ourselves to stop using the pernicious phrase “creative writing.” To produce more public texts that depict the creativity involved with forms besides fiction and poetry. And to expand our fundamental ideas about what it means to be creative.
7 Techniques from Creative Writing You Can Use to Improve Your Essays
You wouldn’t have thought that essays have much in common with creative writing.
You should also read…
Creative writing, by definition, involves being ‘creative’: making things up, letting your imagination run wild. Essays are about being factual and objective, communicating ideas and arguments in the clearest way possible and attempting to enhance the reader’s knowledge, rather than their imagination. But while the literary devices and colourful tales we associate with creative writing are indeed out of place in an essay, these two very different kinds of writing actually have a few similarities. Above all, they’re both meant to be read by other people, and that means that they need to sustain the reader’s interest. So, are there any writing techniques you can borrow from creative writing to help make your essays more interesting and original? Yes there are, and in this article, we’re going to show you how.
1. Think about your reader
With creative writing, as with any kind of writing, your reader is your most important consideration. You need to know and understand whom you’re writing for if you’re to do a good job of keeping them interested. Let’s think for a moment about the kind of person you’re writing for when you’re writing an essay and what you need to do to write specifically for them:
- Teachers or university lecturers – they’re going to be marking your essay, so it needs to answer the question effectively.
- They’ve set the question and they probably have a pretty good idea of how you’re going to answer it – so be original and unpredictable; catch them by surprise with an unusual approach or structure.
- They’re going to be reading many other responses to the same question – so they may well be bored by the time they get to yours. Keep them interested!
- They’re probably going to be pressed for time – so they won’t have time to reread badly written passages to try to understand what you’re getting at. Keep your writing easy to read, succinct and to the point.
What all these points boil down to is the importance of keeping your reader interested in what you have to say. Since creative writing is all about holding the reader’s interest, there must be some lessons to be learned from it and techniques that can be applied within the more limited style constraints of the academic essay. We’ll now turn to what these are.
2. Three-act structure
Yves Lavandier argues that, although traditionally divided into five acts, Hamlet consists of three dramatic acts.
The three-act structure is a writing device used extensively in modern writing, including for film and television dramas. These ‘acts’ aren’t as distinct as acts in a play, as one follows seamlessly on from another and the audience wouldn’t consciously realise that one act had ended and another began. The structure refers to a plotline that looks something like this:
- Set-up – establishes the characters, how they relate to each other, and the world they inhabit. Within this first ‘act’, a dramatic occurrence called an ‘inciting incident’ takes place (typically around 19 minutes into a film) involving the principal character. They try to deal with it, but this results in another dramatic occurrence called a ‘turning point’. This sets the scene for the rest of the story.
- Confrontation – the turning point in the previous ‘act’ becomes the central problem, which the main character attempts to resolve – usually with plenty of adversity thrown their way that hampers their efforts. In a murder mystery, for example, this act would involve the detective trying to solve the murder. The central character – with the help of supporting characters – undergoes a journey and develops their knowledge, skills or character to a sufficient degree to be able to overcome the problem.
- Resolution – the climax of the story, in which the drama reaches a peak, the problem is overcome, and loose ends are tied up.
This structure sounds all very well for made-up stories, but what has it got to do with essay-writing? The key similarities here are:
- The central argument of your essay is the equivalent of the main character.
- The essay equivalent of the set-up and resolution are the introduction and conclusion.
- The inciting incident in an essay encourages you to get to the point early on in the essay.
- The equivalent of character development in the second act is developing your argument.
- The equivalent of the supporting characters is the evidence you refer to in your essay.
So, applying the three-act structure to an essay gives you something like this:
- Set-up – the introduction. This establishes what you’re talking about, setting the scene. The ‘inciting incident’ could be the introduction of evidence that contradicts a common theory, or the highlighting of a central disagreement in how something is interpreted.
- Confrontation – you discuss the different problems surrounding the topic you’re writing about. You develop the argument using various bits of evidence, moving towards an overall conclusion.
- Resolution – the conclusion. You summarise and resolve the argument with your own opinion, by coming down on one side or the other, having weighed up the evidence you’ve discussed. You could perhaps tie up loose ends by offering an alternative explanation for evidence that doesn’t sit with your conclusion.
Using this structure keeps you focused on the central point, and stops you from waffling, because everything you write is working towards resolving your argument. The use of the inciting incident in the first ‘act’ encourages you to get to the point early on in your essay, thereby keeping the reader interested. The principles of good plot-writing are centred around the connection between different events that show cause and effect, and this central tenet of the three-act structure has obvious parallels with the way in which essays work through presenting evidence in support of arguments.
3. An attention-grabbing opening
An oft-spouted piece of advice in creative writing is to use an attention-grabbing opening. One way of doing this is to start with a ‘flashback’, which could disrupt the chronology of events by transporting the reader directly back to the midst of the action, so that the story begins with maximum excitement. In a murder mystery, for instance, the writer might skip a slow build-up and instead use the murder itself to form the opening of the novel, with the rest of the story charting the efforts of the detective to uncover the perpetrator and perhaps telling the events prior to the murder in a series of flashbacks. The same principle can be applied to essays, though it’s easier to use in some subjects than others.
To take an example, let’s say you were writing about how the First World War started. Rather than building up slowly with the various factors, an attention-grabbing opening could (briefly) describe the drama of the Battle of the Somme, perhaps citing some statistics about the number of men involved and killed, and quoting some war poetry about the horrors faced by the soldiers on the Front Line. Then, to introduce the purpose of the essay and launch into your argument about what started the war, a phrase such as, “It seems hard to imagine that all this began with…”. Alternatively, a rhetorical question: “But how did these tens of thousands of soldiers end up in the mud and horror of trench warfare? The story begins several years earlier, with…” It may not be the standard way of writing an essay, but you’ll certainly score points for originality and perhaps ruffle a few feathers.
4. Extended metaphors
Metaphor is used extensively in Romeo and Juliet. Film still from Romeo and Juliet (F. Zefferelli, 1968).
Creative writing often makes use of extended metaphors. For example, when Shakespeare wrote the passage in Romeo and Juliet referring to “It is the East, and Juliet is the sun!” he was using an extended metaphor. With this in mind, it’s time to revisit a point we made in a previous article about writing more original essays , in which we argued that, rather than battling on with trying to explain a complex concept in a straightforward way, it might be easier to use an analogy to convey the meaning by drawing comparisons, which people find easier to understand. A metaphor is a kind of analogy, so the similarities with creative writing are strong here. In our previous article we used the example of radioactive decay. An analogy for this is the pressure with which water escapes from a hole in a bucket. It does so exponentially, just as radioactive substances decay exponentially. In both instances, the rate of a consumptive process depends on how much there is left of whatever is being depleted, which results in an exponential rate of decay. This concept is so much easier to explain using the analogy of water flowing from a hole in a bucket, as you give your reader something familiar to visualise in order to explain a concept with which they are unfamiliar.
5. Interesting details about setting and location
Another way of keeping your reader interested is to bring your essay to life with details about setting and location, just as creative writers do. Essays can become quite dry if you focus solely on the academic problems, but you can make them more interesting by peppering them with details. This may not work quite so well for a scientific essay, but it’s certainly relevant for some humanities subjects, in particular English literature, history and archaeology. For example, an essay about the Roman emperor Augustus could mention that he lived a famously modest lifestyle, quoting details from Roman writers and archaeological evidence that support this: Suetonius mentions his “low bed” (interesting because of what it says about accepted standards of Roman beds!) and coarse bread and cheese diet, and the relatively small and non-lavish remains of his house on the Palatine Hill in Rome back up the idea of his having lived a modest life.
Incidental details like these can actually prove to be more significant than you initially realise, and you can use them to build your argument; in the case of Augustus, for example, his modest lifestyle is particularly important when seen in the context of Rome’s troubled history with kings. As he gradually acquired more power and became Rome’s first emperor, he had to avoid coming across as being too ‘regal’, and the little details we know about his way of life are significant in light of this. So, not only have you brought your essay to life, but you’ve raised an interesting point, too.
Few writers get it right first time. Once you’ve written a first draft, read through it and think about whether the order of your points is optimal and whether what you’ve written actually makes sense. It’s easy in the age of computers to chop and change – you can simply copy and paste part of your essay into another part where it might fit better, and then make minor changes to your wording so that it flows. After you’ve finished editing, have a final read through and check that you’re happy with the wording. Don’t forget to proofread to ensure that your spelling and grammar is impeccable!
7. And finally… record your ideas
Creative writers swear by having a notebook with them at all times, ready to jot down any ideas that suddenly spring to mind. You can adopt the same principle for your essay-writing, because you never know when the inspiration might strike. Have a think about your essay topic when you’re out and about; you’d be surprised what occurs to you when you’re away from your normal place of study.
As you can see, there are more similarities between two apparently unrelated kinds of writing than you might have realised. It is, of course, possible to go too far with the creative writing idea when you’re essay-writing: literary devices aren’t always appropriate, and your essay still needs to retain objectivity and conform to the more formal conventions of academic writing. But there are certainly techniques to be borrowed from creative writing that will help your essays stand out from the crowd and give your teacher or lecturer a welcome break from the monotony of essay-marking.
See also our fabulous guide explaining more about ” What is Creative Writing ”.
40 x Higher English A grade folio essays: creative, reflective, persuasive, discursive.
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All essays are around 1000 words.
1) Reflective essay on mountaineering/phobia of heights. .
2) Creative essay about a conflict between two sisters. .
3) Discursive essay about Formula 1 racing safety. Fully referenced.
4) Creative essay (1300 words), about the ethics of drug use.
5) Creative essay re. reflections on the banking crisis.
6) Reflective essay about gymnastics.
7) Discursive Essay Rehabilitation vs Retribution.
8) Discursive Essay: women serving on the front lines.
9) Creative essay (1300 words) inspired by ‘The Great Gatsby’.
10) Creative essay. Short story called ‘SPQR’ set in ancient Rome.
11) Discursive essay: academic pressures on students.
12) Discursive essay on extreme sports. Full references included.
13) Reflective essay: peer pressure and consumerism at Christmas.
14) Personal reflective essay: the impact of divorce.
15) Personal reflective essay: the film ‘Mississippi Burning’.
16) Persuasive essay: swearing.
17) Persuasive essay: bullying.
18) Persuasive essay: making Music studies a compulsory subject in schools.
19) Persuasive essay: Moon landing conspiracy theories.
20) Persuasive essay on the topic of food waste.
21) Persuasive essay on head coverings worn in public
22) Persuasive essay which argues against undertaking cosmetic surgery.
23) Persuasive essay arguing against animal testing.
24) Persuasive essay on comparing the merits of fiction with journalism.
25) Discursive essay: LGBTQ issues.
26) Reflective essay on depression and grief.
27) Reflective essay on growing up in Mauritius.
28) Reflective essay: ambitions.
29) Discursive wild animals as pets.
30) Reflective essay: sibling rivalry.
31) Reflective essay: alcohol.
32) Persuasive essay: banning zoos.
33) Discursive essay: genetic engineering.
34) Discursive: Welfare State / Benefits.
35) Discursive: Population Control and One Child Policy.
36) Discursive: Intervention in Syria (Obama Administration).
37) Persuasive: Intervention in Syria (Trump Administration).
38) Reflective essay – Spanish holiday .
39) Creative essay re. a lost dog.
40) Persuasive essay on the fashion industry and fat shaming.
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100 A grade essays: GCSE National 5 Higher A level English
A bundle of 100 A grade essays relevant to the GCSE, National 5, Higher and A Level English syllabi.