I have always loved to write—to toy with words, speculate with plots, sit before a blank page, and let my inner muse take over.
Since grade 9, I have been submitting to indie publishers, usually horror/dark fantasy-based, as those are my preferred genres. In my first winter term at UBC, I finally got to take 2 creative writing (CRWR) courses—and to measure my skills against a university-level scale.
Findings: a) Good creative writing often comes from atrocious, wretched first drafts that I improved afterwards, and b) my professors and publishers all roughly agreed on specific things they were seeking in a high quality creative writing piece.
Here are 8 tips to accompany you on your own creative writing odyssey:
1. Follow the submission guidelines
When you receive an assignment in CRWR (poem, scene, stage play, anything!), there will be specific formatting styles to follow, from font size to word count range. Follow them. Whenever you’re unsure about submission guidelines, talk to your prof, TA, or classmates.
2. Show, don’t tell
For prose, readers want in on the story, and providing more details on characters’ feelings and appearances can draw your readers in even more.
When describing a character’s emotion, show the physical presentation—e.g. “he looked sad” can become “his lips, quivering, curled in a pout…”
Avoid using adverbs. Merely saying “they said violently” could go further. Maybe strengthen the verb: “They barked” or “They spat.” Or, add more imagery/action to the scene: “They barked, tongues twitching and writhing, teeth gnashing together.”
3. Avoid clichés and the passive voice
Remove any clichés (phrase, expression, archetype) from your work; they detract from the creativity of your piece. In poetry, you may want to bend syntax, invert sentence structure, and use unexpected turns of phrases.
If you’re looking to accelerate the piece or minimize word count, use the active voice. Rather than “it was thrown by me,” use “I threw it” instead. That said, it’s your call. Maybe you’re going for a winding poetic skein, where using the passive voice is stronger.
4. Appeal to the senses—pretend you’re in your piece
The setting should not be a mere backdrop. Touch on multiple senses in your descriptions, specifying a sense of location, mood, atmosphere. Have the characters interact more with their surroundings. What do they hear, smell, touch? For example, maybe the sunlight isn’t just streaming in—maybe it's blinding?
5. Give your piece a strong tone and a purpose
Writing that has a strong narrative tone and unique voices for every character (everyone should be a special snowflake) can intrigue your audience. But stay within your word range—every word/sentence/scene should matter.
With stories, you must have conflict. Something happens. It could be dramatic, like a murder mystery, or it could be a coming-of-age tale where something changes your character internally in some way.
Ask yourself why you're telling this story. What do you want the reader to take away? Writing with a purpose, a message, and a set of themes in mind will help you sharpen your focus and increase the piece’s appeal to the reader.
6. Prepare for writer’s block...
This is inevitable. Sometimes writer’s block can come from feeling drained of ideas, the barrel of creativity emptied.
For me (just like Virginia Woolf), it’s because I read something I love so much that I never want to write again. In Woolf’s words: “My great adventure is really Proust. Well—what remains to be written after that?”
7. ...but retrieve your inspiration
You could draw from your personal life; what you find mundane may be fascinating to another. (That’s where journalling can help!)
Stephen King’s inspiration for Pet Sematary, for instance, came from his experiences of living by an actual pet cemetery and losing his daughter’s cat to a truck. Even the title and that line in the book (“That road has used up a lot of animals”) came from his personal encounters.
Or, muse-ify the things around you. Inspirations for some of my stories have ranged from a missing pet poster (a sci-fi/horror yarn with a missing robot) to a game of Old Maid (a vampire-dingo who pacifies prey with card games).
8. Almost ready to submit—did you proofread?
No one likes to read typos or run-on sentences. Read over your work with a surgical eye and with spell check on (in Canadian English). Identify plot holes, missing transitional phrases, grammatical bloopers. Pro tip: Read out loud for flow and logic.
If you would like another set of eyes (and feedback) during your writing process or before you submit, book a free writing consultation at the Centre for Writing and Scholarly Communication.
When writing stories for class or professionally, remember to ensure that your work is original, solely your creation, and free from infringement on copyright. That includes any plots and wordings someone else created.
You can reference copyrighted/trademarked characters in passing, but you can't use them as your characters (unless they are in the public domain or if you asked for permission from the original creator).