How to use creative writing techniques in other writing
Use transferable creative writing techniques to bring other forms of writing to life
Creative writing is all about imagination, isn’t it? Fiction is just making things up, surely? Telling a story that isn’t true? How could creative writing techniques possibly improve other kinds of writing?
Think again. If you’re a creative writer, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Creative writing skills are transferable skills, and you can use them to add to your writing portfolio. There are elements in creative writing that will help to make you a better writer in many other ways.
Creative writing gives a writer a toolkit to bring other kinds of writing to life, making it stand out by being accessible, entertaining and giving its reader the chance to think about the material being presented in an original and thought-provoking way.
The kinds of writing that can benefit from creative writing techniques include:
• Creative/narrative non-fiction
This is the most obvious example, where techniques borrowed from creative writing are used to create ‘faction’ – a factual narrative told by using the same techniques as a piece of fiction.
Good feature-writers will use any tools at their disposal to make their articles into a good read, including dialogue skills, scene-setting, character creation, foreshadowing and having a recognisable ‘voice’.
A good essay may present a reader with factual information but it will do so in a way that engages their imagination and presents them with an original, thought-provoking insight.
The most engaging way to make your life story interesting to a reader is to recount it as a story full of sensory impressions, not as a list of what happened where and when.
Use narrative details to bring the character of your subject and the context in which they lived to life so that readers will care about them and the how, where, when and what it was that makes their story worth writing.
• Popular non-fiction
You can do all the research you like but then you need to turn your facts into a readable, relatable story that creates an impact and is filled with recognisable characters and events.
• Academic writing
Just because a piece of writing takes a theoretical approach and is targeted at a specialist readership doesn’t mean it has to be formulaic or – much worse – dull. Your voice and word-choice will enable you to showcase academic information so that it creates the impression it deserves.
• Speech writing
A good speech will take its listeners on an emotional journey. It will be full of drama and tension, and it will involve its readers – all of which will be second nature to a creative writer.
Benefits of a creative thought process that can be applied to other kinds of writing
• Creative thinking
A creative writer will look for a unique way of presenting information or conveying it in a way that that brings it to life.
• Creative problem solving
Creative writers are used to solving problems all the time. How do I get that character through that door and into the next scene? How do I create the element of surprise, and stop readers from realising that the nice old lady is a serial killer? It gives them the capacity to apply the same thought-process to real-life problems, which can be very useful in various writing capacities.
• Conceiving/visualising an overall project and the various mini-projects within it
Creative writers need to create not just the overall arc of a story (ie big project), but the mini-arcs of all the characters and narrative threads within it. It gives them the organisational skills to compartmentalise and break down a writing task into manageable chunks (ie scenes, chapters) without losing sight of the overall picture.
• Broadening vocabulary and conceptual possibilities
Being good with words requires creative writers to have better-than-usual vocabularies, which then provide them with an expressive toolkit that can be applied in a variety of writing situations. Understanding words and how to use them entails understanding their meanings, giving the creative writer a wider conceptual grasp than someone with a limited vocabulary.
Fiction relies on its writer’s imagination - you can’t be a creative writer without possessing the ability to imagine scenarios. This enables the creative writer to empathise with real-life scenarios, too, and (for instance) imagine what it might have been like to work in a 19th century cotton mill or the thrill of discovering a rare plant.
• Multiple strands of thinking
A creative writer is used to multi-tasking, juggling various strands of the process, eg, dialogue, plot, setting, character creation, and understanding how each contributes to the overall project.
• Application of research/factual material to a creative project
In order to give their work a sense of authenticity, creative writers may need to base their imaginative scenarios in fact: what is the correct procedure for a criminal investigation; what was it like working in a flax mill in the Industrial Revolution? Part of the creative process involves knowing how to use the most appropriate details to ground the fiction in reality.
• Critical thinking
Creative writers will continually evaluate their work-in-progress and look at it with a critical eye to make sure it is working. They are also evaluate their own work-in-progress within its cultural and commercial contexts. These are all approaches that will extend to the creation of other types of written material.
• Ability to use only the material that contributes creatively to a project
Evaluating the material that is useful and discarding what’s not vital to the overall manuscript is second nature for creative writers, and a process that is applicable in other writing contexts.
Keep the reader interested
Creative writers understand the need to write in a way that makes readers want to keep turning pages. The particular type of writing will vary – a writer of commercial fiction may have a different style from a writer of commercial fiction, and so may a horror writer and a crime writer – but in each case the writing will appeal to its readership and show a deep understanding of what they enjoy and respond to. This gives a creative writer an edge when it comes to other kinds of writing. No matter what you are writing, from academic thesis to long-form journalism, it is important to ask: Who is your reader? Knowing your audience is vital if you are going to create work they will want to read. Who are they? What are their interests? What do they want to know? How could you present this in a surprising/original way?
Try using these creative writing techniques to enhance your writing in other styles, ie by bringing your factual account to life, to keep your reader’s attention:
• Using a recognisable voice
Every creative writer aims for a unique voice that makes their work different from that of any other writer. This can be applied to any other kind of writing. Think, for example, of film critics: each one will have their own style and approach even if the material they cover (ie a particular film) is broadly the same. If you have an original voice that readers recognise as yours, it will give your writing, and you, an edge.
• Hook the reader with your intro
A reader will decide whether to stay with your writing or move on to something else by the way they respond to the beginning. The storytelling aspect of creative writing gives its practitioners the tools to entice a reader to stay with the story. The creative writer’s ability to craft words and use language to beguile a reader is another way they will keep a reader, reading – for pure pleasure in the use of words, which is not restricted to fiction.
• Character development
Non-fiction is as much about characters and personalities as fiction, and the fiction writer’s ability to reveal character and convey character development will add layers of depth and interest to any kind of non-fiction writing where reader interest is dependent on identifying or being involved with the person or people at the centre of the story.
• Add colour and texture
The creative writer’s ability to bring a fictional character or scene to life will also lift your non-fiction and journalism out of the realms of mundanity and save you from resorting to clichés. Don’t overdo it though: creating purple prose is not the same as creative writing, and a good creative writer will know when to rein it in.
• Setting scenes
You don’t need to go the full ‘it was a dark and stormy night’ but conveying atmosphere is a key attribute of the creative writer that will add a layer of interest to other kinds of writing. If, for example, you’re writing your memoir, telling the reader a few details of how you always used to sit on the damp cobblestones to play with the marbles that you kept in your flannel trouser pockets will create more of a relatable picture than if you simply tell them you used to play in the backstreets.
• Telling use of detail
A good creative writer can create an impression by carefully placing a detail in their writing. What does it say about a person that their tie, for instance, is red, or that they are carrying a particular type of bag, or wearing a certain style of shoes? This ability to pick out details and deploy them so that they take on a particular significance helps to write with impact within an economical wordcount, ie if you’re writing feature articles.
All writing, fiction or non-fiction, has a beginning, a middle and an end, and needs lead its reader to a satisfying conclusion. Creative writing teaches plotting skills so that the writer has a sense of where to place what information so it will have the most impact and add to the reader’s understanding of the story.
• Dramatic structure/Three-act structure
The dramatic three-act structure of a classical play (setup, confrontation, resolution) can be effectively applied to write non-fiction and journalism that will hook and hold its readers’ interest. It’s a basic story structure that can be applied in a variety of contexts: 1) there is a problem (setup); 2) what is being done about it and what conflict it faces (the struggle to find the solution); 3) resolution (solution achieved).
• Selecting relevant narrative
Choosing where to start your story and where to direct attention is a creative writing technique that will enable you to focus attention on what is actually relevant in other kinds of writing, such as autobiography and memoir, where for your readers’ sake you want to focus on the interesting parts of a life rather than devote chapters to dull parts, as was common in old-fashioned autobiographies.
• Telling the story
Storytelling is an integral part of fiction-writing, but it’s worth remembering that real life yields countless stories, and these are the stuff of non-fiction and journalism. Readers respond to stories and the best non-fiction will include storytelling elements and take the reader on a journey from setup to resolution.
• Creating tension
A good non-fiction writer will borrow from the creative writer’s arsenal of techniques to generate tension and keep pages turning. Cliffhanger endings to scenes, conflict between characters, raising the stakes, contrasting internal and external conflict, withholding information and making your reader ask questions are all appropriate devices to create tension in your non-fiction and journalism.
How can you start using creative writing techniques in other kinds of writing?
Once you have an idea for a piece of non-fictional writing that would benefit from creative writing techniques, start by outlining some key ideas in your notebook or in a new document, just as you would if you were planning a piece of fiction.
Jot down the ideas that occur to you in note form and give yourself enough time to add thoughts to expand the ideas.
For instance, you decide to write a piece of creative non-fiction about a significant time in your life. So you might make a note about place, significant characters, how you (the main character) developed as a result of the central incident you want to write about. This will give you a basic outline, and an idea of the key themes that will be in your story. As you make notes, further ideas will occur to you and the content of your piece will start to take shape.
Now note down any key scenes that you will write about. This will help you structure your piece, create a storyline and ensure you don’t waste time writing about something that isn’t connected to that storyline. At the very least, note the beginning, middle and end points of your story. Think about where the tension will be and how you will create it. This structure will ensure that your piece has the thrust of a narrative.
Next, make notes about the various scenes and characters. Are there any colours, sights, sounds, smells, that you associate with that memory? Who are the most important characters in this particular story? Were there any particular songs on the radio? What were people wearing? What do you remember people saying? If you think about that memory, what colours do you associate with it? Write it all down.
When you start to craft your writing, you can use these notes not just to spark memories, but to help you shuffle the material into a coherent, readable narrative and select the key pieces of language and description that will bring your piece to life.
As you begin to shape your narrative, think about the language you are using and the choices of words you are making. At this point, start to play around with the language and see if there is a better way to say something. Try different ways of saying the same thing – colloquial, impressionistic, using an extended metaphor – to see what works best and creates the best effect.
Editing is your friend, and can be as creative a part of the non-fiction writing process as the actual writing. A good creative writer will never be afraid to experiment and try different approaches, and if you regard your first draft as raw material you can edit it in different ways to see which one makes your non-fiction material read best.
For an insider look at transferable creative writing techniqies, read what Tron screenwriter and author Bonnie McBird has to say about how writing scripts helps you write novels, and vice versa.