One of the best things about journaling is the vast range of opportunities it provides for creative writing. Whether you’re recapping your day, piecing together the odd dream, or manifesting your goals by describing them in great detail, keeping a journal of your thoughts and experiences is a surefire way to unlock your creative potential.
Soon enough, you might even find yourself branching out into pure fiction — short stories, a novel, or even a screenplay. But while creative journaling and reading other writers’ works will prepare you somewhat for such a project, you may still feel uncertain as you proceed, especially if you haven’t taken any formal writing classes or workshops.
The good news is that you don’t need “official” training to write amazing fiction. Indeed, many best-selling novelists simply sat down and started writing one day, and you can do the same! That said, there are a few things to know about creative writing that will help you mentally distinguish it from journal-writing — and boost your chances of professional success. On that note, here are my five best tips on how to develop your creative writing skills!
1. Find your voice
Perspective is essential to good creative writing, but it can be tough to nail down one’s voice. You may know how you feel and what you want to convey, yet still have trouble finessing the words on the page. If you’re currently struggling with this, here are some exercises to help you find your writerly voice.
- List the writers you admire, then list the pros and cons of each writer’s style. For example, you might have “profound insights into the human condition” in the pros column and “rambling monologues” in the cons. Consider how you might incorporate the pros into your own prose, as it were, and how you might minimize or eliminate the cons.
- When reading, pay close attention to your favorite lines. This is more of a granular approach, but great for figuring out what you want your voice to sound like! For instance, if you find yourself underlining lots of evocative figurative language, you’ll know that’s something to strive for in your own work.
- Keep in mind that flowery prose does not make for a strong voice. Some writers seem to think that the only way to achieve a strong voice is to make every sentence as long and lyrical as possible; I can’t stress enough how wrong this is. Some floridity is fine, if it comes naturally to you, but take care that your writing doesn’t turn into a spectacle of purple prose.
2. Show, don’t tell
You’ve likely heard this writing adage before, but for those who haven’t (or may not be sure what it means): “show, don’t tell” refers to using sensory descriptions and active language to immerse the reader in a story, rather than simply stating what happens.
Because I like to practice what I preach, allow me to illustrate this concept with some recent winners of our Reedsy short story contest, all of which do an incredible job of painting a scene:
a) It’s cold when they step outside. Autumn bites their ears, their ankles. It’s a sad sky, grey like an old bruise, fading to night and nothing. Floodlights illuminate the parking lot, a stage set for a dramatic goodbye. (From “come to atlanta!”)
b) This room with its tile floors and black stanchions and a dozen bored people sitting around in plastic chairs, sniffing from the decades of dust collected in the upholstered privacy dividers and the now-unfamiliar smell of paper — this microcosm of staunch gloom is our utopia. (From “No Hard Feelings”)
c) A storm had done its best to uproot it, but the tree had refused to give up its claw-like grip on the earth. Now it was a twisted and gnarled thing, bent over like an old man. It was perfect for climbing and the thickest branch dipped in just the right place to form a seat directly above the path. (From “The Witch’s Daughter”)
Though each of these authors clearly has their own style, they “show” these scenes using similar techniques: strong verbs, sensory details, and vivid comparisons (the sky to a bruise, the DMV to a dystopia, the tree to an old man). And while not every passage has to “show” what’s happening in this way — again, it’s all about finding your own direction in your writing! — this kind of description is an excellent way to really immerse readers in what’s happening.
3. Take care with pacing
Speaking of the Reedsy short story contest, one of the most frequent issues we see in entries is poor pacing: stories that either unfold too slowly or much too quickly, causing readers to lose focus or become confused. Here are a few tips to avoid this unfortunate fate.
- Vary your sentence structure. Some writers tend toward longer sentences; others like ‘em short and sweet. Our catch-all advice for pacing is to actively vary your sentence length and phrasing — by which we mean, don’t start with the same word every time.
- Think in terms of “real time.” If the reader takes longer to get through a scene than the character spends in that scene, the pacing is too slow. As a concrete example, if you’ve got your protagonist thinking about something for 30 seconds, don’t spend 1,000 words telling your reader about it.
- Get a beta reader or editor. Finally, if you suspect your pacing is off but can’t put your finger on how to fix it, you may benefit from a fresh pair of eyes! Consider asking a beta reader to look over your work — or, better yet, hire a professional editor who’s trained to look for pacing problems and can provide expert suggestions on how to fix them.
4. When in doubt, cut it out
The best self-editing tip I can offer is this: if you have even the slightest doubt whether something is creatively vital to a piece, delete it. This applies to redundant descriptions, extraneous characters and subplots, “deep” ruminations that are actually just navel-gazing, etc. If it doesn’t add something discernible, it dilutes your writing and you should get rid of it.
Don’t believe me? Take it from Ernest Hemingway, who lived by this “rule of omission.” He claimed that 99% of the time, “you can omit anything… and the omitted part [will] strengthen the story.” And in the spirit of Hemingway, I won’t linger on this one! Instead we’ll move on to my last — and arguably most important — creative writing tip.
5. Practice, practice, practice
Reading all the advice in the world still won’t make you a better writer. The only thing that will is writing. So don’t wait until you’ve read more books by great authors, or absorbed more articles on writing craft, or hit upon the “perfect” idea. Just start writing… and keep going!
Every bit of practice, whether through one-time prompts or writing an entire book, will hone your skills — but you do have to commit to the act in the first place. As Louis L’Amour once put it: “The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.” Turn on your faucet and, sooner or later, that beautiful, crystal-clear water will flow.
Savannah Cordova is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects self-publishing authors with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers. In her spare time, Savannah enjoys reading fiction and writing short stories.