This past semester I had the opportunity to develop various aspects of my creative writing through a directed study at Nazarene Theological Seminary. The simple activity of doing creative writing assignments on a regular basis was by far the most beneficial for improvement (really, this is not that profound of a statement at all)! As with any activity, the best way to get better is to practice; the same is true for writing. As I read, re-read, and edited, I looked carefully at each individual word, sentence, and paragraph; I not only asked myself if these were the words that I wanted to say, but also if the structure was how I wanted to express them. Although ultimately word choice, structure, and rhythm (sometimes I call the flow of the writing ‘rhythm’) could be considered elements of an individual writer’s style.
Again, and more than anything else, sitting down and writing a few thousand words each week has done the most to improve my writing. As I stated earlier, it could almost be considered practice. The more an individual writes, whether it is for creative purposes or non-creative purposes (but hopefully all writing has a creative element to it), the more an individual will be able to clearly articulate what he or she is thinking; they will be better able to form words into a coherent story or essay. Granted, each time someone writes, they will probably not produce something worth publishing (sometimes not even worth reading); some days a person may sit down and all that comes out is dribble. Nevertheless, this is still an important part of the process! There are some days when I just have to spill out the thoughts in my mind, even if it is in an extremely inelegant fashion. In the past, I have termed this (oftentimes painful) process a “brain-dump.” I literally just try to dump out whatever is floating around in my mind onto a piece of paper; the result is usually not pretty. I must remember that I can come back at a later date and do a lot of necessary editing; I can then shape and form those initial ideas into more clearly thought out concepts. Rough drafts can be extremely rough – but that is okay; that is why they are called rough drafts.
The initial brainstorming process, while critical, can be fun! It goes without saying that additional brainstorming also occurs during the actual writing; as someone writes, new ideas are born (some are good; some are bad), and the writer makes any necessary changes to improve the story. In my writing assignments from this semester, when I had to retell a biblical story and then revamp it to share the scripture from a different or modern setting, I had a certain process to come up with ideas. Typically, I would read the chapter from scripture, i.e. Joshua 10, etc., and then simply let the passage sit in my mind for a day or two. If there was any certain part of the passage that seemed more intriguing, I might focus on those verses more. I would also try to discern what the overall point of the verses were, and how they fit into the overarching story of the Bible. I would then take all of these ideas – the whole chapter, intriguing or unique aspects of the chapter, and the overarching ideas of the Bible – and throw them into the cooking pot that is my mind. I let them simmer in there for a while. Asking questions about perspective, point-of-view, plot, characters, historical events, modern day events, etc., often helps cook these ideas into a story concept that that is both original and creative. While I used this process with scripture in order to tell a “new” story about it, it can also be used with any other ideas that a writer has. Take the ideas in your mind, let them simmer, mix them up, and see what happens! Have fun with it. Let your imagination go wild with possibilities.
Sometimes this process might take a couple days; sometimes it might take a week or a couple weeks. Sometimes ideas might be simmering for months or years. However, one must still realize that this is not a mathematical formula that will guarantee amazing ideas; the good ideas might actually be more rare. Having the patience to refine ideas into something a writer can work with is essential.
It may still even be necessary to perform a “brain-dump.” The “brain-dump,” (though it might not be pleasant) forces the writer to get his or her ideas on paper. They may come back to it later, find an idea that they like in it, combine some new concept that they thought of later, and then edit and transform what they may have once considered dribble into a good story that is both original and creative. Plus, it helps a writer “practice.” There are good days and bad days of practice; bad days, it seems, are inevitable. But the more one practices, the more likely that the good days will increasingly outnumber the bad days.
Once you get what you want to say written down, then you must look at how you want to say it. Even if the writer has to spill out the “what” of the words onto paper, it is still a good idea to go back and look at the “how” that you are saying them. Think of the scene that you are trying to set. Consider the emotions and reactions you want people to feel. Reflect on the rhythm and style of the story; look at varying the sentence and paragraph structures so that it will keep the story moving in a way that flows easily for reading. In a novel or short story, one doesn’t always want to read the same scene description that might be found in a play or movie script. Movies have visual scenes to make the story come alive and progress it forward; the writer has words. Review what imagery you can use to make the story flow forward in your style. Look at each individual part of the sentence – the adjectives, verbs, adverbs (but don’t get very heavy on the adverbs), nouns, etc. Ask yourself if you are sure that those words are the words that best describe what you are trying to convey. Ask yourself if there is a better way to convey the thought, emotion, setting, individual, etc. Use a thesaurus! Everytime I write, I have a thesaurus open on my desktop; it not only helps me use variety, but it often helps me find a better word that I did not originally think of.
Once the writer has made it this far into the editing stage, it is a good idea to set it aside and focus on something else for an hour or two, or a day or two. Sometimes it might simply be taking a walk outside to clear your mind. Then come back to the story and ask yourself the same editing questions again (Is this exactly how I want to convey this thought? Etc.). Let your friends and family look at it and allow them to give you their thoughts. Be confident in your writing so that you don’t take criticisms personally, but also be willing to recognize the validity of any any changes or ideas that they suggest! They may see something that you missed. They will often ask questions to help you further refine your story into something even better.
This past semester has been a great experience in creative writing. It has challenged me to examine and refine the way I write; though I am sure that my writing will continue to be refined for as long as I am alive! I am not sure that anyone quite “arrives,” but just continues to improve. Developing the story into something better through editing, word choice, and sentence and paragraph structures, comes with time. Most importantly though, it starts with the simple act of writing. Whether the words comes out in an elegant fashion after simmering and cooking in your mind, or whether they fall out in an chaotic and unorganized “brain-dump,” the activity of writing is by far the best way to improve writing, for whatever purposes you want to write!