Note: this post is written for ALL creative writers dedicated to self-improvement, even if not an enrolled student.
Unlike many of the ideas I get for posts, this one wasn’t a sudden inspiration.
On three separate occasions: while looking over my textbooks, during a workshop and then in the discount aisle of a supermarket; I thought about how much I’d improved recently.
From perking up craft to forming a daily habit, these past few months have shown me how I can become a greater force of writing nature every day (even when staring disinterestedly at smashed-in gravy boxes and dinted jelly).
It’s taken hard work and an education on different methods, tips and tricks to get there. So this is my tried and tested advice for becoming a better creative writing student, with or without the cap and gown.
Find a course
This kind of goes against what I’ve just said, but bear with me.
Following a directed course of study, whether that be a physical/online workshop or a new or second-hand textbook, is highly advised.
Developing craft takes time and it’s much more efficient to work through it habitually and logically. Not only will you experience quicker ‘results’; it’s beneficial to learn the history and theory behind the craft in order to put things in context.
Sure, you may never decide to use an omniscient narrator; but understanding what this is along with other technical aspects will make all the difference. More than anything it will allow you to confidently take your own direction.
Think of Picasso. As a young man the painter was trained in formal drawing techniques, his early paintings a surprise to those only aware of his later work.
In light of this, what we see here is an artist making an artistic choice. Picasso could have continued painting in a traditional style and knew how to do it, but made the decision to focus on Cubism.
Whether you like his work, or think your twelve-year-old could have done it, is irrelevant. What matters is that, arguably, Picasso could not have arrived at his celebrated later work without his earlier education in the technical aspects of painting.
This applies to all artists, including writers—including you.
Tips: try and find a balance between ‘coursework’ and self-directed study. This will be different for everybody. Personally I dedicate around 40% of my time to my course materials and the suggested exercises. I then spend around 60% of my time working on my own stuff.
Live and Breathe Your Art
I’ve long been fascinated with the life of the Japanese geisha, as you could probably tell from my kimono-heavy Youtube suggestions.
A gruelling daily routine both physically and emotionally, a geisha really ‘lives’ her art with every breath. It doesn’t even stop when she goes to bed for the night, or walks in the street in plain clothes. It’s hard and it’s everyday (OK, totally stole that from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but you know what I mean).
Although I’m not suggesting that we should go to such extremes, there’s still something admirable about dedicating your very being to an artistic discipline.
A course, as I mentioned in the previous point, gives you structure and the tools to take your writing out into the world and into your everyday.
Living and breathing your art means carrying a notebook and pen around, eavesdropping on the bus and making pen portraits of passers-by. It means being subconsciously on the lookout for ideas at all times, whether you’re reading the newspaper or taking a walk around your neighbourhood.
If you dedicate yourself to this habit each day, you’re definitely setting yourself up for success in the long run. It doesn’t matter if it’s an hour or ten minutes, as long as you’re reminding yourself of who you are each day.
Manually Stimulate Your Creativity
Writer’s block is a real thing and there are times when it’s difficult to put pen to paper or finger to keyboard.
Yet we don’t always have the luxury of writer’s block, especially if, like me; you have a deadline for a story.
This particular point about how to be a better creative writing student is about how you always have the choice to write. Not anyone or anything (even writer’s block itself) can take that away from you.
Sure, it doesn’t mean that what you write will be perfect and have good direction; but who ever invented the rule that it had to be first time around anyway? In fact my best ideas have come from poor work. All it takes is a keen eye and a highlighter to go back and mark any jewels underneath the dust.
Manually stimulating your creativity can be a slow burner, but stick with it.
If you’re struggling to write, go back to your textbook and try a few prompts/exercises. Re-read a novel that’s always inspired you. Do another creative activity or spend time with a talented person.
Why does this make you a better student?
Because having a constant output means greater opportunities to learn and a higher likelihood of producing amazing work in the future.
Be a Punching Bag
I’m not suggesting that being a better creative writing student means passivity; taking knocks while losing all confidence in yourself.
Quite the opposite.
Be brave and hold your arms out wide as you take these punches. Then, instead of curling up in a ball and wincing in the corner, use the sting to make you stronger.
It’s not easy. As a self-confessed perfectionist this is something I find extremely difficult. Yet the more I’ve practised opening myself up to criticism, the easier it becomes and the more I can use it to my own advantage.
In a recent tutorial, my tutor asked us what we should do if another student asks us to critique a piece of unsatisfactory work. We all replied that we should be honest but fair, so as not to hurt the person’s feelings.
Quite to our surprise the tutor said we should be doing the complete opposite!
Seeing our reactions to this rather harsh advice, they then went on to tell a story about an author who used to write dreadful comedies until their teacher told them that what they should be writing was historical fiction. Furious at the time, the author eventually took this advice and went on to become very famous indeed.
My tutor then said something that stuck with me. They said that writing, by its nature is meant to be read by others, shared and talked about. Does a piece of writing that only you’ve seen, even exist?
Since then I’ve realised that to improve as a student, I must be open to criticism. In other words: a mildly self-confident punching bag.
Read as If Your Life Depended on It
Read. Read everything; and then some more.
It doesn’t matter if it’s Madame Bovary, Christmas Baby for the Billionaire (yes, apparently this exists), or a trashy magazine. There’s always something to learn whether it’s ‘good’ or ‘bad’; a space for us to understand what works/what doesn’t work and why.
I’ve found that reading often and widely is the key to expanding my palate as a writer. Just as a chef needs to try lots of different foods in order to understand quality and flavours, we also need to have as many different ingredients to experiment with.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this post! If you have any more suggestions about how to be a better creative writing student, please let me know in the comments section below. I’m always on the lookout for tips on how to improve and would love to hear your advice.
Thank you for reading and until next time: