How to Ace College Creative Writing

So you've decided to take a creative writing course at a university. You'll probably soon find out that you won't get an A just for being creative. Your writing needs to be organized, free from technical errors, and interesting to the reader. The reader - and grader - in this case, is your professor. Develop a plan for engaging his or her interest.


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    Find out who the professor is for your creative writing class, and find out what creative works he or she has had published recently. Check them out and read them. If you can, find out your professor's favorite authors, especially those that have influenced your professor's writing.
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    Pay particular attention to your professor's preferred style. Is the tone serious and subdued? Rough and harsh? Dramatic and elegant? See if you can emulate the style in a few sentences of your own.
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    As you read through the chapters, notice how the plot develops. Does a lot of action take place in a short time, or is much of the writing given over to detailed description? Most writers emphasize either action, description or dialogue. You'll want to know which you should favor in your writing for this class.
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    Find as many people as you can who have taken a class from this professor. They can be your most helpful resource. Ask them what the professor is looking for and they'll give you a good blunt answer. Two students of a screenwriting professor at a state university helped several other students succeed in his class with one simple tip: The professor liked scripts with a good dose of profanity in them; although he didn't realize it, this was what he meant when he said he wanted the dialogue to be "natural." A simple sprinkling of rudeness and rough language moved one student up from a C to an A.
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    Listen closely in the first few class periods. Your professor will mention some of his or her pet peeves about writing style. The most common pet peeves are writing in the passive voice and using adverbs. (Although all good writers use these sometimes, you are a mere undergraduate and haven't earned your license to do so.) Learn what these are and avoid them at all times. A good resource is a tiny, easy-to-read guide called The Elements of Style (see below).
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    Think of a theme before you create your story. Again, choose something similar to what your professor favors. If he or she writes about oppressed characters mired in futile struggles, don't make your story about a golden hero who clears every hurdle with brilliant ease. It will annoy your instructor and your writing will be judged as "unrealistic." Conversely, if your instructor loves stories about spiritual hope, don't let your dark, brooding side come out too much in your writing.
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    Choose an interesting setting. A foreign country is always good.
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    Create interesting characters. It's okay to dramatize their personalities a little. No one wants to read a story full of characters that are no more interesting than their own friends and family.
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    Create a story with a beginning, middle and end. In the beginning, you might make one of your characters want something that's out of reach. In the middle, you'll create a conflict that prevents the character from getting what he wants, and in the end, you will resolve the conflict (either with success or failure).
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    Accept constructive criticism. Most creative writing classes involve some kind of peer critique process. Most of your classmates will either deliver vague criticism of everything you write no matter how good it is, or vague praise of everything you write no matter how bad it is. This is because most aspiring young creative writers don't like to read amateur fiction nearly as much as they like to write it. They may not have taken more than a minute or two to read your story. Don't take it personally, and be the better person who gives specific helpful comments.
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    Revise your story into a final draft. Make sure it's free of spelling, grammar and usage errors. Here is where the peer critiques can be useful, provided that your classmates have reference materials and will double-check whether their corrections were correct.
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    Turn your story in on time.
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    Keep trying. If you didn't get an A, find out who did. Take careful note of the professor's feedback, and try again.


  • You may find that researching your professor's tastes works well for other creative classes as well. A student in a 3D art class noted that for any piece of artwork to get a good grade, "It has to be big and weird and make some kind of a social statement."
  • Look out for cliches. Writing your own creative metaphors rather than relying on everyday similes will help you avoid cliches.
  • Read, read, read - a lot! If you haven't taken a course in modern literature, get a reading list from an English professor, or tackle that reading list your high school English teacher gave you already.
  • When writing dialogue, use other verbs instead of "said." Try these: Hissed, spat, sighed, intoned, obfuscated.
  • Writers also love creative metaphors. Use a lot of these when you're setting the scene. (See the related WikiHows for tips.)
  • When writing dramatic descriptions, see how many unique words you can use. This will at least make you seem to have a good vocabulary.
  • Don't rely too much on adjectives and adverbs; use attention-getting verbs instead. Writers adore "punchy" verbs. Instead of saying, "She was apparently very happy and pleased," say, "She beamed."


  • Creative writing classes can be heartbreaking for those who both need the A and crave artistic freedom. If you feel that you clash with the creative writing professors at your university, you might be better off writing on your own. See if your campus has a literature magazine that accepts writing like yours.
  • Learn correct methods for citation of other people's work and never, ever copy anything word-for-word without citing it.
  • Don't tell your professor that you are emulating him or her. They all swear that they want you to develop your own style. Nod and smile, but don't buy it.
  • Provide enough detail, but avoid "the door syndrome": writing so many details that it would take a long paragraph just for a character to open a door.
  • If all this sounds too difficult, consider a technical writing class. (Amy Tan was a technical writer before she became a novelist.)
  • If you succeed, be modest. Don't foist your new found knowledge on everyone you know. Don't critique your grandma's Christmas letter.
  • Don't use such punchy verbs that your writing sounds bizarre. For instance, don't describe an ordinary chimney as "vomiting smoke into the sky."
  • Don't use a metaphor for every little thing, either. Use them to draw attention to what's important in your descriptions.

Things You'll Need

  • A dictionary
  • A thesaurus
  • A copy of The Elements of Style, by William Strunk

Sources and Citations

  • Writing Well (9th Edition) by Donald Hall, Sven Birkerts

Article Info

Categories: College and University Study Techniques