My name is Joanne Lane, and I am one of the editors at FirstEditing. Before dipping my toe into the world of children’s manuscripts, PhD theses, fiction stories, essay writing, article services and the many varied and wonderful projects we work on here, I was a freelance journalist.
My specialisations included travel, sports and news and it’s a job that took me everywhere from the steppes of Mongolia to Europe’s museums, the wilds of Australia and the beautiful national parks of the United States. I’ve worked on PR projects for Tourism Malaysia and been published in a variety of publications such as the Chicago Times (USA), San Francisco Examiner (USA), Sydney Morning Herald (Australia), Sunday Mercury (UK), and travel guides like Hunter Publishing and Sawday’s. I also worked as an editor for a news agency, editing other journalists’ work.
This has helped me develop a fine eye for syntax but also what makes a good story or creative writing piece, and I can tell you it’s usually the human interest element. Tell a good story about someone, highlight their emotions and motivations, and take them on a journey and you will engage your reader and be on your way to a good creative writing piece.
Journalism uses a lot of creative writing, in feature pieces particularly, which were my bread and butter for many years. I’m happy to share a few tips I’ve learnt over the years.
What is creative writing?
Creative writing can be both fiction (concocted stories) or non-fiction (real life).
Creative nonfiction is a wonderful style of creative writing that is about telling true stories well. It still uses literary styles and techniques, but they are used producing factually accurate accounts. Examples include essays, journal articles, research papers, memoirs, an autobiography or documentary drama.
Creative fiction is writing that still has stories, characters, and plots, but these are from the author’s imagination and purely made-up. It includes novels, short stories, plays or children’s stories.
Hook your readers in
Any kind of writing, creative or not, should grab the reader’s attention from the start. That means providing opening lines that really kick-start your story. Perhaps someone has broken a leg, gone blind, there’s a rifle crack, something is dropped, or an animal startles in a field. Whatever it is, it should immediately have your reader wondering what is happening and desperate to find out more. In other words, they are hooked. This is probably the key area that I find in both the opening words of a story, scene, or even the opening paragraph in an article that can be missing. If the reader has to keep reading for paragraphs, pages or even chapters to get to the meat of the story, you might lose them.
Plan your writing
I have often edited stories in which it is clear the writer hasn’t really planned character arcs, detailed individual motivations and desires, considered how scenes might hang together, or even how to draw in multiple elements by drip feeding these to the reader throughout the pages of a novel. This doesn’t mean the story is a mess or bad, but it could be stronger with a little preparation beforehand. It also doesn’t mean you have to stick to a formulaic approach to writing, but structure can be helpful. Some writers find their characters begin to behave in a particular way or the story takes them off on tangents they never planned. That is also fine, but core motivations, desires and direction are really important.
Understand the story arc
Related to planning a story is the use of the story arc. Stories that fail to fire often don’t hit the key scenes they need to at the right time for effective storytelling. Understanding the story arc and where key elements like the inciting incident, plot point 1, middle scene, plot point 2, climax and conclusion should appear and why are essential to a well-told story.
Edit your work
Many writers enjoy the process of what they put down on the page. They might not enjoy the actual editing process though, which can include everything from the line-by-line elements like the syntax (grammar, spelling, punctuation), to how expressions are ordered and present, to structural detail of how the story hangs together. I always advise writers to do as much of this self-editing as they can, taking breaks from time to time so they come at it fresh and perhaps a little more objective, then seek the help of beta readers. These can be friends or family, but are best sourced further afield if you can so they give some constructive feedback.
However, the benefit of sending your work to a professional editor at some point is unparalleled.
Show, don’t tell
In terms of some of the actual nuts and bolts of writing, my advice would be to show a reader that it’s hot, cold or scary, that characters are in love or afraid, and that a scene is suspenseful rather than telling them. By this I mean, use the sensory elements. If it’s cold, describe the snow, howling wind and frosty breath. For emotions, couples can hold hands or have moments of understanding. If you want to build suspense, perhaps a character has shivers up your spine, their very eyelashes are standing on end, or the weather helps set the scene (lightning, thunder, etc). Make the reader feel the emotion of the moment and characters and really create the world they are reading about.
Write what you know
Many writers famously draw from their own experiences, even keeping diaries of events, people they meet and stories they’ve heard to use in their own plots. This is a great way to create colour in your story and you will probably feel closer to it and the characters as a result. These kinds of stories are often tighter, more realistic and very believable.
Keep it realistic
The one thing we all know about life is that things don’t always work out perfectly and people aren’t perfect. So keep it real. Obviously, readers should be able to relate to characters and want them to succeed, but if they succeed all the time, too early or easily, the plot loses its tension and suspense. Similarly, if they are too beautiful, make amazing cakes, are the perfect partner or housewife, and have no character flaws, it’s a bit ho-hum. Your reader might even start disliking them! The characters should be like you and I—seeking to be better, to achieve a goal, and perhaps succeeding some of the time, but with various hurdles and obstacles that prevent them until … your climax or conclusion.
Effective creative writing can help make your words, characters and scenes sing off the page. Open up the world of your story to the reader, paint them realistic characters with real-world or other-worldly problems, and you’re well on your way to keeping them engaged throughout your entire manuscript.