What does it mean to be creative?
At the heart of it, creativity is the ability to generate new ideas. Creative people take an original approach to problem-solving, are willing to take risks, and constantly search for sources of inspiration in everyday life. Being creative also involves the capacity to make new connections between seemingly different ideas or concepts and the ability to shift your perspective.
Creativity is also an essential component of successful creative writing. That's because creative writing is all about pushing boundaries, pulling from your unique experiences, and seeing where your imagination can take you. There is no right or wrong in creative writing, which can be freeing or intimidating, depending on your mindset.
Creative writing techniques and tools for success
A shared worry of aspiring and accomplished writers alike is losing creative inspiration. However, there are many strategies you can implement to overcome writer's block. Read on to explore some tools famous authors have used to jumpstart their creativity and improve the quality of their work.
1. Just write
"I suppose I do get 'blocked' sometimes, but I don't like to call it that. That seems to give it more power than I want it to have. What I try to do is write… And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. And then it's as if the muse is convinced I'm serious and says 'OK. OK. I'll come.'" – Maya Angelou
Undoubtedly, one of the most challenging parts of writing is getting the ball rolling. Even renowned author and poet Maya Angelou could not escape occasional dry spells of creativity. However, her strategy, which she explained in the book Writers Dreaming, was straightforward: just write. Commit to writing whatever comes out, whether good, bad, or incoherent, and trust that you will eventually be inspired. To that end, the more you write, the greater your chances of being successful are.
Julia Cameron, author of The Artist's Way, created a similar approach called "morning pages," wherein the goal is to wake up and write three handwritten pages of whatever is on your mind without pausing to edit. Morning pages help to clear your head, process any stress you're experiencing, teach you how to quiet your inner critic, and spur your creativity. Although it may feel daunting at first, it becomes less so when you realize it's not about what you're writing but that you are writing.
The technical term for the practice of writing without premeditation or planned structure is freewriting. It involves letting your stream-of-consciousness take over without judging or overthinking what you're doing. To kick-start your freewriting process, it can be helpful to pick a set time every day and initially commit to writing for five or ten minutes. The more you integrate it into your routine, the more natural it will become. Eventually, you may even find that you look forward to your daily writing practice.
2. Appreciate others, but find your own voice
"...To express yourself, you have to know yourself. It's actually super easy. You have to follow your love. There is no path. There's no path till you walk it, and you have to be willing to play the fool. So don't read the book that you should read, read the book you want to read. Don't listen to the music that you used to like. Take some time to listen to some new music. Take some time to talk to somebody that you don't normally talk to. I guarantee, if you do that, you will feel foolish. That's the point. Play the fool." – Ethan Hawke
Undoubtedly, most writers have fellow writers or artists they admire. If you're an aspiring screenwriter, you may look up to Quentin Tarantino, Greta Gerwig, or M. Night Shyamalan. But it is crucial to develop your own unique writing style so that you can avoid duplicating the work of others. Two vital elements of any writing style are voice and tone. Voice refers to the point-of-view and personality of your writing, while tone is the overall mood your writing conveys, such as dark, humorous, or optimistic.
And as Ethan Hawke—a screenwriter himself—alludes to in the quote above from a 2020 TED Talk, part of finding your voice involves doing what you love, staying true to yourself, and being curious about the world. Some additional tips to help hone your voice include:
- Choose authentic language reflective of who you are and the audience you're writing for
- Let your life experiences shine through in your work
- Think about genuine conversations you've had to inform dialogue for your characters
Suppose you're struggling to develop relatable characters. In that case, you can opt to base one on a friend, family member, or coworker whose personality and behaviors you're intimately familiar with. Discovering your distinctive voice will take time and effort, but that makes it all the more rewarding once you do.
3. Start a journaling practice
"Keeping a journal sharpens our senses. It's like an exercise in writing. If you're describing a scene, you are practicing the act of writing—which is very important—and thinking in language." – Joyce Carol Oates
Journaling is excellent for your mental health, and it can also help you sharpen your observational skills, refine your voice, and provide inspiration for story ideas. Your journal can be a space for character studies, dialogue work, raw personal insights, motivating quotes, or whatever you choose to make it. The goal is not perfection. Instead, journaling should be another tool to help you get comfortable with writing every day in an uncensored manner.
National Book award-winner and Princeton University creative writing professor Joyce Carol Oates discusses the importance of journaling and offers her personal advice in a recent article by Masterclass. Her first suggestion is to take your journal everywhere, whether on trips, in the park, or on the subway. The goal is to record, in detail, the people, plant life, architecture, smells, sounds, and foods in your environment. Doing so can help develop your narrative style and improve your descriptive writing skills.
Oates also recommends that you make a habit of journalling spontaneously, at odd hours, and in a limited timeframe. And if you're feeling tired, busy, or in a bad mood, she encourages you to seize the opportunity to journal in the hopes that you can effectively capture this altered mental state for future use. Her final advice is to allow yourself to daydream about characters, settings, and dialogue. For Oates, this involves going for a walk or run, processing her ideas, and then returning home to journal about her thoughts.
4. Explore the benefits of walking and meditation
"All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking." – Friedrich Nietzsche
There's nothing like a relaxing walk to clear your head. Joyce Carol Oates is just one of many famous writers—including Henry David Thoreau, Ernest Hemingway, L.M. Montgomery, J.K. Rowling, Haruki Murakami, and Malcolm Gladwell, to name but a few—who have relied on walking to enrich their creative process or cure writer's block. In addition to the many physical and emotional benefits that walking provides, such as reduced stress, enhanced mood, better sleep, and improved cardiovascular health, there is also science to support a powerful connection between walking and enhanced creativity.
In a study from Stanford University, researchers found that walking boosts creative output by an astonishing 60%. Interestingly, the results also showed that those who walked indoors or outdoors experienced similar increases in creativity compared to those who remained seated during the experiment. Accordingly, it wasn't likely the environment that was a driving factor in the improvement in creativity but the walking itself.
Another popular tool that may help improve your writing ability is meditation. Getting lost in an activity you enjoy, whether writing, running, or playing music, is called being in a flow state. And engaging in regular meditation may help improve your ability to tap into this flow. Some scientifically-documented benefits of meditation that may help you tap into your creativity include reduced stress and anxiety, enhanced self-awareness, improved attention span, and enhanced sleep.
5. Let go of perfectionism
"If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word." – Margaret Atwood
Like it or not, perfectionism and creativity don't work well together. The good news is that if you put the abovementioned techniques into practice, you will be less likely to fall victim to perfectionism in your writing. However, if you notice you start to procrastinate or find yourself editing without purpose, then that's a sign to take a step back and refocus. In times like these, it's important to give yourself some grace and try not to overthink things.
Often, the best way to do so is to put your novel, story, poem, or article aside for a couple of days and give yourself some space to process. The key point here is to busy yourself with other activities you enjoy, like exercise, grabbing coffee with a friend, or going to a movie. You may find that once you permit yourself to stop thinking about your work, you will discover the solution to those tricky plot points, capture that missing verse, or nail down your ending when you least expect it.
Explore the Creative Writing Certificate program
Whether you're already a writer or new to the field, the Certificate in Creative Writing at Penn LPS Online provides a workshop experience wherein you can learn new writing tools, expand your horizons, and harness your powers of expression. Through a series of hands-on Ivy League courses in poetry, fiction, screenwriting, and creative nonfiction, you'll obtain a deep dive into multiple literary genres. Additionally, the four-course Creative Writing Certificate prepares you to:
- Explore your creative writing practice as a form of critical thinking
- Discover how to use adaptability, innovation, and collaboration in your work
- Create, revise, and edit your original writing with feedback from your classmates and instructors
The Certificate in Creative Writing is designed to enhance your storytelling skills and provide a structure for your creative process that can be applied to professional roles, including author and journalist, advertising, copywriting, or fundraising/developmental consultant.
Ready to unlock your creativity? Fill out your application at Penn LPS Online today and enroll in the Certificate in Creative Writing. Or view our course guide to see the full range of what's currently available.