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Creative Writing Skill: Three Ways to Develop Yours

By Katherine J. Barrett

Can creative writing skill be taught? A recent newspaper article posed this question to several established authors. Responses varied—yes, no, maybe—but all authors maintain that creative writing technique can be developed or enhanced, if not instilled in toto.

Based on numbers of creative writing programs and MFA graduates, many aspiring writers do believe writing craft can be taught. Certainly, dedicating several years to intense academic instruction is one way to cultivate your talent.

But an MFA in creative writing is not for everyone. I've never seriously considered it: I have three young children and can afford neither the time away from home nor the tuition. Besides, I've been to graduate school (many years ago) and know that an academic style of learning suits some people and some aspirations, but not all.

Online courses are another popular route to developing creative writing skill. Classes that are open 24-7 and can be accessed before you brush your teeth are a good alternative for writers with day jobs and other commitments. A course taught by dedicated, experienced instructors and populated with students eager to share work and provide feedback can be worth the time and fees. I've taken fantastic courses for less money than I'd spend at a bookstore. Often, however, it's difficult to know what you will get before you sign on. I've also registered with well-established online creative writing schools only to find my fellow students silent and the instructor more distracted than dedicated.

Here are three additional, low-cost and sure-fire ways to develop your creative writing skill.

Find a mentor. To improve your writing, you need someone to scrutinize your work and give constructive comments, someone who will tell you to move the end to the beginning, cut every other sentence, revise and then revise again. For that kind of critique, you'll probably have to pay. Professional mentoring rates vary from middling to steep, but I've found it worth every cent.

I've worked one-to-one with a mentor on a specific piece of writing and revised that piece until it was ready to send out for publication. I've then applied everything I learned to write my next project. That intense, practical focus sharpens creative writing skill in a short period of time. Find a mentor whose opinion you trust, whose writing style you appreciate, and whose rates you can afford.

Get a regular gig. Every author interview and writing memoir I have read agrees on this point: developing skill takes practice. Not one author has said, "Well, I just sat down one day and wrote this best-seller." Practice takes discipline and a good way to instill discipline is to make a commitment. Last February, I agreed to write 13 monthly columns for Literary Mama.

That's 1200 words written, revised, edited, published, read and commented upon every month. It's like a school assignment but the stakes are higher: your work is out there. Look for opportunities in community or graduate school newspapers, in fledgling literary magazines, or in library newsletters and offer your writing services. Producing completed work gets easier each time you do it—and your creative writing skill will soar.

Read with a critical eye. You should read the great writers in your genre. Read the classics and recent prize winners. Read the Pushcart collections and the Best American series. But also read literary journals. This is where writers, both great and not-so-great, hone their creative writing skill. Find stories you love and ones that make you say, "I can do better than that," and record your thoughts in writing. You might also train your critical eye through more public means. Volunteer to read and comment for a literary magazine, and comb through the slush pile yourself. You'll see what editors see: Some stories flail in the first paragraph and others grip you until the end.

Consider reviewing literary publications. I've recently reviewed literary magazines for the Review Review. Not only does this get your name into the literary web pages, but it forces you to read an entire journal and explain why it's excellent, mediocre, or I-can-do-better. You can always write for your own website too. Start a blog and post your critiques, your reading lists, your publications and, of course, samples of your own, by now flourishing, creative writing skill.

Read more about Katherine J. Barrett, or read her short story Resillience.

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