7 Golden Rules of Creative Writing

SHAHZADA AYUB
7 Golden Rules of Creative Writing

“We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.”

― Anais Nin

Are you willing to taste life twice? Are you willing to retrospect and write your heart out, reliving the moments you did and creating those you wish you would have lived?

 

Creative writing isn’t just about writing for others, it’s about writing for yourself. It’s about looking at the world from a new angle, not the way it is but the way you feel it has been all along. At the heart of creative writing is the person you know best — yourself. It’s your creation and no one in the world can unlock the chambers of your mind, read what’s in there, and do the job for you. The maker of your story will always be you.

 

“So why am I here?” You’re here to master the art of self-expression. You’re here to learn how to set a better sail: where to begin the writing process, how to proceed, what to avoid, and how to be inspired.

 

The seven golden rules discussed in this handy guide are there to help you recognize, harness, and tap the potential you already have to become the writer you aspire to be.

 

If writing is your true calling, here’s to you for finding the opportunity to be here! You’ll know why as you go. 

 

It’s time to explore the seven important chapters of your writing journey now, and the best part? We’re going to do it together.

 

So let’s go!

Find the Writer Within and Begin

Most of us believe that writers are gifted people and they have a special knack for putting ideas into words. Most of us couldn’t be more wrong. The fact is that writing is a craft and, like most crafts, it just gets better and better as you keep on practicing. 

To get better at writing, you have to practice it more. And to get better at it sooner, you have to follow a set of rules and approaches that make the writing process easier, more organized and, of course, more fun. Part of the objective of this guide would be to help you understand those rules and approaches. It’s important that you look at writing as an organized process, and not some thoughtless scutwork. If you are disciplined enough to care about those approaches, implement them, and make them a quintessential part of your writing habit, nothing can stop you from becoming the writer you want to become. 

 

Let’s begin with something general. Before you even intend to write something, make sure that you are mentally, physically, emotionally, psychologically, and every other way focused on the task at hand. When you get down to writing, write as if it is the only important thing in the world that needs your focus. Here are a few things you can do to get into the writing mindset:

 
  1. Find the right place where you can rid yourself of all potential noises and distractions.
  2. Keep the social media away for a while and turn off every device that doesn’t help. 
  3. Don’t multitask. It may be tempting but it’s a performance killer. 
  4. Don’t split your focus, for it’s the most important virtue of a writer.
  5. Think it all through and clarify your muddy thoughts before you start typing. 
  6. In your moments of despair, remember what William Zinsser said: “If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard.”
 
Don’t sit there with the wrong mindset and think that you can just wing it! Writing is hard work. It requires discipline and focus. And if you have any respect for the process, you know that great writers are no accident. They put in the hard work, the focus, and the discipline needed to be where you find them to be. You too can take part in this marathon and, with my help, cherish the fruits of hard work as you go along the way. The key here is to set yourself some high goals and then stick to your plan.
 
Now that I have discussed how to get into the writing mindset, let’s get back to the real part: what to write and where to start off?

It all begins with an idea!

Recognizing the right idea is at the heart of every writing process. You can’t possibly write a masterpiece without finding something to write about that resonates with your interest. In other words, you need to ask yourself this question, loud and clear: 

 

What do I care about the most and how transforming my ideas into carefully-crafted words would make any difference to me and to my audience? 

 

Once you get to the bottom of that, the rest is nothing short of inspiration. The satisfaction and love you will experience along the way will be sufficient to drive you to commit yourself to the process. Remember that you don’t have to worry about the outcome just yet. All you need to focus on is the process — the outcome can take care of itself.

 

Creative writing is about you being an important part of the equation. When you set out to do creative writing, you can’t really be sure who your specific audience is. And so it only makes sense that you write what appeals to your heart and care less about what the rest of the world will think of your creative work. As a matter of fact, the realm of creative writing — where ideas and inspirations pan out — in large part belongs to yourself. Your thoughts, your experiences, and your perception of the world are what will become the raw material for any form of creative writing you embark on. 

 

There are times you may be tempted to ride the wave of interest for some trendy ideas or story themes. Even if that happens, try to put things in perspective and see if it’s an area that might sprout into something of value to you. We all have a reservoir of interest deep buried within us and all it takes is a little ferment for it to surface. The idea is that anything you write in the creative space has to come right from your heart. 

 

If it doesn’t come right away, don’t allow laziness and mediocracy to creep in and erode your mind. Do your best and, as you go along, you’ll carve your way through those untapped domains and find new interests. 

 

When you set out to explore a perfect theme or topic to write about, there usually goes some preliminary research into it. You don’t want topics that are already written on without being able to add some additional value. Sure enough, your best bet are those topics no one else has touched on, yet they seem to be invaluable to your audience. If that’s not possible, you can go with a modified version of an existing topic — but adding your own bits of contribution to make it look different and better than it presently is. In other words, you can give ideas some intelligent twists, change them, and make them your own. We call it the “confluence of ideas” where you relate things from a variety of contexts and model them into a single theme that provides its own unique value for your readers. 

Discovering Your Topic

There are times when finding a topic becomes more of a struggle. Here’s what you can do as you go about the process of finding something that’s worth writing about:

 

  1. Make a list of the things and ideas that interest you.
  2. Slow down and let the heightened awareness approach find a way out.

The first of the two approaches is more controlled and analytical in nature. It requires you to sit down in a quiet place and do some brainstorming sessions, listing all the ideas down and then getting to the specifics. Once your general direction is defined, you can narrow down your ideas to a number of supporting themes. 

 

To give you an example, let’s say one of your topics of interest happens to be “habit”. Since you know that “habit” is a blanket term and can encompass numerous other concepts and topics such as “forming good habits,” “small habits that impact our lives in big ways,” “building good habits and breaking bad ones,” and so on. Assuming you chose the topic “The Habits Guide: Building Good Habits and Breaking Bad Ones” for your creative writing, it’s now fairly easy to proceed because you already know your direction. You might focus on “a few ways to form better habits”, “a few ways to break bad habits”, and “a few ways to make a good habit stick” as your supporting themes and then develop your content around each one of them as you progress.

 

The heightened awareness approach, on the other hand, requires you to be more conscious of your surroundings, your ideas, and your experiences that come to the surface over a time period spanning from a few hours to a few days. The idea is that some of the best ideas you stumble upon are not necessarily the result of a deliberate rumination. They are spontaneous in nature; meaning that you don’t have to push too hard to find them, but stay alert as and when they surface in your mind. And when they do, be sure to register them or jot them down on a paper so that you don’t miss out on them when it’s time to make your story plan.

 

These two approaches combined may also throw some of the craziest ideas your way. Get ready for them, too! Don’t shy away from going out of the way to find something truly unique and, at times, a little insane. You may not realize but some of the best ideas in writing, as in other areas of life, are the crazy ideas one can work through. The question is, how organized you are to harness the power of innovative thoughts to deliver something of true value to your readers. One way to make this work is to list all your crazy ideas on paper. At the end of the day, you never know some of these “insane ideas” could be all the more valuable for your readers.

 
So, rule no 1: Nurture your love for writing, be disciplined, and choose something that intrigues you. 

Learning Resources

George Orwell’s Why I Write is a piece worth giving a once-over by every aspirant writer. In a short, honest, and direct manner, Orwell gives a quick overview of how it all happened in his life: what motivated him to be a writer and how he approached writing as his true calling. Besides knowing something about the early developments in the life of a great writer, you will also get to know the key motives that, in Orwell’s view, propel every writer’s actions regardless of the subject matter or the surrounding atmosphere.

Building Plotlines

Finding a good topic for your story is only the beginning. Sure enough, it comes in quite handy to stir up your reader’s curiosity, but it won’t make them stick once they find that your story lacks substance. A good story is built like a well-erected building — on a solid foundation. Just like a building needs a strong foundation, a story needs a strong plot structure. If you examine some of the best-selling storybooks, it’s clear how they are built, brick-by-brick, on the foundation of a well-thought-out design envisioned by their authors. 

 

So in this chapter, I’m going to focus on what essentially goes into that foundation —  what happens to your story and in what order. In other words, I will make it clear what we mean by an intriguing plot, how it’s different from the story, and what you need to keep in mind when it comes to crafting a compelling plot structure for your story.

Structuring Plotlines

In a sentence, a plot can be defined as a sequence of events arranged by a writer to tell a story. To give you a very basic example: a character finds herself a higher purpose, decides to go after it, undergoes all kinds of difficulties, achieves her mission, and finally comes back to where she started — but wiser, stronger, and more fulfilled than when she started. That could be a raw example of how story plots are structured. 

 

Sounds easy? It certainly isn’t or you would have seen great stories coming your way every single day and in good numbers! That’s simply not the case. You may tend to oversimplify things but the fact remains: great stories are quite rare. And since great story plots emanate from the great imaginative power of the minds that craft them, they are rare too. 

 

But the good news is this: you own this power as much as anybody else. So, as an aspiring writer, you too can harness the power of your creative mind through simple discipline, conscious learning, and a continuous sense of improvement. Don’t look for the easy route though. I hate to say this, but there is no such thing as an easy way out when you enter the realm of writing. 

 

Let’s get into the specifics now and discuss the four key elements that, when put together, constitute a sound plot structure for any story. 

Create a Setting for Your Story

Every story takes place in a unique atmosphere imagined by its creator. The story setting is one key component of a story plot. Designed well, it can have a profound effect on how your readers receive and engage with the story. When we look at a story setting, it usually contains three essential pieces: the place, the time, and the social situation or a cultural environment where a story event takes place. Changing any one of these pieces would also impact the story as a whole. To give you a better example of how changing a setting could influence the entire plotline, look at the two contrasting examples below.

1

You see a story character in an old, abandoned house in the dead of night, all alone and suspicious of everything around. The winds are blowing outside, rustling the trees and taping against the creaking house.

What type of action does this kind of setting allude to? Some likely appearance of a murderer or a ghost maybe? Look at a different scenario now:

2

The character of the story is in a crowded shopping mall on a bright, shiny day. People are pushing past him and some salesmen are busy cheering their customers and trying to entice them with attractive deals. There’s a fountain in the far right corner, with children hanging, laughing, and joking around.

What kind of impression does this setting give off? It’s anything but scary, for sure. 

 

When you set out to write a plotline, you need to keep in mind the emotions you intend to drive through your story and how you want it to be perceived. That being said, your plot doesn’t always have to revolve around fiction or some abstract themes; it can be anything ranging from a personal story to a professional write-up, targeting a completely different genre of readers. The key thing is, you must know how to structure the right setting or atmosphere for your story. 

Work on Characters

Character development is another essential step in the story writing process. In fact, without characters, there will be no story at all. Through characters, you give your story its life. If there is no story without a plot, there is no plot without characters. Characters are the building blocks of your story and they should be treated as such. 

 

Your story may have two types of characters: the main character(s) and the supporting ones. Your goal is to make sure that each one of them sounds and appears as real, tangible, and complex as the people around you. Having strong, memorable, and profound characters means leaving your readers mesmerized every now and then as they go along the pages. The strength and receptivity of your story, therefore, greatly depends on your ability to develop complex, nuanced, and endearing characters that hold special places in your audiences’ hearts. One of the best ways you can achieve this is by giving your characters certain attributes that are unique and specific to themselves. Such as giving them a personality, a goal, a motivation, a history, a quirk, a desire, and so on. 

 

Remember that each one of your characters should have some role to play that makes the story complete. If you feel you can completely remove a character without affecting your plot one bit, you don’t need that character in the first place. And if it’s not needed, it should not be forced on to your story (neither on to your readers). 

Add Drama

Adding drama to your story means making things more dramatic and intense for your readers. As you go along, you will find plenty of opportunities for drama that naturally comes into the story. Make the most of them to turn your story into a strong, suspenseful, and emotionally charged experience. At the same time, make sure that you are not adding extravagant stuff that makes characterization less salient than the action itself. There is a fine line between drama and melodrama and you should know the difference well.

 

There are many ways you can add drama to keep the readers on the edge of their seats and never stop turning pages. One way is to create emotional relationships between your protagonist and some other story characters. To add drama, you can now use this relationship as a source for emotionally charged scenes that involve love, kindness, and romance; or hatred, fights, arguments, and even tears. Another way is to add some hidden intentions that call forth mistrust, suspicion, and outrage between your protagonist and the other characters. Still another way could be the use of judgmental errors to place your characters in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

 

These are some of the effective ways, but they are not the only ways. As you work on structuring your plotline and think your story through, you may stumble upon even better and more interesting ideas to amp up your story. So be open and stay on your toes! 

Know How Your Story Ends Before It Begins

This is about as simple as it gets. It is never a good idea not to know your direction and just drift around. As a story writer, you will never be able to make something out of the story if you allow it to show you the way instead of you charting the course. You must not let the story take control of you —  you need to be in control of your story. And the only way you can control what needs to go into your story is by knowing and structuring everything beforehand, including where it begins, how it progresses, and where it ends. It is understandable that most of the teeny-tiny details will make their way into the story only after you begin it, but the skeleton of your story has to be preplanned and prestructured.

Story and Plot Line

By now, I expect that you have a better understanding of what a story plot is. To tell you the key difference between a story and its plot, let’s borrow the explanation of E. M. Forster, one of the leading English novelists and short story writers of the twentieth century: “A story is a narrative of events arranged in their time sequence — it simply tells us what happened and in what order.” The plot is “a narrative of events, with the emphasis on causality… The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died and the queen died of grief is a plot.” So according to Forester, “If it is in a story we say ‘And then?’ but if it’s in a plot we ask ‘Why?’” 

 

Basically, both the story and plot are closely related, so much so that you can’t have one without the other. 

 

In short, story writing is a systematic process. It begins with structuring your ideas and making connections between the sequence of events that constitute your story plot. The plot’s structure is how you arrange the elements of your story. Your job is to piece everything together, from characters to events to places all the way to the ending. 

 

Rule No 2: Structure your story and develop a plot that keeps the logic intact.  

Learning Resources

E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel provides invaluable insights into the essentials of storytelling. In a succinct manner, he describes his observations as to what a story is, how it’s different from a plot, what produces a great story, how characters add value, and so on. You can also learn a great deal about patterns, rhythm, and how the elements of fantasy allow a writer’s imagination to take flight. 

 

If you care about crafting a plot that hooks your readers’ attention from start to finish, there is no better book to guide you through than James Scott Bell’s Write Great Fiction: Plot & Structure. This book from an award-winning author will help you learn some of the best brainstorming techniques for original plot ideas and craft a strong beginning, middle, and end — with thought-provoking exercises at the end of each chapter.

 

Every aspiring writer wants sound advice on how to write about anything: people, places, business, sports, science, technology, arts, and so on. On Writing Well by William Zinsser is another book that provides you with just that. Written by a fourth-generation New Yorker, the book not only offers fundamental principles that are relevant to writers, editors, journalists, teachers, and students but goes far beyond. In Zinsser’s own words, “The life-changing message of ‘On Writing Well’ is: simplify your language and thereby find your humanity.” 

 

Developing Characters

In the previous section, I talked about structuring a plotline and tying the various elements of your plot closely together to keep the chain of events logically intact and engaging. What follows is an aspect of writing that goes right into the heart of every story and plot structure: developing characters. 

 

Developing characters is a different skill in and of itself. You probably can’t master it without wrapping your head around the right principles and approaches that character-building process entails. Before you even move on, keep in mind though that this process will require you to be more vigilant, creative, and focused. So be all that. 

Character-driven Approach

People remember characters as they have the power to influence human emotions in profound ways. In general, it’s a whole new skill that only gets better as you approach story writing the right way and keep on practicing. 

 

If you are someone who tends to think of the plot first and then create characters, you are more of a plot-driven storyteller. The downside of a plot-driven approach is that you risk the chance of making your story characters more charismatic and memorable. Don’t get me wrong though, character-driven plotting can be much more complicated if you try to structure everything around the story or become too conscious about the characters. The trick is that when you write a character-driven story, be willing enough to let the characters dictate the direction of the story. 

Define Your Character

Without strong and memorable characters even the most astonishing plot won’t amount to much. Difficult or not, you have to give the characters their due share of attention. In defining characters, the first thing you need to figure out is their type — whether it’s a dynamic character or a static one? A dynamic character has an internal conflict that grows and changes throughout the course of the story. A static character, on the other hand, doesn’t evolve much over the course of the story and so its personality remains the same at the end of the story as it was in the beginning. 

 

Nevertheless, every character has a defining desire and, in the case of your protagonist, his/her/its defining desire propels the main storyline.  So when defining your characters, make sure you know what their defining desires and greatest fears are. You may leave the static characters less defined but you’ll need to know a lot about your dynamic characters, including their backgrounds, their desires, their fears, beliefs, appearances, quirks, and so on.

How to Create Characters People Don’t Forget?

Creating compelling characters is more subjective than it sounds. While there are no universal guidelines to follow, there is certainly a framework that can make the character-building process all the easier, better, and more systematic. Essentially, it requires you to break down the process into the following few steps:

 

  1. Determining the inner conflict and what your character is struggling with.
  2. Determining what your character looks like.
  3. Knowing their personal story and their background.

 

 You also need to be able to answer a few key questions pertaining to the character you want to place in a story or any other piece of writing. What does this character want (or their goals in life)? What’s their lifestyle? What is their personality like? Are they round characters with complex personality dimensions or flat characters with a simple set of attributes? Depending on what your character embodies, you adopt a tone of voice, a mood, and a style and then use them as a tool to create the identity that makes your character look different. 

Making them Memorable

Every character in your story should have the power to be remembered by those who know (or interact with) it on a deeper level. Memorability is the characteristic that distinguishes great characters from ordinary ones. And making your characters compelling and memorable really comes down to the work you’re willing to put into them. 

 

If it happens to be a human character, how humanistic and interesting does it sound to you? If it lacks charm, charisma, and drawing power, you can be sure it will go down as one of the million uninspiring and forgettable characters that people never bother carrying around much.

 

As important as character building is, I’m not going to overwhelm you with unwieldy ideas that can make things seem a lot difficult at this stage. But the one hack I ask you to try is this: 

 

Give your characters an inconspicuous trait, a habit that clearly stands out from how they are typically profiled by the rest. 

 

This idea, if you work on it well, can make your character as timeless as possible. The literature we know today is full of such mesmerizing characters: Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit, Harry Potter in Harry Potter, Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones, Mary Poppins in Mary Poppins, and Gandalf in Lord of the Rings are just a few examples. If you observe them closely, they all have this inconspicuous quality that makes their character shine and people find it hard to forget them. 

 

You know the third rule now: Create characters that come with a purpose, a personality, and a set of physical attributes one can’t easily forget.

Learning Resources

K.M. Weiland’s Crafting Unforgettable Character is a hands-on manual to guide you through the process of character development. In a step-by-step manner, Weiland explains how story writers can make powerful use of characters to bring their stories to life. It starts with a sound context around why crafting great characters is so essential and then moves on to the real subject: how to help writers develop a deeper understanding of the craft itself.

 

Mapping out your characters before you start writing is a much better strategy than meeting your character in the middle of the story. To help you prepare for that, V. L. Schmidt, a Ph.D. Scholar, has provided a very handy tool in the form of Character Development Worksheets. You can use it to create a character story sketch to help you remember all the little details about your characters; create character snapshots to help you add more depth to your main characters; think through interesting scenes that reveal deeper aspects of your character; and do a few more creative things that make the job of character development easier and more efficient. 

Choose Words that Resonate with Your Audience Emotionally

So far, the focus has been around planning and structuring your ideas. I talked very little about the execution part of the writing process. The way you craft sentences, choose words, and make use of the English language to express your ideas impacts how your readers will engage with your story. The readers are least concerned about what you undergo or how much energy you pour in. They will judge you by the quality, clarity, and immersive power of the story you get them to read. So, it’s very important that you learn how to avoid muddy thoughts, get clear, and express your ideas in a simple, clear, and uncluttered way. 

Language and Words

Writing is a diverse craft. You can have as many styles as there are writers out there. But what’s also true is that the diversity of styles doesn’t make them inherently good. Anything unique but unclear, cluttered, and boring is bad. The opposite could also be true: anything ordinary but clear, uncluttered, and effortless is good. Your readers are not there to be impressed by their frequent contact with difficult words, technical jargon, or twisted sentences — they are there to easily read, understand, and absorb your story. And if you fail to immerse them into your story, you may fail the story itself. 

 

I have been consciously using the phrase “writing is a craft”. What I mean by that is, like every craft, writing can be learned. All you have to do is stick to a few simple disciplines: being willing to learn, knowing the rules and principles, implementing the rules, and practicing them over an extended period of time. 

 

I have discussed some of these fundamental rules and principles in the previous sections. Here are some more of them you should keep in mind to be able to express your ideas well and write with clarity.

 

Don’t hold yourself back. Hands crossed, if you keep on thinking and thinking, nothing is going to materialize. You have to keep the flow going. There is no guarantee that the start would look like how you wanted it, but you can be sure that it won’t be completely off the mark either. As you go on getting your ideas down on paper, you will gradually start cultivating a sense of fulfillment along the way. You can only stay focused and in good spirits when you feel that you’re not just sitting there and wasting time. 

 

Just don’t assume everything is perfect at this stage. Because it comes naturally doesn’t mean it’s going to be without flaws. If you’re not an experienced writer already, it’s very unlikely you’ll produce a masterpiece right the first time around. You need to exercise the good old practice of revising and rewriting until it’s fairly obvious you have got on paper what you had in mind. 

 

Simplify it. You can’t let your first draft go out the door unless you fine-tune it for clarity, readability, and simplicity. Go over the paragraph you write, line-by-line or even word-by-word. Cut out the clutter by removing unnecessary words or even complete sentences. No one understands a clotted language and people who do try, give up on it soon, too. 

 

The secret of good writing is to simplify and strip every sentence to its cleanest component. What is stylish and impressive is not what is cluttered, it’s the enviable freedom from clutter that makes stories worth reading.

 

Write for your readers. Use an active voice. You readers want to know who is doing what and the structure “subject – performs – action” is the most straightforward way to present your ideas. Don’t be passive and confuse your readers in a wordier, vaguer, and harder-to-understand language. 

 

Play with word order. Many times changing the order of words does the trick. To emphasize or highlight the importance of a subject, you can reorder words instead of seeking complex expressions. Such as in the following manner: 

 

“The light in the porch, you still haven’t fixed it.” instead of “You still haven’t fixed the light in the porch.” to emphasize that the light is broken and needs to be fixed.  

 

Or, “Betrayal. she did not expect it from her family.” instead of “She did not expect betrayal from her family.” to put the emphasis on “betrayal”.

 

Reduce the clutter: Clutter and clarity never go together. To keep one, you have to get rid of the other. The choice is obvious but one which involves laborious efforts. Fighting clutter always requires your conscious efforts. You have to analyze your sentences closely, look for the clutter, and prune them ruthlessly. 

 

The following are some of the things you need to eliminate to express your thoughts with more economy but without losing the essence:

 

  1. The unnecessary preposition appended to a verb. Examples: “up” in “free up” or “order up” 
  2. Adverbs that carry the same meaning as the verb. Examples: “yell loudly” or “simile happily” 
  3. Adjectives that state nothing other than known facts. Example: “tall skyscraper” or “free gift” 
  4. Long words with the same meaning as short words. Example: “Numerous” instead of “many” or “remainder” instead of “rest”
 
Clutter is a common problem in writing but one that can be easily solved. All you have to do is revisit every sentence you create and look for words, phrases, and expressions that are just there to fill the space. Anything that doesn’t add more value to your sentence is clutter and your job is to identify and eliminate it there and then. 

Punctuation

Writing is a conversation without a voice. It still needs to follow all the rules of communication for it to be well understood. If you remove punctuation marks or use them incorrectly in your sentences, chances are that your readers won’t understand you well. Punctuating your writing using period, comma, colon, semicolon, and exclamation point, etc. allows you to have rhythmic control over your sentences. Without punctuation, it’s hard to achieve clarity. And if the clarity is compromised, the essence of your writing could be lost. 

 

A lot of what goes into punctuation marks should already be clear in a writer’s head. But if you are less sure, I suggest you pick a grammar book and have the foundational elements covered first. With that note, my thoughts on punctuation are going to be brief as I  believe that most of you have already had these foundational elements covered.  

The Period

All writers know why period exists, what they don’t usually know is how to reach it soon enough. The period is there to help make your sentences easier, clearer, and more digestible. Use it where it’s needed and don’t wait until your sentence starts losing its direction. Don’t push your sentences to do more than they reasonably could. It’s good to keep them brief and focused than to stretch them and make them harder for your readers to grasp. 

The Comma

The comma is a punctuation mark that separates words, clauses, and ideas used in a sentence. Like period, it also needs some mastery. There are different ways a comma can be used. The most common of those are the following:

 

Serial (aka Oxford) Comma: When there is a series of three or more items, a writer has a choice whether or not to place a comma before the coordinating conjunction (“and” or “or”). Such as:

 

  1. “Please bring me a pen, a notebook, and some labels.” with a serial comma.
  2. Or,  “Please bring me a pen, a notebook and some labels.” without a serial comma. 
 Whether you want to use it or not, make sure that you’re consistent with your approach. It’s a bad idea to use it in a few instances and skip it in others (within a single piece of writing). In some situations, placing a serial comma can even help make your sentences more clear. For example, in the sentence “I love my parents, Adele and Groot.”, skipping the comma could be problematic. Whoever this person might be, it’s clear that Adele and Groot cannot be his/her parents. Therefore, it makes more sense to place a serial comma so that the sentence reads “I love my parents, Adele, and Groot.” Though I still have my reservations about the sanity of the sentence. (Pun intended.)
 
To put it all together, a comma is necessary in the following scenarios:
 
  1. After introductory words and phrases. Example: “After he finished finishing his article, Archie could finally watch Game of Thrones.” 
  2. To set off nonrestrictive phrases or clauses. Example: “Numerous celebrities, movie stars, and writers attended the after-party, which began at 11 a.m.”
  3. Between adjectives that modify the same noun. Example: “Emma is a tall, acknowledged blogger.” 
  4. When addressing a person (after a little speech). Example: “I’ll see you at the bar, Anna.”

The Colon

This mark is used to introduce readers to a list of items, a quotation, or noun/noun phrases. Here are a few examples: 

 

  1. “The news said the ship would stop at the following ports: Aberdeen, Belfast, Dover, and the Port of London” 
  2. “My friend gave me the things I needed the most in life: companionship and peace.”
  3. “Holding the idea of authenticity in high esteem, he remembered a line from Shakespeare: ‘To thine own self be true.’”

The Semicolon

Somewhere between comma and period, the semicolon has a place. A semicolon brings the reader to a pause longer than a comma and shorter than a period. Sometimes, semicolon helps separate two grammatically complete clauses that are not joined by a conjunction. 

 

  1. Mary never promises more than she is able to deliver; she is an honest person.
  2. We may not reach home before dusk; it’s nearly half past five. 

The Dash

One of the classic style guides on the English language, The Elements of Styles, defines dash as “a mark of separation stronger than a comma, less formal than a colon, and more relaxed than parentheses.” Essentially, we use a dash in two ways: One, when we need to justify something in the second part of a sentence that we state in the first part. Example: We decided to leave early — it was a long journey and the weather was not good either. 

 

Two, when there is a parenthetical thought that needs to be separated within a longer sentence. Example: I joined music classes at the School of Art — I had a great passion for music then — but it took me years before I got the opportunity to perform at the stage. 

 

The use of dash may not be exclusive to particular situations in the presence of colon and parentheses, but it certainly gives your reader a sense of ease, comfort, and clarity that other punctuation marks may not be able to achieve. So consider it where you find it relevant. 

The Exclamation Point

Use it sparingly and only when you need to achieve a certain effect. Don’t use the exclamation point to emphasize simple statements or to inform readers that you are making a joke. These are silly mistakes and they do your story no good than annoy its readers. Reserve the exclamation mark for use only after true exclamations or commands, such as: “What an amazing performance!”  or “Slow down! There’s a blind bend ahead.”

 

The overarching goal of these rules and guidelines is to help writers write well. You can use them as a guide or a tool to help overcome some fundamental language problems, but there is more to the craft than that. As you hone your writing skills and train your mind to remain conscious of the nuanced factors surrounding style, diction, tone, and voice, you’ll be amazed how quickly you can transform your writing. 

 

So rule no 4 is just that: Keep your writing clear, concise, and clutter-free. Don’t break this rule unless you have a sound reason.

Learning Resources

Any writer who wants to master the principles of the English language must take out the time for two of the most authoritative classic guides: The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and On Writing Well by William Zinsser. 

 

The Elements of Style is a dominant how-to manual for English writers. With eleven elementary rules of usage, ten elementary principles of composition, a complete chapter on commonly misused words and expressions, and a long list of reminders on how aspiring writers should approach style, the guide provides a wealth of practical information. 

 

On Writing Well is another guide that supplements the rules and principles in The Elements of Style. In the author’s own words, “Instead of competing with the Strunk & White book I decided to complement it. The Elements of Style was a book of pointers and admonitions: do this, don’t do that. What it didn’t address was how to apply those principles to the various forms that nonfiction writing and journalism can take.”

Finesse the First Line. Get Inspired by Movies

Writing something and getting your pieces across to the right audience is a thoughtful process. While most of your time will be invested in the actual work — planning, writing, and fine-tuning your story — you also need to spend some thoughts on how to get it across to the right audience. Choosing the right topic and crafting the right starting lines are two of the most important steps towards that goal. 

The Title

The title of your story sums up your story at a glance — at least from a reader’s perspective. Therefore, picking the right title is as important as anything else. In the final analysis, it’s a question of how creative you can get to encapsulate a long story into a few words, while not losing the essence of your story. 

 

Here’s what Donald Murray, a renowned American journalist, author, and professor said of crafting titles:

 

“I average 150 titles before I settle on one. The one may be the second or third or thirteenth title, but I don’t know it’s the right one until I see the others that don’t work.” 

 

He never stops playing around with words and their different combinations, “making the censor stand over in the corner while I am silly, stupid, dumb, clumsy, awkward because I usually have to be all of those to finally become articulate.” 

 

Now we understand it would be too much of a demand to ask you to come up with so many variations for your story title, but you must not ignore the message here: title writing is an extremely important part of the process; it’s your story’s first impression and, often, a determining factor whether or not someone chooses to read your story. If you want your story to sell well, you can’t be casual about picking a title.  

 

Finding the perfect title for a story is always challenging, but here’s what you can do: break it all down into different types of headlines and figure out which one fairs well with your story. 

The Intriguing Headlines

More than contrived, intriguing headlines need to be discovered. You need to dig deep into the essence of what your story is made up of and then craft a title that carries that essence in a creative and intriguing manner. Look at some of these examples and you will get an idea how sticky and engaging your headline should sound:

 

  1. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
  2. The Unbearable Lightness of Being
  3. Think and Grow Rich
  4. A Perfect Day for Bananafish
  5. Tell the Wolves I’m Home

 

If you are fortunate to have read some of these books, you will realize how imaginative it must have been of their authors to come up with such titles. By all measures, they are perfect titles for the books they represent and are, therefore, destined to achieve great visibility and vast readerships. As an aspiring writer, crafting a solid title is the first thing you should care about once your story passes through all the development stages and becomes ready to be shared with the audience. 

The Problem-focused Title

These are the kinds of titles that target specific problems people face in their daily (personal and professional) lives. We have countless examples of problem-focused titles that writers adopt for their blog posts, articles, ebooks, and other forms of content that they publish online. Here are a few good examples:

 

  1. Seven Tips for Practicing Positive Discipline 
  2. Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person 
  3. A Five-Minute Guide to Better Typography
  4. The 10/10/10 Rule For Tough Decisions
  5. How to Stop Spending So Much Time In Your Head

 

Some of these titles, such as “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person” and “The 10/10/10 Rule For Tough Decisions” seem to be more than just problem-focused — they are creative and intriguing enough to generate a “read me” effect in the audience’s minds.

Create a Setting for Your Story

Every story takes place in a unique atmosphere imagined by its creator. The story setting is one key component of a story plot. Designed well, it can have a profound effect on how your readers receive and engage with the story. When we look at a story setting, it usually contains three essential pieces: the place, the time, and the social situation or a cultural environment where a story event takes place. Changing any one of these pieces would also impact the story as a whole. To give you a better example of how changing a setting could influence the entire plotline, look at the two contrasting examples below.

Create a Setting for Your Story

Every story takes place in a unique atmosphere imagined by its creator. The story setting is one key component of a story plot. Designed well, it can have a profound effect on how your readers receive and engage with the story. When we look at a story setting, it usually contains three essential pieces: the place, the time, and the social situation or a cultural environment where a story event takes place. Changing any one of these pieces would also impact the story as a whole. To give you a better example of how changing a setting could influence the entire plotline, look at the two contrasting examples below.

The Controversial Title

By controversial title, we don’t mean something that can get you banned. You always want to land on the right side of the issue and keep the trouble at a respectable distance. But you also need to be bold enough to ride the wave of controversy if you want to pull the attention of your audience and involve them on emotional grounds. Just be sure, though, that your goal is to pull them into your story and not to push them away from it. 

 

Here are a few examples from the world of internet that demonstrate how controversial topics can be creatively phrased and presented: 

 

  1. Why Women, but Not Men, Are Judged for a Messy House
  2. Stop Coddling Your Dog — He’s 99.9% Wolf 
  3. The Mindfulness Conspiracy

 

Some of the classic examples, such as “War and Peace” and “Pride and Prejudice” also revolve around the same concept. It’s the conjunction, the tussles, and the menacing positions of two opposing sides that spark curiosity and generate a thrilling impact in the readers’ minds. 

 

So, as you set out to do the most important job towards the end — of crafting a title for your content or story — narrow your options down to one of the three methods discussed above. Whichever option appeals to you the most, make sure that you exhaust all the possible combinations of right words and expressions to arrive at something you can confidently call “a million dollars title” for your story. 

 

Next up is the beginning line.   

The Opening Line

To get a quick feel for how the opening sentence of a story should deeply affect a reader’s desire for the story, look at the following lines from some of the best known novels in English literature:

 

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  

— Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy

 

“They shoot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time.” 

— Toni Morrison, Paradise

 

“Since it’s Sunday and it’s stopped raining, I think I’ll take a bouquet of roses to my grave.”

— Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Someone Has Been Disarranging These Roses

 

“In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together.” 

— Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter 

 

“One September evening when Walter Lasher returned from the city after a hard day’s work and was walking to his car in the station parking lot, a man stepped out from between two cars, walked up to him, and slapped him hard in the face.”

—Stephen Millhauser, The Slap

 

What do these opening lines have in common? They all stir up our desire to know the complete story at once. That’s exactly what great opening lines are meant for: to create a sense of immediate desire in the reader’s heart for something they haven’t discovered yet. According to Stephen King — the maestro of horror, supernatural, science fiction, and fantasy novels — “An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.” 

 

The opening words set the stage. They could be short as one sentence or long as one paragraph or even an entire page. But the essential thing is that these introductory words fabricate a narrative vehicle that will propel the story forward. How powerful and engaging that vehicle might be is something to be judged by the readers themselves. 

 

Here’s a breakdown of four main formats you can use to craft an opening line that resonates with your story and its plot structure:

 

Yes, and: You present what people already believe in and use it to supplement their opinions.

Yes, but: You present the status quo and provide the opposite way of thinking.

No. and: You introduce an opposite opinion and invite for a debate.

No, but: You still challenge what people know to be true but leave some room for a possible compromise when it comes to others’ opinions.

 

Remember, though, what’s important in writing is not just what you’re standing for or against. Just like a good speech, the position is important and so is the way you present it. Style and voice matter as they are tied to the interest of your readers who want to be transported, moved, and intrigued by your story. 

Borrowing from Movies — the Element of Suspense

People think bookworms and movie buffs are two different breeds of people, but the truth is rather murkier: at the core of every movie is writing. Whether you love a character, get impressed by some dialogues, or get exposed to a suspenseful experience, the credit partly goes to the screenwriter who uses his/her craft and imaginative skills to make it all happen. 

 

When it comes to revealing information through nuanced actions and dialogues, writers have a lot to be inspired by movies. Just like a movie director has an obligation to hook the audience through suspenseful scenes, a writer has a similar obligation to keep their readers engaged and provide them with a thrilling experience all along. Suspense can be a hard discipline to master, but you can achieve it if you make it your principal focus in the process of unfolding your story. The key here is to delay your answer and retain the suspense element throughout the story while keeping your readers’ focus and interest intact. 

 

That leads us to the fifth rule: Write it, read it, and revise it. Repeat the cycle and you will finally get the title and opening line your heart desires. 

Learning Resources

Want to get inspired by the techniques and opening lines from the greatest of English writers, going as far back as the seventeenth century? Look at the list of 100 Best First Lines from Novels published by the American Book Review

 

Stephen King’s memoir, On Writing, contains a wealth of ideas for aspiring writers. It doesn’t, however, discuss the art of crafting great opening sentences at length. To make up for that, you can refer to Joe Fassler’s “Why Stephen King Spends ‘Months and Even Years’ Writing Opening Sentences”, a post that he published in 2013 after having a long and broad discussion with King on opening lines. Highly relevant to what I discussed above.

Adapt Your Writing to Different Mediums and Channels

As a writer, you must begin asking yourself this question: Who is it that I’m writing for? If the answer happens to be ‘for myself’, then you might not want to spend much time on this chapter. But if the answer is ‘for my audience’, then you need to learn how to get your story across to your audience in an effective and efficient way. In this section, I’m going to help you learn just that. 

 

The internet has transformed our lives and the way we communicate with others. Just a few decades ago, writers couldn’t even dream what they are able to achieve today. The internet is not just helping them write well but also get their stories across to the right audience at the right time. If your story is worth something, you can have millions of people read it in a matter of days. Could someone imagine that back in the 80s? 

 

But harnessing the power of the internet might not be as easy as it sounds. To start with, you have to have a sound understanding of how things work in the online space. Each platform and channel where your story can be shared is unique. In that, it caters to an audience with a completely different set of expectations. 

 

Ask yourself another handy question: what does the audience really expect from content creators on these platforms and channels? Don’t sidestep the question and ponder it until you get to the bottom of it. It won’t require a lot of homework though, since you are already a part of the internet community and know where people go often and how they tend to consume information online. 

 

Whether it’s online media or offline publication sources, what you need to keep in mind and practice is this: Structure your story, analyze the audience needs, and repurpose your content so that it doesn’t lose its relevance for the platforms it goes on. In what follows, I will briefly discuss the different kinds of writing that are most relevant to modern writers and how you should use them to repurpose your story to be used on different platforms and channels. 

Narrative Writing

One of the most common forms of story writing is narrative writing. A narrative is a story (fiction or nonfiction) that is told by a narrator. The narrator could be a character in the story or the author of the story. The main character drives most of what constitutes a narrative. And what happens to the main character is called a plot. The plot has a beginning, a middle, and an end. More often than not, the middle of the story is where significant events tend to happen. The main character is thrown at the center of these events that either revolve around a problem (that needs to be solved) or a significant life experience (that needs to be faced by the main character). Following a logical sequence of events, the story finally arrives at a satisfying ending. 

 

So as you set out to write a narrative, try to get some perspective on your readers in advance. Then follow the rules and be as clear, creative, and captivating in expressing your ideas as your skills allow you to be. 

 

Writing, in general, and story writing, in particular, is about passion. If you have that within you already, when you succeed becomes only a matter of time. Stay put and allow nothing to turn you away from your passion.

Blog Posts

Writing blog posts is apparently a lot different from writing stories. Still, a good story writer won’t find it too hard to write a captivating blog post (and vice versa). There is certainly a process involved that will require you to learn new things as you switch around, but the journey itself is not a lot different. Both the storyteller and blogger are individuals who write for the reader. And to win the reader’s heart, they both need to write with clarity, grace, and a solid understanding of the subject matter.

 

We have covered story writing fairly well. With blog posts, however, you have to keep a two-pronged objective in mind: Expository writing (where the goal is to educate the audience) and persuasive writing (where the goal is to persuade the audience into taking actions). 

 

In expository writing, the subject matter is above everything and the writer explains a situation in a neutral and objective manner. There is usually no room for voicing his/her personal opinion as the facts and figures presented are enough to speak for themselves. On the contrary, persuasive writing is all about subjectivity. The writer builds an argument, creates a need around an idea or a solution, and then tries to convince readers to buy into it — using the power of language.   

 

No matter the type of blog post, you need to begin the process with your readers in mind. While a story reader may want to be amazed and have a thrilling experience all along, an exploratory reader expects you to present the information in a precise, clear, and objective manner. Still, a general reader may be better engaged if you present your ideas in a coherent, friendly, and personalized manner. 

Social Media

Each medium has its own unique set of codes, conventions, style, and aesthetics — social media platforms are no exception. When writing for social media, you need to keep in mind that it’s not one of those mediums people use for knowledge building primarily. It’s a medium for social interaction where people never mind sharing some brief, informative, and interesting content. The majority of Facebook users, for example, don’t open Facebook to read a 20-minute long article or get lost in a maze of boring facts and figures. They go there to be entertained and have some light moments in their leisure time. If you can understand that psyche and the factors driving user behavior on social media, you can write for them and achieve what you intend on achieving. 

 

Cutting it to the chase, it’s a good idea to be short, be friendly, be approachable, and always take out the time to respond to your audience’s comments, messages, and mentions. These techniques are as simple as they sound, yet they will help your story gain traction and be picked up by the people it’s written for. 

Video Scripts

Many things we talked about writing earlier do apply to video scripts. However, there are some additional guidelines you need to keep in mind when crafting scripts for corporate videos, webinars, explainers, or any other form of non-advertising videos. To keep it short and to the point, focus on the following three pieces of advice:

 

Make your video script conversational. Use shorter sentences, simplify the language, and make it sound natural. 

 

Keep the audience and platform in mind. The tone of voice you want to adopt for teens, middle-aged professionals, or older retirees cannot be the same. By the same token, videos that go on your website, on a TV channel, on Instagram, or on YouTube will require different strategies as to their tone of voice, format, and language style. 

 

Do a verbal run-through off-camera. This is the part that will help bring your script to life on camera. Speak your copy aloud as if you’re performing it for the listeners. And as you find words that don’t sound right, cut them out and replace them with something better. Remember that when you do a verbal run-through, it’s time to follow your ears (not your head so much). And if the words didn’t sound right in your ears, it’s less important how they sound on paper or in your head. 

 

With that, rule no 6: Explore the main purpose of each medium and let your story adapt.

Learning Resources

Successful Writing by Scott McLean is a comprehensive book on how people can overcome the challenges they face in expressing their ideas on paper — clearly and effectively. Section 6.1 of the book, in particular, focuses on mastering the art of writing for different audiences. Titled “Purpose, Audience, Tone, and Content”, the section provides unique insights into how writers can identify the audience, tone, and purpose to perfect the art of audience-centric writing.

 

Anne Lamott’s “Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life” is truly a gift to all aspiring writers. This is the kind of step-by-step guide on how you can start writing and manage your life as a writer which will never bore you or fail to retain your focus as you go along. Anne Lamott is a great storyteller and she knows how to engage readers even if the subject matter is a bit dry or toilsome. In this guide, she encourages, instructs, and inspires readers, from how to get started with their story all the way to how they can get it in the hands of their readers. 

Breaking The Rules

Sometimes breaking the rules makes more sense but people are too shy to take those steps. All the rules drilled into us are the product of someone else’s thoughts. They are no physics laws that, if you break them, the repercussions will be irreparable. To borrow a line from Steve Jobs, everything around you that you call ‘life’ was made up by people who were no smarter than you. 

 

In the world of writing, rules are defined by those who have mastered the art so well that you simply find it hard to disobey them. But someone who mastered the art is leaving you a bunch of rules to follow doesn’t mean that you must. In any field of endeavor, when you happen to have a certain level of authority over the subject, you can venture beyond what’s bound by rules and conventions. The same goes for writers — they have to learn the craft really well and, at some point, be willing to break the rules if they want to stand out from the crowd. 

Be a Follower or a Forerunner

Most people don’t question rules until they become successful. The opposite is also true: most people become successful when they question the rules. In either case, going off the beaten path and heaving yourself over the ledge is when you discover ideas that will catch people’s attention. 

 

Imagine if everyone were to follow the usual order of things from the dawn of time. Could we have the luxury to enjoy things like music, dance, literature, and art in their present forms? Probably not. Some people at some point said no to the status quo and chose a path others never thought they could. The world applauded their move and embraced what they had to give. Those creative geniuses passed their legacies on to us and we enjoy the fruits of their efforts today and so will the future generations. 

 

If Michelangelo were to follow the rules, he wouldn’t have painted pictures the way he did; if Shakespeare were to choose a beaten path, he wouldn’t have written poetry the way he did; or if Beethoven’s quench for originality was gone with the wind, he wouldn’t have composed music the way he did. All the great figures in human history had to struggle with rules that were there to stymie their progress and ingenuity. 

What it Means to You as a Writer

It’s important for writers to keep it all in perspective. I’m not advocating this rule-breaking mentality for the sake of it. The idea is, you shouldn’t be bound by the rules so much that they start affecting your creative brain and become a roadblock in your path to achieving something (like a unique voice or style) you can truly call yours. You have all the right to explore new horizons, try something new, and make it your own. And if doing it requires you to break some rules, never mind them at all. 

 

I’m going to end this guide with two important tips and a profoundly moving ad script by Rob Siltanen that he crafted for one of Apple’s iconic ads — think different. More than two decades down the road, it’s still relevant today as it was then.  

1

Don’t wait too long to give things a start. Writing style, like a planted seed, only develops over a period of time. To borrow a line from Ogilvy, “Develop your eccentricities while you are young. That way, when you get old, people won’t think you’re going gaga.”

2

“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” What Picasso has said is true for writers as it’s for painters, sculptors, designers, or any other type of artist. Take it as a golden rule to break other rules. 

Square boxes are not made for humans to fit in. If you are the person who thinks differently, feels differently, and behaves differently, you will one day find a way to write differently as well. 

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

With that, here’s the seventh and final rule: Don’t be too afraid of breaking the rules, but master the rules before you consider breaking them. 

Learning Resources

Winston Weather’s Alternate Style: Options in Composition is a book for all who love boundary-breaking written expressions, linguistic innovation, and rhetorical experimentation in the English language. Weather’s suggestions and examples on how one can break the rules of conventional style (“Grammer A” as he calls it) and still be effective are invaluable. Go through it if you want to learn some of his suggested techniques. 

 

There are numerous articles and blog posts on the subject of breaking writing rules that can be accessed on the internet. This one — “How to Break Writing Rules” — from Jenny Bravo is particularly helpful. In a fun, readable, and engaging manner, she explains some of the writing rules that writers may consider breaking, including plot rules, punctuation rules, and stylistic rules. Besides, Christine Frazier’s Six Writing Rules that Even Bestselling Authors Break is another well-written post you may go through and glean some interesting ideas from it. 

All the best!

1 reply on “7 Golden Rules of Creative Writing”

Hey Shahzada,

You are right, creative writing is not just about writing for others, it is about writing for ourselves. You have listed an awesome list of creative writing habits — very easy to understand and to follow!

Couldn’t agree more: First of all we have to find a topic (which is important and usually very hard to find); then we have to create a setting for our story because every story takes place in a unique atmosphere imagined by its creator…

Amazing guide overall!

Thank you,
Sweety Kumari

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