Is there a difference between creative writing and writing creatively? Believe it or not, there actually is! In my previous blog post I discussed some basic methods for improving and refining your creative writing skills. I’ll talk more about creative writing in future posts, but for now, my task is to convince you that academic writing (all of that formal writing you use in essays!) can also be creative, and better yet—it should be creative. Writing creatively does not mean writing fiction or poetry. It means incorporating what you know about creative writing into your schoolwork. It is the very definition of style, and the answer to being a successful writer in high school, college, and beyond.
So what does it mean to “write creatively?” Let’s answer this question by defining what creative writing is. Creative writing is what we use to define an act of artistic expression, one which uses the imagination to convey meaning by using such literary tropes as narrative, imagery, and drama. Creative writing includes fiction, scripts, poetry, creative non-fiction, and screenplays. Most people distinguish creative writing from academic writing, which is considered analytical, formal, and scholarly: the writing you encounter in college, professional journals, and secondary sources you use for research essays.
I argue, however, that both forms of writing can learn from each other. To write creatively is to do just this: to write academically using creative methods. Here’s how:
1. Format. Your teachers will all stress the importance of the five-paragraph essay (Introduction, 3 body paragraphs, and conclusion). This is great—for learning about the basics of essay writing. But don’t feel afraid to break out of this rigid format. You will certainly be asked to do so when in college, so why not begin now? Consider adding additional elements, to change it up a little, such as a counterargument prior to your conclusion. This is an elegant acknowledgment of an argument that can be made against your thesis; it should be followed by an assertion of why this counterargument is ungrounded. You can, additionally, begin your introduction differently, by starting with a question, a quote, or another author’s opinion. You can also conclude your essay in a different fashion, by raising another troubling point about your text, or refining your thesis from paragraph one to incorporate a larger, more relevant argument. Change it up!
2. Word choice. If you have written a few essays in high school so far, you might be aware that you tend to recycle several words or phrases. I certainly notice this in my own writing. To prevent repetition, start crafting “buzzword” index cards to use when in need of some essay “spice.” For example, I notice that I use the word “argue” a lot in my essays. Buzzwords for “argue” might include: claim, contend, suggest, consider, maintain, allege, ascertain, etc. In addition to buzzwords, feel free to incorporate words you might use only creatively. Use vivid adjectives when describing a passage; choose verbs that are particularly active when talking about climate change. There’s no end to what you can do when it comes to words.
3. Imagery. Contrary to popular belief, you can absolutely use imagery in your essays! Figurative language is not particular to fiction alone. Analogies are helpful in critical writing. Consider these examples: “With funding tight in many school systems across the country, art programs are being pick-pocketed by science and math programs;” “The past will always come knocking on the politician’s door;” “racial injustice is a disease that can never be cured.” Be careful not to use too much figurative language and to remain precise and clear in your analogies.
4. Acknowledge other authors’ opinions. You will definitely learn to do this in research papers, in which you will be expected to engage with other authors’ arguments in some fashion. But beginning a paragraph as simply as “Mr. Smith considers Hamlet to be secondary to the tragedy of King Lear” is an elegant way to acknowledge someone else’s opinion prior to opposing your own. This is a creative way of interpreting text, because it mimics a polite debate. Gesturing to what others have to say and then proving their thoughts either wrong or inadequate helps give the reader a well-rounded perspective of the text and your argument.
5. Apply different lenses to your material. Why not look at Shakespeare through a historical lens? What happens when you analyze a film as you would a standard book or text? What does religion have to do with Crime and Punishment? Does music play a role in Hamlet? Looking at literature through the eyes of another discipline can be enlightening but also can produce a truly fascinating essay.
There is no perfect way to craft an academic essay. Throughout the next few weeks this will certainly become clear. But I hope to show you that the academic essay is not all it’s cracked up to be: it is something infinitely flexible, and infinitely enjoyable. After all, we’re still writing them, aren’t we?
About the author: Kathleen McGunagle is a senior in Princeton University’s English department and Interdisciplinary Humanities Certificate Program. Concentrating in British Renaissance Literature, she will be writing a thesis this spring on Shakespeare and epistolary culture. Kathleen is an Academic Peer Adviser at Princeton, tutor through Princeton Tutoring, and avid performer. She has recently returned from a year of study at Worcester College, Oxford.