Articles

7 Techniques from Creative Writing You Can Use to Improve Your Essays

You wouldn’t have thought that essays have much in common with creative writing. You should also read… How to Improve Your English Writing Skills How to Write Dazzlingly Brilliant Essays  … Read more

|

36 comments


Image shows a writer writing in a notebook. You wouldn’t have thought that essays have much in common with creative writing.

You should also read…

Creative writing, by definition, involves being ‘creative’: making things up, letting your imagination run wild. Essays are about being factual and objective, communicating ideas and arguments in the clearest way possible and attempting to enhance the reader’s knowledge, rather than their imagination. But while the literary devices and colourful tales we associate with creative writing are indeed out of place in an essay, these two very different kinds of writing actually have a few similarities. Above all, they’re both meant to be read by other people, and that means that they need to sustain the reader’s interest. So, are there any writing techniques you can borrow from creative writing to help make your essays more interesting and original? Yes there are, and in this article, we’re going to show you how.

1. Think about your reader

Image shows a stack of paper.

Chances are your teacher or examiner will have a lot to read – so keep them interested.

With creative writing, as with any kind of writing, your reader is your most important consideration. You need to know and understand whom you’re writing for if you’re to do a good job of keeping them interested. Let’s think for a moment about the kind of person you’re writing for when you’re writing an essay and what you need to do to write specifically for them:

What all these points boil down to is the importance of keeping your reader interested in what you have to say. Since creative writing is all about holding the reader’s interest, there must be some lessons to be learned from it and techniques that can be applied within the more limited style constraints of the academic essay. We’ll now turn to what these are.

Image is a button that reads "Browse all Study Skills articles."2. Three-act structure

Image shows Hamlet clutching a skull, with his father's ghost in the background.

Yves Lavandier argues that, although traditionally divided into five acts, Hamlet consists of three dramatic acts.

The three-act structure is a writing device used extensively in modern writing, including for film and television dramas. These ‘acts’ aren’t as distinct as acts in a play, as one follows seamlessly on from another and the audience wouldn’t consciously realise that one act had ended and another began. The structure refers to a plotline that looks something like this:

  1. Set-up – establishes the characters, how they relate to each other, and the world they inhabit. Within this first ‘act’, a dramatic occurrence called an ‘inciting incident’ takes place (typically around 19 minutes into a film) involving the principal character. They try to deal with it, but this results in another dramatic occurrence called a ‘turning point’. This sets the scene for the rest of the story.
  2. Confrontation – the turning point in the previous ‘act’ becomes the central problem, which the main character attempts to resolve – usually with plenty of adversity thrown their way that hampers their efforts. In a murder mystery, for example, this act would involve the detective trying to solve the murder. The central character – with the help of supporting characters – undergoes a journey and develops their knowledge, skills or character to a sufficient degree to be able to overcome the problem.
  3. Resolution – the climax of the story, in which the drama reaches a peak, the problem is overcome, and loose ends are tied up.

This structure sounds all very well for made-up stories, but what has it got to do with essay-writing? The key similarities here are:

Image shows the Tin Man, Dorothy, the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion from the Wizard of Oz.

The tornado is the inciting incident in the Wizard of Oz – so to take the analogy a little further, the longer you leave your essay before you get to the point, the longer you leave your reader standing around in dull black-and-white Kansas, waiting for something to happen.

So, applying the three-act structure to an essay gives you something like this:

  1. Set-up – the introduction. This establishes what you’re talking about, setting the scene. The ‘inciting incident’ could be the introduction of evidence that contradicts a common theory, or the highlighting of a central disagreement in how something is interpreted.
  2. Confrontation – you discuss the different problems surrounding the topic you’re writing about. You develop the argument using various bits of evidence, moving towards an overall conclusion.
  3. Resolution – the conclusion. You summarise and resolve the argument with your own opinion, by coming down on one side or the other, having weighed up the evidence you’ve discussed. You could perhaps tie up loose ends by offering an alternative explanation for evidence that doesn’t sit with your conclusion.

Using this structure keeps you focused on the central point, and stops you from waffling, because everything you write is working towards resolving your argument. The use of the inciting incident in the first ‘act’ encourages you to get to the point early on in your essay, thereby keeping the reader interested. The principles of good plot-writing are centred around the connection between different events that show cause and effect, and this central tenet of the three-act structure has obvious parallels with the way in which essays work through presenting evidence in support of arguments.

3. An attention-grabbing opening

Image shows a painting of a group of people standing around the body of a murdered woman.

A murder mystery novel might start with the murder and then establish the build-up in flashbacks.

An oft-spouted piece of advice in creative writing is to use an attention-grabbing opening. One way of doing this is to start with a ‘flashback’, which could disrupt the chronology of events by transporting the reader directly back to the midst of the action, so that the story begins with maximum excitement. In a murder mystery, for instance, the writer might skip a slow build-up and instead use the murder itself to form the opening of the novel, with the rest of the story charting the efforts of the detective to uncover the perpetrator and perhaps telling the events prior to the murder in a series of flashbacks. The same principle can be applied to essays, though it’s easier to use in some subjects than others.

To take an example, let’s say you were writing about how the First World War started. Rather than building up slowly with the various factors, an attention-grabbing opening could (briefly) describe the drama of the Battle of the Somme, perhaps citing some statistics about the number of men involved and killed, and quoting some war poetry about the horrors faced by the soldiers on the Front Line. Then, to introduce the purpose of the essay and launch into your argument about what started the war, a phrase such as, “It seems hard to imagine that all this began with…”. Alternatively, a rhetorical question: “But how did these tens of thousands of soldiers end up in the mud and horror of trench warfare? The story begins several years earlier, with…” It may not be the standard way of writing an essay, but you’ll certainly score points for originality and perhaps ruffle a few feathers.

4. Extended metaphors

Image shows Romeo and Juliet about to touch their palms together.

Metaphor is used extensively in Romeo and Juliet. Film still from Romeo and Juliet (F. Zefferelli, 1968).

Creative writing often makes use of extended metaphors. For example, when Shakespeare wrote the passage in Romeo and Juliet referring to “It is the East, and Juliet is the sun!” he was using an extended metaphor. With this in mind, it’s time to revisit a point we made in a previous article about writing more original essays, in which we argued that, rather than battling on with trying to explain a complex concept in a straightforward way, it might be easier to use an analogy to convey the meaning by drawing comparisons, which people find easier to understand. A metaphor is a kind of analogy, so the similarities with creative writing are strong here. In our previous article we used the example of radioactive decay. An analogy for this is the pressure with which water escapes from a hole in a bucket. It does so exponentially, just as radioactive substances decay exponentially. In both instances, the rate of a consumptive process depends on how much there is left of whatever is being depleted, which results in an exponential rate of decay. This concept is so much easier to explain using the analogy of water flowing from a hole in a bucket, as you give your reader something familiar to visualise in order to explain a concept with which they are unfamiliar.

5. Interesting details about setting and location

Image shows a statue of the Emperor Augustus.

Augustus lived frugally.

Another way of keeping your reader interested is to bring your essay to life with details about setting and location, just as creative writers do. Essays can become quite dry if you focus solely on the academic problems, but you can make them more interesting by peppering them with details. This may not work quite so well for a scientific essay, but it’s certainly relevant for some humanities subjects, in particular English literature, history and archaeology. For example, an essay about the Roman emperor Augustus could mention that he lived a famously modest lifestyle, quoting details from Roman writers and archaeological evidence that support this: Suetonius mentions his “low bed” (interesting because of what it says about accepted standards of Roman beds!) and coarse bread and cheese diet, and the relatively small and non-lavish remains of his house on the Palatine Hill in Rome back up the idea of his having lived a modest life.

Incidental details like these can actually prove to be more significant than you initially realise, and you can use them to build your argument; in the case of Augustus, for example, his modest lifestyle is particularly important when seen in the context of Rome’s troubled history with kings. As he gradually acquired more power and became Rome’s first emperor, he had to avoid coming across as being too ‘regal’, and the little details we know about his way of life are significant in light of this. So, not only have you brought your essay to life, but you’ve raised an interesting point, too.

6. Editing

Few writers get it right first time. Once you’ve written a first draft, read through it and think about whether the order of your points is optimal and whether what you’ve written actually makes sense. It’s easy in the age of computers to chop and change – you can simply copy and paste part of your essay into another part where it might fit better, and then make minor changes to your wording so that it flows. After you’ve finished editing, have a final read through and check that you’re happy with the wording. Don’t forget to proofread to ensure that your spelling and grammar is impeccable!

7. And finally… record your ideas

Image shows someone writing in a notebook.

Keeping a notebook to hand helps you gather good ideas when they come to you.

Creative writers swear by having a notebook with them at all times, ready to jot down any ideas that suddenly spring to mind. You can adopt the same principle for your essay-writing, because you never know when the inspiration might strike. Have a think about your essay topic when you’re out and about; you’d be surprised what occurs to you when you’re away from your normal place of study.

As you can see, there are more similarities between two apparently unrelated kinds of writing than you might have realised. It is, of course, possible to go too far with the creative writing idea when you’re essay-writing: literary devices aren’t always appropriate, and your essay still needs to retain objectivity and conform to the more formal conventions of academic writing. But there are certainly techniques to be borrowed from creative writing that will help your essays stand out from the crowd and give your teacher or lecturer a welcome break from the monotony of essay-marking.






Your email will not be shared and you can unsubscribe whenever you want with a simple click.

Image credits: banner; papers; Hamlet; Wizard of Oz; murder mystery; Romeo and Juliet; Augustus; notebook.

Comments (36)

  1. johny


    that was really helpful thank you very much xxx

    • raphael g. tuppa


      It realy help me on my studies.So thanks >

  2. Fabiola


    Very helpful! thank you!

  3. jasmine


    it was very helpful! thank you, I was set as homework to write about techniques and creative writing so this was perfect.

  4. nonso


    that was very helpful thanks for the tips (; xxx

  5. Debbie


    Fabulous help taken notes thank you xx

  6. chinnu


    Thanks , this was really helpful to me because I had a competition in creative writing.

  7. taiwo oluwafemi


    Very illuminating! Good job!

  8. Hanna


    I needed to prepare for an exam and this really helped! thank you so much! xxx

  9. Anonymous


    A job well done!

  10. Jesimiel Kefas


    A very educative piece. Keep it up!

  11. Teme


    Thank you so much! It helped me alot .xx

  12. Teme


    Very enlightening. Thanks!

  13. Walliey Mukena


    I’m greatful. My pupils wanted me to help them with how they can be creative in their compositions and this is just pin point

  14. ZoanaYana


    It really helped me .thank you

  15. Afrose


    It was really helpful for my essay writing.Thank You a lot. : )

  16. Axel


    Thank you so much this helped a ton got a fabulous grade thank you so much.

  17. anjali


    It was good and informative .

  18. Name


    It help me out big time.

  19. Dont care


    It help me out big time.

  20. Velpula BobKingston Bobby


    Great

  21. Paul Alabi


    Awesome! Thanks a lot…

  22. Aschalew Amanu


    I want to get your module

  23. Kaveesh


    REALLY HELPFUL. THANK YOU SO MUCH.

  24. o


    ok

  25. ronrogers


    ublished. Required fields are marked *

  26. Dilakshi navoda


    A tower of strength for compiling a creative literary piece.Thank you very much

  27. Avitha


    Very impressive techniques they will surely help me .THANKS with big capital T.

  28. Manna


    Very helpful. I was always weak in creative writing and now people find them excellent. Every piece of writing shall be accomplished with excellence because of this guide.
    Thanks??

  29. Sonu


    This really helped me as I have an elecution. This has helped me 2 show creativity in my speech thankyou ???

  30. Shae


    I’ve never thought about the essay in terms of a ‘three act’ structure relating to like a performance! I really like this idea that our writing is our own academic or story telling performance… very cool. My favorite resource for writing at the moment is similiesmiles.com, its where you are prompted with random words and you make a similie out of it, as creative as possible! This idea of stretching our styles, and weaving some creativity even in essay resonates with me, and now I’m playing with using more similies in my essay to see how it can work!

  31. TWD


    I loved that you used a cooking metaphor to highlight each point. Even for the person who doesn’t cook it works. They know how to eat, or in this case, read and know what good content looks like. What is so often needed is just what you gave, good examples.

  32. Celeste


    This was very helpful because I am practicing to become a better writer, therefore, I am trying to read up as many tips on my free time as possible. I especially love creative writing because it let’s you spill diverse and original ideas onto the page, not be locked into a single subject. It makes me really happy. Again, thank you for making this!

  33. Kdolle Vampholmes


    science writing essay introduction sucks.

  34. togel sdsb


    At this time it appears like Drupal is the preferred blogging platform available right now.
    (from what I’ve read) Is that what you’re using on your blog?

  35. rqetteewtwteewt


    WOW Its a great source and format, I can’t believe that I have never even searched up techniques before (don’t trust everything you believe) It turns out i’m not that bad at English thx to u :) :) :)


You


You may be interested in these other courses:

SUMMER

Medical School Preparation Programme

For students seeking a place at Medical School Read more
SUMMER

Global Leadership Programme

For students wanting to develop leadership and management skills Read more
SUMMER

Business and Enterprise Programme

Gain an in-depth insight into business with this summer course Read more
SUMMER

Law School Preparation Programme

Develop your understanding of the law with tutoring from our expert faculty Read more