What is Creative Writing?

Explore eight forms of creative writing, with tips and creative writing exercises to get you started. 

You can bring a creative approach to any kind of writing—a recipe, a textbook, or an email, for example—but “creative writing” means something more specific. The creative writing category can be defined both by what it includes and excludes.

Creative writers are usually not aiming to transmit factual information to people who can use it (as in a recipe, technical writing, academic writing, or even an email). Rather, creative writers tend to have two primary goals that set their writing apart from other forms. Specifically, creative writers aim to: (1) express their unique imaginative perspective and (2) evoke an emotional response in the reader. 

The Four Primary Categories of Creative Writing

What is creative writing?

Suppose you study creative writing in the academic context, particularly in an MFA program. In that case, you will typically choose one or more of four big categories of writing: fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, and drama (plays and screenplays). 

1. Fiction

In the context of creative writing, fiction is generally defined to include novels, novellas, and short stories. Fiction is imaginative (generally non-factual) storytelling constructed to take the reader on an emotional journey. Some of the essential literary devices that define fiction writing are setting, character development, point of view, linear cause and effect, a structure with a beginning/middle/end, dialogue, and exposition. 

Some experimental fiction writers deliberately play with or even omit some of these conventions (for example, Kurt Vonnegut experiments with non-linearity in Slaughterhouse Five). However, they are present in nearly all fiction to one degree or another. 

Because fiction is, by definition, not factual, it requires the reader to suspend their disbelief to one degree or another. Of course, some fiction is realist, meaning that it includes places, people, and events that either are real or could have been real. For example, in Harper Lee’s classic novel To Kill A Mockingbird, the town of Maycomb, the character Scout, and the plot events were made up. However, Lee’s writing was inspired by her childhood, and it is easy to imagine that it could have happened.

Non-realist fiction (such as science fiction, fantasy, or fabulism) uses settings, characters, or events that would be implausible if published as nonfiction but are believable in the context of the author’s fictional world. For example, Karen Russell’s short story “Orange World” is about a new mother who makes a deal to breastfeed the devil in exchange for her baby’s safety. It would not be plausible as nonfiction, but the emotional urgency parents feel when it comes to protecting their children makes the story emotionally plausible within a fictional world in which the devil exists and makes deals.

Flash fiction (short stories under 1,000 words) are an excellent entry-point for experimenting with writing fiction. If brevity isn’t your strong suit, you can start writing fiction by creating an outline for a story or novel, or writing a detailed character sketch.

2. Poetry

Poetry can take many forms, but generally, it is a style of creative writing that is: (1) focused on the aesthetic and rhythmic qualities of language, (2) condensed into a tight form with no inessential words, and (3) striving to express an idea or evoke an emotion that is difficult to put into words. Poetry can be fictional (referring to an imagined situation) or essentially nonfiction, based on the poet’s real experiences.

Some forms of poetry are much longer and denser (such as prose poems), while others are brief and leave lots of white space on the page. Some poetry is structured based on rules of rhyme and meter (such as a sonnet), while others are more anarchic (free verse). 

Often poetry uses figurative language, such as similes, metaphors, and allegory, operates on multiple levels at once (the literal and the symbolic), or juxtaposes two unexpected elements. For example, Robert Frost’s short poem “The Road Not Taken” uses the metaphor of a walk in the woods to inspire the reader to think about how they choose the path they take through life. 

To explore the possibilities that poetry has to offer, try choosing a subject and writing three poems about it using three different forms, such as free verse, a sonnet, and an erasure poem. An erasure poem is where you take a page of writing, such as a book page, and strategically redact most of the words with a pen or razor blade, so that the remaining words comprise the poem. 

Have you seen our article on the 15 types of poetry every writer should know.

3. Drama

What is creative writing?
Common forms include theatrical plays, film screenplays, television scripts, and even operas

Although we usually think of creative writing being consumed directly via reading, other forms are consumed indirectly. Such as by observing performers who are enacting the writing. Common forms include theatrical plays, film screenplays, television scripts, and even operas. 

Most drama uses a three-act structure similar to fiction. While drama is usually fiction, some (like the musicals Hamilton and Evita) are based on a true story and fleshed out using fictional details.

Although these forms of creative writing tell a narrative story, much like fiction, they can use visual and auditory tools that aren’t available on the page. For example, in an early scene in Jordan Peel’s screenplay for the film Get Out, the protagonist and his girlfriend are driving and chatting when “A shadow darts across the road in front of the hood of the car. Its hind legs SMACK the hood of the car with a loud THWAT-THWAT.” Reading that description does not evoke fear, but the film’s audiovisual representation of the car hitting a deer is an effective jump-scare.

Plays and screenplays tend to use a specific format, which consists almost entirely of dialogue, along with very brief passages describing what the actors should do and how the setting should look. If you want to write this form, it is a good idea to watch lots of plays and movies and read plays and screenplays. You can find many film screenplays online with a simple Google search. 

4. Creative Nonfiction

Creative nonfiction differs from fiction, poetry, and drama in that it transmits factual information to the reader. However, its purpose is generally to impact the reader’s thoughts or feelings rather than to provide actionable information (as in the case of other nonfiction, such as a recipe or self-help book). Creative nonfiction can be long-form (such as a memoir) or short form (such as a personal essay) and is virtually always in the first person.

What makes a piece of writing creative nonfiction, as opposed to other forms of nonfiction (such as journalism), is that creative nonfiction borrows the tools of other forms of creative storytelling (particularly fiction and poetry) to tell a true story in an emotionally compelling way. A creative essay might combine the lyricism of poetry, the deep characterization of a novel, and the three-act structure of a play, for example. 

Creative nonfiction can also borrow elements of other nonfiction forms. For example, this excerpt from Maggie Nelson’s memoir Bluets combines poetic phrasing, the dramatization of a scene in prose, and an exploration of the theoretical writings of Goethe and Wittgenstein.

According to expert Phillip Lopate, one of the key concepts in creative nonfiction is the “double-perspective.” This is how personal essays and memoirs allow a writer to show not only their perspective when an event happened but their wiser retrospective understanding of that event. To practice creative nonfiction, try identifying an event that you’ve come to understand differently over time and write about that shift in your mindset.

Four Additional Forms of Creative Writing

While fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, and playwriting/screenwriting are the most common genres included in academic creative writing programs, many other forms of writing fall into that category. Four examples are stand-up comedy, speech-writing, songwriting, and journaling.

1. Stand-Up Comedy

Of course, any form of creative writing can include jokes, comedic scenes, or can have a comedic structure in the classical sense (Aristotle defined comedy as a story in which a ridiculous character starts low and ends high, in a happy ending). However, a stand-up comedy set is its own beast. 

Stand-up comedy sets are inarguably a form of creative writing. A comedian’s primary objectives are to express the comedian’s unique perspective and create an emotional response in the audience. Like drama, comedy combines both writing and performance. Like poetry, stand-up sets are very tightly written, with the mindset that every word matters.

Most stand-up sets are written as narrative nonfiction, and many contain elements of social commentary. Two of the most impactful comedy sets in the last decade, for example, were Hannah Gadsby’s Peabody and Grammy Award-winning show Nanette, which addressed the prejudice she’d experienced as a lesbian, and the album Tig Notaro Live, a Grammy-nominated comedy album about Notaro’s cancer diagnosis that topped the Billboard charts.

While stand-up sets typically describe things that happened to the comedian, they are not limited to truthfulness like other nonfiction. It is not considered unethical to exaggerate, fictionalize, or even fabricate events described in a stand-up set, as long as it improves the jokes.

As in Gadsby and Notaro’s sets, sometimes the best comedy has an edge and addresses very serious subjects. If you want to try writing comedy, a good exercise is to identify an extremely negative experience in your life and look for a comedic perspective on it. 

For more help on writing comedy, we can recommend six great comedy writing books.

2. Speeches

Stand-up comedy and dramatic monologs are essentially speeches, and it is only fair to characterize other forms of speech-writing as creative writing. Of course, some speeches are improvised. Many, however, are the result of creative writing, revision, and memorization. 

Speeches falling under the rubric of creative writing could include anything from the president’s congressional State of the Union address to the best man speech at your friend’s wedding. In either case, the writer of the speech typically aims to express a unique perspective and generate a particular emotional response in the listener (persuading them to trust the president or to believe that the bride and groom are soulmates, for example).

Most speeches have a higher expectation of truthfulness than comedy sets and certainly more than dramatic monologs. However, they also integrate elements of poetry and fiction, such as the use of themes and motifs. 

Many people learn how to write speeches by participating in high school or college-level speech and debate or joining groups like Toastmasters. You could also find opportunities to practice by volunteering in the context of activism or community education.

3. Musical Lyrics

The overlap between theater and opera makes it evident that writing music with lyrics should be included in the umbrella category of creative writing. However, any argument that creative writing shouldn’t include song lyrics was demolished in 2016, when Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. 

The overlap between lyrics and poetry is obvious. Both are short, efficient forms, which are always focused on the rhythm of language and often on rhyme. However, it is also common for lyrics to tell a fictional story, such as in Dylan’s song “Tangled Up in Blue,” or even nonfictional stories, as in his song “Hurricane,” about boxer Rubin Carter being framed for murder. Song lyrics may also include jokes. Like drama, lyrics are usually consumed by observing performers, rather than by reading.

Notwithstanding these overlaps, what sets lyrics apart from other creative writing categories (other than opera or musicals) is that lyrics are set to music. This requires a high level of skill in handling rhythm because not only must the internal rhythm of the lyrics work (as in a poem), they must resonate well with the music supporting them. If you don’t have a band, look for a karaoke version of a song you know and love to practice writing song lyrics. Then write your own new lyrics for it. 

4. Journaling

Journal writing is a little harder to fit in the creative writing category, as we’ve defined it. Although it is the ultimate form of self-expression, journals are typically not meant to be read by others. But, of course, if you become famous enough, your diary might one day become of interest to the public and publishable (such as Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl).

Freewriting about your own life and experience is a valuable training technique for creative writers. The popular book and methodology The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron, advises hand-writing three pages every day, regardless of the content, in order to increase and enhance the creative drive for all artists, not just writers. As Virginia Woolf put it, “The habit of writing for my eye is good practice. It loosens the ligaments.” 

However, a personal diary describing your secrets and feelings about your life is only one way to use a journal. Some people use journaling to brainstorm and pre-write in preparation for writing fiction or other forms. You can even take diary entries and revise them into m a memoir or poetry. 

The Bottom Line on Creative Writing Forms

There is enormous overlap between the different types of creative writing, and practicing any of them will improve your writing skills, so there’s no reason to silo yourself. For example, poets can deepen their sense of meter by writing lyrics, journaling fans can write personal essays to share their insights with readers, and fiction writers can improve their dialogue by experimenting with writing drama. So stop pigeonholing yourself as a creative writer, and you may find your creativity far exceeds your expectations.

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