Five Things I Learned in Creative Writing Class

creative writing class

What can you learn in a creative writing class?

People ask me all the time whether I think a formal education is necessary to a successful writing career. A degree certainly helps, but no, it’s not necessary. There are master writers who did not finish high school and plenty never went to college.

I want to be clear: I fully support higher education. If you pull me aside and ask whether I think you should go to college, I’m going to say, “Yes, of course you should!” I encounter plenty of writers (and other professionals) who are insecure because they feel they need that degree to back up their abilities. That’s just not so. If you want to write, you should write, regardless of whether you have a degree.

Keep in mind that while a degree is helpful (and you certainly learn a lot of valuable things in college), it’s neither a license to write nor a guarantee that you’ll be successful. It doesn’t even ensure that you’ll write well. Whether you pursue higher education or not, it’s important to study the craft of writing. You can read books, join a writing group, or take a creative writing class.

Lessons from Creative Writing Class

Today, I thought I’d share a few lessons I learned when I took a creative writing class in college. This might provide some insight if you’re currently weighing whether to go to college or whether to study creative writing in college. This is by no means an exhaustive list; I’m going to highlight the most valuable lessons I learned — things that stuck with me and altered my life as a writer for the better. You’ll note that all of these are things you can learn outside of a classroom setting, if necessary.

1. Oh, so that’s what you mean by freewriting.

The first few days of my creative writing class, we spent ten to twenty minutes freewriting as soon as class started. About two weeks later, the instructor asked if anyone wanted to read their freewrites out loud. A volunteer stood up and started reading, and I realized I had been doing it wrong all along.

My freewrites were nothing more than diary entries. I simply wrote about whatever was going on in my life. But my classmate had written a mesmerizing stream-of-consciousness piece that sounded like something out of a dream. It was poetic! Oh, I thought, that’s what we’re supposed to be doing.

I had actually thought it odd that we were writing journals in class. Now it made sense! In creative writing class, I learned to freewrite every day as part of my writing practice and as a tool to generate raw material for poetry and story ideas. It had a huge impact on my writing and marked a time when my work and my writing practices went through dramatic improvements.

2. Some people work out with weights; we do writing exercises.

Writing exercises are where my technical skills saw the most progress. When you write whatever you want, whenever you want, there are aspects of the craft that inevitably escape you. Writing exercises and assignments forced me to think more strategically about my writing from a technical standpoint. It wasn’t about getting my ideas onto the page; it was about setting out to achieve a specific mission with my writing.

Many writing exercises that we did in class imparted valuable writing concepts; these were the exercises I treasured most because they helped me see my writing from various angles. Writing exercises also gave me a host of creativity methods that I use to this day to keep writer’s block at bay.

Finally, all those exercises I did back in college ultimately inspired my own book of creative writing exercises; although the inspiration came from poetry and fiction writing courses as well as the creative writing class that I took.

3. The writing community is a treasure.

When I was in high school and a teacher would announce a quiz or a writing assignment, the students would let out a collective sigh and begrudgingly get to work. In creative writing class, when the instructor said, “Let’s do a writing exercise,” everybody got excited. They couldn’t pull their notebooks and pens out fast enough!

Here’s the thing about a creative writing class: everyone in the room wants to be there. They chose to be there. So there’s a lot of enthusiasm and passion. For the first time in my life, I found myself completely surrounded with people with whom I shared a deep, common interest.

More importantly, there’s plenty of support and camaraderie. Prior to taking this class, I had shown a few pieces of my writing to friends and family, who mostly just nodded and said that it was good or that I was talented. In class, I was surrounded by other writers who were eager and interested to read what I had written, and the best part was that they offered suggestions that would make my writing even better! I can’t stress enough how warm I’ve found writers to be over the years. It’s an honor to be part of such a supportive community.

4. Nothing can replace a mentor.

In college, instructors who taught my writing classes were all published authors. As a student, I had direct access to writers who had gone through all the rigors of everything that happens in the writing process: drafting, revising, submitting, publishing, and marketing.

These instructors were also extremely well versed in literature and the craft of writing (as they should be — that’s their job, after all). And there is nothing — no book, video, or article — that beats direct access to an experienced professional.

5. Right place, right time.

Perhaps the best lesson I gleaned from creative writing class was that I was in the right place at the right time. This was a feeling that came from within, a certain surety that I was doing exactly what I was meant to be doing. The semester that I took a creative writing class was packed with odd coincidences and epiphanies. I was often overwhelmed with feelings of serendipity, and I stopped questioning whether I had made the right choice in pursuing creative writing as my field of study.

Alternatives to a Creative Writing Class

As I mentioned, most of these lessons can be learned outside of a creative writing class. You can discover writing techniques and strategies from books, blogs, and magazines. You can find a community and a mentor online or in local writing groups. And you can experience a sense of certainty just about anywhere.

I definitely recommend taking a creative writing class if you can, and if you’re truly dedicated to writing and intend on going to college, then it only makes sense to study it formally. However, for writers who can’t or haven’t gone to college, I say this: find another route. A creative writing class or a creative writing degree will be helpful to building a writing career, but these things are not essential.

Adventures in Writing The Complete Collection

About Melissa Donovan
Melissa Donovan is a website designer and copywriter. She writes fiction and poetry and is the founder and editor of Writing Forward, a blog packed with creative writing tips and ideas.


24 Responses to “Five Things I Learned in Creative Writing Class”

  1. Carrie says:

    Hi Melissa, great post as always!

    I just finished reading Natalie Goldberg’s ‘Writing Down the Bones’, in it she talks about writing practice. I also just purchased your book ‘101 Creative Writing Exercises’ and I’m loving it. But I’m still not quite getting freewriting either. I was wondering if you could tell me what I need to be doing to stop it sounding like a journal?

    • It takes a bit of practice if you have a hard time thinking or writing in the abstract. Instead of starting with a general freewrite, you might try a guided freewrite and work with a word or image. Instead of writing a diary-style journal, you will write about the image (or word) you have chosen. Go for something a bit on the bizarre side or choose an abstract image. The trick is to relax and let strange, obscure words and phrases come to mind, and then write those down.

      Here are some suggestions for words and images to use for a guided freewrite: space, clouds, deep sea. You can also search online for abstract art and keep an image in front of you while you write. Make sure you turn off your inner editor. Don’t think about what you’re writing; just let the words flow. Good luck!

  2. Tia Bach says:

    I love the idea of freewriting, but am so glad you defined it. I would have been journalling right along side you. But I write women’s fiction, so maybe that would have worked out for me in the end. My issue lately is a feeling of being uninspired. I think a creative writing class would definitely help with that.

    My apprehension with taking more writing classes, in all honesty, is the subjectiveness of teachers. I have had wonderful writing experiences, but it never fails that you get that one teacher who doesn’t like your work, will never like your work. I don’t need that in my head.

    My mother, also a writer, decided to get her English degree as an adult (I graduated college a semester before she did). She met up with a teacher that truly hated her writing. We have drastically different styles, so she asked me to help her. I ended up writing her papers and getting her an A.

    Thanks for this post… you’ve inspired me to go write one of my own.

    • When I was attending community college, I had a teacher like that. Since I picked up on her bias early on, I was able to simply drop the class. She told me right to my face that she would grade me down if she didn’t agree with my opinion in a position paper. I almost reported her but decided to let it go and move on. It definitely helps to give yourself some leeway and check out your instructors before you sign on. I cannot support writing other people’s papers as that is a serious violation of every school policy. There are other ways to resolve issues with an instructor. Most schools will let you do a special withdrawal if there is a conflict like that.

  3. Tim LaBarge says:

    Great content, Melissa. I certainly agree that you don’t need an MFA or even an undergraduate writing degree in order to be considered “a writer.” Anyone can write provided they put the time and effort in the right place. Although a few writing classes along the way can be an enormous help.

    One thing I learned through a fiction writing class was that peer edits are invaluable. So often when you ask someone to edit your work you get the “it’s good” or “you misspelled something on page 9” response. What I realized in this course was that most writers want to be criticized (constructively, of course). Writers are generally driven to continually improve their craft. Peer edits are a great way to do this, and as a result I no longer feel bad when critiquing someone else’s work. It only helps them.

    Thanks for the post.

    • I couldn’t agree more. When I was in school, feedback was the single most valuable learning experience. Many writers struggle emotionally with critiques but I never did. I just got excited that people were invested enough to help me improve my work!

  4. Kelvin Kao says:

    Though I have not taken a creative writing class, I can relate to many of the elements on some level. Less than a year ago, I went from a small company, to solo freelancing, and after a few months joined a big company. It was nice having co-workers again. We are computer programmers and we write code. Now that I am working with other people, I get to see what they wrote and how they wrote certain things. (There wasn’t really an equivalence to freewriting, though!) When I was working by myself, I had a tendency to just do things a certain way. Now I get more experienced programmers as mentors and they would push me to look into certain ways of doing things that I wasn’t familiar with. So yeah. Many of the same elements.

    I am thinking that it’s the structure, sense of community, and the immediacy of feedbacks that really help.

    • As much as I love being self-employed, I’m hugely grateful for over a decade of on-the-job experience working with other people. I’m pretty sure that without having been mentored by professionals in the business world, my self-employment would have been blind and amateurish. I do miss having co-workers though. Social media is wonderful, but it’s not a true replacement for that sense of community.

  5. Ashley Prince says:

    I love this post. As an English major, there are times when I just want to quit school and focus on writing. I feel like the constraints and expectations in college are limiting my creativity. I have not gotten enough pre-reqs out of the way in which to take a creative writing class, but I definitely will now.

    The community is the best part.

    • I say don’t give up on college! In addition to all the things you’ll learn about writing, it will enrich you as a human being. Stick with it; you’ll be glad you did.

  6. Sarah Allen says:

    Fantastic list! And very true. Especially the community feel, that’s probably what I miss the most now that I’m done.

    • That’s definitely what I miss the most. Plus, I used to love being on campus (I went to two different schools with gorgeous campuses). I’ve thought about going back for my MFA. Maybe someday…

  7. Bill Polm says:

    Good one, Melissa.
    I like what you said re the writing exercises. Good reminder.
    It’s easy to get all caught up in pumping out blog posts and ebooks and trying to get through that novel rewrite and skip those exercises.
    And, yes, those critiques really help. I’m amazed at times at what I don’t see that needs more clarity in my writing.

    • Thanks, Bill. Yes, there’s so much we can do with exercises. I use them within larger projects. For example, I can apply various fiction writing exercises to a novel that I’m writing. I’ll generate material that won’t end up in the manuscript, but it’s good for the writing muscles!

  8. Peter Minj says:

    A friend of mine tells me that i am still not giving my all for writing and I should not delve into a career in writing till I reach that level.I believe I am trying whatever I can at the moment.I can only get better by writing more and with more time and effort I will grow more as a writer.But that statement of my friend creates lot of self-doubt in me whether I will make it as a writer.

    • Hi Peter. I don’t know your friend and am not familiar with your writing, so I can’t give you any specific feedback about how much work your writing needs, but you are correct: the more you write, the better it will get. Your writing will also improve if you read a lot. One tip I can offer is to proofread everything you write, including comments on blogs like this. Get a book or two on the craft of writing, and definitely get a second opinion (don’t limit the feedback on your writing to one person).

  9. jesma archibald says:

    A million thanks to you mellisa! you see as a child i loved books and writting but lost my way in life.Now i am quiety returning to what i loved.However its difficult.I began searching the internet for advice and i found your site.I am so elated!I feel that i am now being gently held by the hand to write and with a greater understanding of what i am supposed to do.I am in my fortieth year,but i know it’s never too late.This is one of the most instructive sites i’ve found.!

    • Thanks so much for your kind words. I’m always thrilled when people return to writing after so many years. What a wonderful reawakening that must be. I wish you the best of luck with your writing, Jesma.

  10. Molly Kluever says:

    Thanks for the suggestions!
    I’m in the eighth grade, but my English teachers have always said that I write at an advanced high school level. I love writing, I really do. I’ve read classic and modern literature to tweak my style, and also personally studied different techniques, like the ones you’ve provided here.
    Unfortunately, like I said, I’m an eighth grader, so I can’t go enroll at a university for writing classes. But I’m not challenged enough with my basic English curriculum. Do you have any suggestions for me to get better?

    • Hi Molly. The best suggestion I can give you is simply this: read and write. Read as much as you can and read across different forms (essays, poetry, fiction) and genres (literary, speculative, etc.). Nothing will improve your writing like reading good books, and if you can absorb a lot of literature now, then when you get to college, you’ll be leagues ahead of your peers when you take writing workshops and classes.

      Good luck to you!

  11. samantha webber says:

    Thankyou so much for writing this, I really want to start a writing career but don’t know where to start, this is really helpfull!
    Do you mind if I ask which university you went to as I’m just about to start my finall year doing A-levels and I’m looking around at uni’s and I want to make sure I go to the right on.
    Thanks again!!

    • I chose my school based on location. It was close to home and I didn’t have to move. If you do a search online, you’ll find which universities are known for their writing programs.

  12. Marcy McKay says:

    Great info, Melissa. Thanks. I especially liked your explanation about freewriting. That might mean different things to different people. You described it well.