Creative writing is that branch of the art of using words which covers everything that isn’t either technical, academic or reportage.

There is a common misconception that it is limited to fictional work: stories, poetry and drama. This is quite untrue – there is an awful lot of creative non-fiction. The following all tend to be creative:

So, how can you tell a piece of writing is creative?

There are several clues.

Firstly, if an author presents their own opinion in a piece without a concrete proof to back it up, the work moves into the realms of the creative. “It made me cry” is not creative – it’s a straight recitation of fact; “the film is moving”, however, is only likely to appear in a creative piece.

If feelings are described, except as part of a direct quote or reported speech, the piece is creative. “Mr Whitfield said he was furious when the hooligans broke his window,” is journalism, but “Mr Whitfield was devastated by the damage” moves beyond reportage to creativity.

Certain literary devices are a dead giveaway. You might use a simile in non creative writing – for instance: “the trackball is like a large marble” but it will only be a direct comparison – “as dark as despair” doesn’t belong in technical writing. And once you start seeing metaphor and irony you are definitely in creative territory.

Once assumptions are made – unless the author clearly states that their assumptions are just that (and preferably why they’ve made them) – you are reading creative writing.

What writing isn’t creative?

Academic writing, even in fields like English, History, and Music should not be creative – literary criticism should be backed up with proofs from the text being criticised, for example. This doesn’t mean that educational and training material shouldn’t be creative (especially in areas like leadership where there isn’t necessarily a single “right” approach), a metaphor is often helpful in getting a difficult concept or idea across effectively; but serious academic analysis should offer insights based on research, not assumption or opinion.

News reporting should be unbiased – which means non-creative. This isn’t to say there isn’t a place in newspapers for creativity, but that it’s in editorials, columns, reviews and other opinion pieces, not factual reports.

Technical documents – manuals, cookbooks, patterns, engineering specifications, policies and procedures and so on should also not be creative – where there is no room for ambiguity, it’s best to forego creativity.

Is creative writing better than non-creative?

Simple answer: No.

Both varieties of writing have their place, and both can be good or bad. And much as I hate to say it bad creative writing is almost invariably worse than bad writing of other kinds, simply because there’s so much more freedom in the words and structures you can use that you are able to make it truly terrible. Bad factual writing maybe obvious, dull, incoherent or misleading, but its unlikely to be painfully sentimental, offensive, ranting or utterly meaningless.

Why make a factual piece creative?

Unleavened facts are useful, but they’re rarely interesting to read, and often don’t give you any insight into the situations or people being described. Metaphors and irony, quirky descriptions and hyperbole can engage the reader, and offer them perspectives and points of view they might not have considered, opinions and feelings can allow them to connect at a more personal level with the subject, and the author. Creative use of language can amuse or move in a way that facts are almost incapable of doing.

Of course, if a person wants to know the correct tyre pressure for their Lada Riva, it’s best just to tell them, but if the information they’re looking for is whether they should buy the car in the first place, saying that it’s “uglier than a warthog and noisier than a room full of five year olds” will tell them ‘no’ more effectively than any specification.

Can creative writing be taught?

Yes, and no. You can learn the skills and devices that go to make up creative writing – how to edit, how allegory works, what an image is and when one might be best used, etc. You cannot be taught how to pull images from the air, or how to put words together in a fresh way – only how other people do it. Some people are naturally journalists rather than novelists, poets or storytellers – and this isn’t a bad thing – the world needs mechanics as badly as designers, and analytical thinkers as badly as imaginative ones. Sometimes we just need the truth, and therefore we need people who’ll tell it to us without the coat of varnish.

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