What does it take to be a creative writer?

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Are the skills of the content writer transferable to the creative writer? I want to believe the answer to that is Yes. But I have my doubts.

Questions and Commentary

Every Monday in term time, for the last 10 years or more, I have translated between 12 and 22 questions from Swedish to English. These questions form the core of a PDF of teaching material sent out by Mera, my publisher, to subscribing schools in Sweden.

The questions cover current news topics, scientific and economic issues, sports and the arts. Each question has a multiple choice answer and, so long as a student or pupil has been paying a certain amount of attention to current affairs as reported in the Swedish press, and so long as they can apply a degree of reasoning, they are likely to get most of the questions right. We’re not out to make anyone feel stupid.

(Every Monday when I get the questions, I try to answer them myself. I usually score 10 correct out of 12. The two I rarely get right are the sports questions.)

Translating the questions is a small part of the job. It doesn’t usually take more than about an hour. But I also write a commentary on each question. We get surprisingly little feedback from schools on how they use our material, but we make it possible for them to use it in a variety of different ways. My English commentary tries to give students a little bit extra on each topic. A little bit of a perspective on how the news item is being presented internationally in the English language press. I also include, every time, at least one link to a relevant article, web post, or website where a student could read more in English.

The whole exercise takes about five hours. On a good day with no technical hitches. (Don’t get me started on the technical hitches!)

Relevant skills for the creative writer

What I do for Mera, I think of as content writing to distinguish it from creative writing. By and large, I don’t feel writing my commentary really counts as being creative.

And yet, writing the commentary certainly involves skills that seem like they ought to be relevant. For example I must write comprehensible sentences in clear English. I must pack information in, I can’t ramble. (Unlike in this blog perhaps.) I need to review my text, correct it before submitting it, and copy-edit the PDF before it goes live.

Considering how long I’ve been doing this and how comfortable I am with the process, I often ask myself why I cannot apply the same discipline with the same effect to my creative writing. Because I can’t.

Creative writing: A mural in a Brussels park near a school - photo taken in 2015
Creative writing: A mural in a Brussels park near a school – photo taken in 2015


Does it have to do with the deadline? The material that I write on Monday has to be published no later than the following Wednesday morning. Ideally 24 hours before that. But the thought of setting myself a deadline for creative writing has me running screaming from the room. (Metaphorically speaking.)

Does it have to do with the structure of what I’m working with? Each of the comments I write has to be about hundred words in length. A couple can be longer, a few may be shorter, but the final commentary needs to be no more than 1400 words long. Should I perhaps aim to constrain myself to write creatively in a similarly small space? Would that help?

Does it have to do with the fact that I am finding my information ready-written for me. That when I write my commentary, what I’m doing most of the time is condensing the information and simplifying the language as best I can. Creative writing, producing stories out of thin air, is not at all comparable. Or is it?

Discipline crossover

There’s definitely a crossover in terms of discipline. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read or heard professional and semi-professional writers talk about the importance of actually doing the writing. Writing daily, writing regularly. It’s not, perhaps, so important (or even a good idea) to write to a deadline as a creative writer. But it is important to write.

This blog post started life as a post on the website of Writers Abroad. (It was mashed together in desperation after I forgot delivering the blog was my task that week. I suppose that proves some deadlines can focus the mind dramatically. But was it creative focus?)

I seem to have put a finger on a tender spot for several of my fellow WA authors. Some find deadlines helpful for creative writing, but most seem not to. Persistence is more important. Those of us who need a muse to spark us off probably find the muse is encouraged when we are already sitting at a keyboard, or pen in hand with a notebook in front of us.

So I suppose that at least is one thing to take away from this. To write daily, even if it’s nothing you can use, because it’s practice and because, when inspiration strikes, you are ready. Mind you, the muse sometimes presents ideas at the most inopportune moments. I couldn’t help but remember Oliver Sacks’ creative inspiration striking as he was swimming.

How about you?

How about you? Do you have practice in one field that you wish you could transfer to your creative writing practice? Do you have an answer to one of my questions above? Or an experience to share that might help me resolve my dilemma? Leave a comment!

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