I’m an English major, so normally I feel pretty good about papers. Ask me to write a 10 page research paper or analysis, and I’m good. I love that stuff. But I recently had to face a paper writing experience that I thought would be my downfall. The task: a creative writing paper.
As a Literature Studies major, taking a creative writing course is not a requirement for graduation. And in most literature classes, we do more text analyses than creative writing because what we learn is based on works already written rather than something we create. But one of my Lit Studies classes, a fascinating class on Harry Potter (see my recently published blog post on that Topics class!), had a creative writing paper serve as the midterm.
On the first day of class, my professor told the class that our only paper assignment this quarter would be a large 10-page creative writing assignment. We had to retell the entire Harry Potter series through the eyes of another character in the story. Using their point of view, we had to have this character make their way through the series and the hero’s journey structure in order to come to some sort of greater realization.
To put it plainly, I was terrified. I had never written a creative writing paper in my life. A few short poems? Sure. A 14 page senior research paper? Yep. But creative writing? Heck no.
Much to my surprise, I soon learned that it wasn’t that bad. Most importantly, I learned that you have to tackle any creative writing paper (or any daunting paper assignment in general) in the same way you would any other paper: have a plan and follow that through.
- The first thing to do is make sure you understand the prompt. My professor had explained the assignment quite clearly. We were to pick another character (anyone except for Harry) and rewrite the series through their perspective, using examples and direct situations that they were involved in throughout the series.
- Second, pick a topic or angle that you are passionate about (and that you feel as if you can cover properly). I chose to write my paper from the perspective of Neville. He is a round character in the story, meaning that he has a backstory, he has character development, and he is involved in the series on a somewhat deeper level than some other characters. In another piece of writing, creative writing or others, figure out what you want to say and make sure that it is something that you can articulate in the required way.
- Third, do some research! I went through all of the books and scenes where Neville played a significant part; for example, when (spoilers!) he tried to stop the trio from going out that night to get the sorcerer’s stone and ended up getting house points for it, when he heard from Moody that Professor Sprout had said he was great at Herbology, when he fought in the Department of Mysteries, when he saw the trio at the hospital while visiting his parents, and when he killed Nagini in the Battle of Hogwarts. These were all direct examples of Neville in the series, and thus very important to my retelling of the same story through Neville’s eyes.
- Next, you should still make an outline. With whatever type of writing you are working on, it is very helpful to have a plan. Always think of it as a GPS to your paper. Instead of ‘turn right here,’ your outline tells you to ‘include this here.’ It should make the route to your final destination in your creative writing or argument. For this paper, I decided to layout my paper chronologically. Using the examples that I had highlighted in my research, I put them in the order in which they happened otherwise in the series (from book 1 to book 7). And then, under each example, I explained how it contributed to my overall creative paper. By the end of the paper, I knew that I wanted to show that Neville, through the hero’s journey process throughout all 7 books, became a confident and brave individual – a true Gryffindor. So, in my outline, I said a sentence or two about how each example showed Neville making his way to that destination and realization. This makes it a bit easier to carry out your theme when you switch from analysis to prose, because you know the goal you want to communicate.
- Finally, you really just have to start writing. And don’t stress out about what you think are your weaknesses as a writer! This is the tricky part, but it is what you’ve been building towards. Since I had never written a creative writing paper before, I was really paranoid about verbalizing dialogue and plot lines that would be realistic and lead to a point or message. But is important not to be embarrassed or uncomfortable about getting into a character’s head and insert their voice into the writing rather than your own. In a way, you have to get out of your own head and think instead as your character and their situation. After I got past that self-blocking, it really flowed out of me. I was able to understand Neville’s voice through my research of the other books, I knew what scenes I was going to talk about (you might not always have this to guide you, but if you can think as the character does and imagine the experiences they will go through to get them to the end of your story and message, then that’s what you’ll include), and I knew where it was going in the end. It wasn’t about me or my story; it was about Neville and his.
- Even when you finish writing, you are still not done. As I was writing, the story actually flew out of me a bit too easily and I found the 10-page limit constricting rather than daunting. I had hit page 7 when I realized there was still so much left in my outline that I wanted to cover. Instead of editing and taking things out at that point, I kept going. I believe that it is better to get in all of the pieces that you want, and maybe then you’ll realize that some are more important than others. So I kept writing, and I hit 14 pages. Wow. I had to start revising. I started by looking at the scenes themselves. Turns out, one scene didn’t directly relate to my main point (you’ll still have something like a thesis in your head) of Neville growing into a brave Gryffindor, so I removed it as a whole and instead just inserted a sentence or two into another section – that way I still made my plot point and included it, but not in a way that made it super important. I then went into the scenes, looking for certain writing devices like I would in any other type of writing – repetition, wordiness, unnecessary descriptions, hanging lines, etc. I was able to make my writing, even though it’s creative writing, more concise, directed, and purposeful.
Most importantly, remember to have fun. I started with a fake-it-until-you-make-it strategy, and it worked. Somewhere along the way of writing this paper, I forgot to be intimidated, and I actually enjoyed it. I was shocked to sit back when I typed that last sentence and realize that I was proud of what I wrote, that it wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be, and that I had fun along the way. I experienced what Neville did, but I was able to give him that new voice. And that was very personal and fun to me. For you, find a way to do the same. It shouldn’t be an overly stressful process. It’s a creative writing paper – find a way to be creative!
As college students and writers, we all are faced with assignments that are terrifying and daunting. It’s new and awkward and we block ourselves by thinking we won’t be good at it. But I was able to get past that and create a piece of writing that I am proud of. And I got an A. If you truly try your hardest, let yourself really relax and feel it out, you can do well too!