Can creative writing be taught? I've been writing fiction for 30 plus years and teaching it for the last 15, both in person and online, and I've developed a number of practical hints that can help anyone trying to write creatively. AMA!

Michael Backus
Mar 12, 2018

My name is Michael Backus (author's site), I've been writing creatively for close to 35 years and since 2003, I've taught fiction writing at the college level and for Gotham Writers Workshop out of NYC.  In that time, I've developed some common sense tips that will improve people's writing.  But I'm also interested in "big picture" issues like, "Can creative writing be taught" and "How effective are online creative writing classes?"  Ask me anything!

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Hi Mike!  When beginning the first complete "creation", is it wise to do a short story?  Use real life situations and stories and expound upon them?

Mar 19, 12:06PM EDT0

I, obviously, did not scroll far enough...thank you so much for doing this.  You have been so helpful!

Mar 19, 12:34PM EDT0

Lynn, good to hear from you.  I think it really depends.  I do like the idea of working on something shorter if you're working on your first "complete creation," in the sense that it's daunting to even ponder something like a novel, which can take years to complete.  But also, if you have a novel idea in mind, it might be worth taking some small slice of that world (like an imagined chapter) and working on that as a precursor to working on a longer piece.  That way you can dip you feet in and it won't feel so monumental, you have, say, 15 pages to finish rather than 250.  And often if you have interest in publishing, you can fashion that short chapter into a stand alone story and still have that story to guide you if you decide to expand it into something longer.  

But also understand that there's been an explosion of memoir in this country in the last 20 years (along with places that publish this kind of writing), you can now get a degree in creative non-fiction and you have a lot of people out there writing personal essays that are often a "true" story written like a piece of fiction, with characters and dialogue, etc, the chief difference being that these are real people and the overall story did actually happen.  So I'd say think about what story it is you want to tell and if you think fictionalizing the overall story is the best option, then yes, use real life stories but expand on them.  Every story has a larger idea embedded in it, a theme, and if you're taking a real life situation and fictionalizing it, some attention should be paid to the larger idea (which means in a practical sense, you might have characters based on real people doing things those real people would never do).

And while a piece of creative non-fiction has some of the same responsibility in terms of a larger idea, you have a lot less leeway because you're dealing with real people and a situation that happened, you can only alter that so much.

So I'd say, decide if you think the story you want to tell would work as a memoir piece.  And understand, there's always the issue here of the reality that if you were to get this story ultimately published, some of those real people might read it and if that's a deal breaker, then maybe write it as fiction.  That said, all things being equal, if you have a story to tell and can write it as it happened, a memoir piece is in many ways preferable because there's an extra textual meaning at the core of any memoir piece, that being that this actually happened..

Here's an example:  a few years ago, I wrote a roughly 15 page memoir piece about the last couple months of my mother's life.  As fiction, it didn't seem all that interesting.  I felt like to write it as fiction meant creating other characters and veering away from how it actually happened, which isn't something I wanted to do with something as personal as my mother's death.  So non fiction was the appropriate way to go.  If I were to fictionalize it, I'd want to make it broader and go beyond the mandate of showing some small part of what most of us end up going through (the death of a parent).

On the flipside, I've been working on a novel about football and the consequences of playing it and if my starting point was my dad (doctors after he died identified brain damage going back to his teen years, back when he played high school and college football), I wanted my football character to be both more accomplished than my actual father (in the sense that the character played professionally) and broader and more comic than my actual father. So fictionalizing was really my only choice, I'm trying for a larger canvas than simply what one man went through because of football-induced brain trauma. 

I'd say figure out roughly the story you want to tell and decide then what your best approach is (fiction or non fiction).  And trust that in the writing itself, you'll come to better understand the larger story you're telling and the characters.   

Mar 19, 12:45PM EDT0
For someone who has received a lot of rejections to his/her writing, do you think there is a right time to give up or should they just keep going no matter what?
Mar 19, 2:34AM EDT0
What is the most frustrating moments you've faced when trying to teach someone how to write?
Mar 18, 6:30PM EDT0

Following your comment on another question,   what do you think is standing in between the writer you are today and the writer you'd imagined yourself as in your 20s?  What stands between the writer you are now and your highest potential in creative writing?

Mar 18, 1:10PM EDT0

Talent?  Time?  Focus?  I don't know, I often feel as a writer that some truly sublime and transcendent moment is always looming just out of my perceptual reach, which in a practical sense makes you feel both hopeful (in that you always imagine your best work is in your future) and hopeless (in the sense that whatever insight you're seeking on paper is always just out of reach, like a memory lingering on the tip of your tongue but never coming forth fully formed).

Age and experience weigh on a writer as well.  Undertaking a novel at my current age (we'll leave this vague) is much different than, say, starting a novel at 30.  I know now at this point the best case scenario is two years from beginning to end, which at 30 doesn't seem nearly as daunting as it does right now.    And age tempers ambition as well,  not so much the question of whether you can pull off a particular piece of writing but whether you really care enough to bother.  You also invariably become more cynical as you get older, it becomes harder to believe in things like literary culture or that spending two years working on one story is really worth the effort.  

Mar 19, 12:09PM EDT1

when receiving peer critiques,  what's the best way to discern really good advice/suggestions/questions from jealous, sabotagey, passive-aggressive undermining feedback?  How can a writer best separate the wheat from the chaff?

Mar 18, 1:03PM EDT0

In my experience, it's often less personality driven (in the sense that you don't often see someone passive-aggressively going after someone else, though it's not unheard of) and more often simply a matter of comprehension. People bring their own issues to any critique and working out what those might be is part of what you can learn from a workshop (especially in a live class; harder to judge all the clues in an online class where you really have only the text itself of what another student says to go by).  Often it's not a matter of someone being negative, like they're attacking your piece.  It can be that they're saying something positive but what they're saying makes little sense in the context of what you wrote.  In the end, the real skill here to learn as a writer is to be able to step outside of your work as much as you can and view it objectively (or as objectively as possible).  Time helps in this case, if you can spend a week or two away from something you're writing, it's easier to see it objectively, though this kind of thing is difficult in a class where there's always a looming deadline.

And it's not always that you realize this one person in your workshop is clueless and can't be trusted in their comments.  Often it's more hit and miss than that, like on some stories you've written, a specific person is simply not helpful, but on other things you've written, they actually did say something of value.  So it often runs on a case by case basis, which means in a practical sense, you're always judging the quality of what someone says about your work.  This can be a valuable thing to experience because it can help you judge your own work more objectively as you try to figure out if what they're saying really is a problem.

  One important thing in this context is to not be defensive about what someone says.   Also, pay more attention if someone is very specific.  If someone says, for example,  "None of this works for me, none of it," well, even if true on some level, it's not particularly helpful.  But if someone says "That moment where Esther tells Eileen she loves her comes completely out of the blue, and not in a good way, there's no sense that Esther even knows who Eileen is, much less that she loves her," the specificity of the comment needs to be paid attention to.  

When I get critiques on my own work, I go at it very practically.  I work my way through each comment one by one and decide if there's anything to what they're saying.  Much of the time, I already knew or suspected this was an issue.  Sometimes what they're saying is so out of left field, I have to think if there's anything to it.  But all this thinking and figuring out helps your writing in the long run because it makes you more aware of how others perceive your work.  

Mar 19, 10:55AM EDT1
Are creative writing classes sufficient to teach someone how to write professionally and gain financially from it?
Mar 15, 6:53PM EDT0

"Gain financially from it" is a high bar in the writing world.  There are a lot of different ways of making money writing, but of all those, I'd imagine writing creatively (writing fiction, or creative non fiction) is the most difficult and the most time consuming.  Best case scenario if you're writing a novel is it takes you a year (and likely twice that or more) after which point you have to find an agent, sell the book, and promote it in such a way that it sells, all of these are difficult steps.

On the flipside, if you have, say, a great idea for a memoir of some sort, the kind of thing you can sell on the idea alone (in general, if you're writing fiction, you need to finish the book to sell it; in limited cases with non-fiction, you can sell the idea and get some money and then write it after the sale -- note that this is generally limited to "gotcha" type memoirs, your parents pimped you out at 12 or you had a sexual relationship as an adult with your father (more than one book out there on this) or you are Bill Clinton's bastard son, that sort of thing.)  IN a situation like that, a creative writing course can definitely help.  And there are different kinds of creative writing courses.  Like if you have a good large idea, you might take a novel writing course or a memoir course, they'll help you shape that idea into a working story.

The other way to make money is to free lance in a lot of different ways.  I know a lot of people who are essentially making their living reviewing TV shows and films and books, or writing a paid blog or a lot of other things.  Journalism is always a way to make money off writing and in that case, a creative writing course might help, but a course in journalism (see the link below to Gotham classes, they teach journalism writing) can certainly help you hone your writing skills, but you still have to have your own ways into that world.  It's not like the course is going to find a job for you, though it can certainly improve your writing.  

But honestly there's no shortcut to gaining financially from writing.  What's that old adage?  If it was easy, everyone would do it.  My dad used to say to me, why don't you just take a year and write a best seller and then you'd have the money to write your "little literary stories."  I was like, that's a great idea, tell me how to I write a best seller?  If you look at the number of books published vs the number that actually make any money, the money books are a tiny tiny percentage of the whole.  And that's taking for granted you can even get the book published, which is the second very high hurdle to jump (the first is writing it in the first place).  

Mar 16, 1:24PM EDT0
Does the person need to have innate talent for the learning process to work? Or is writing a skill that can be honed?
Mar 14, 10:15AM EDT0

Writing is definitely a skill like anything else, the more you practice it, the better you get at it.  And a good creative writing classes can give you concrete information on things like structure, consistent POV, conflict, cause and effect, dialogue, theme, how to revise, etc, all things you can learn and apply to your own writing.  I will say it helps if you can write in the most basic way, if a student struggles with grammar, syntax or with putting words together, a writing class can be difficult.  But beyond that most basic of writing skills, a good class can definitely help you shape your ideas into a story and give you the tools to turn a rough idea into something that runs.   

Mar 14, 3:18PM EDT0
Can the learning process begin at any age or is it better to start young?
Mar 14, 8:48AM EDT0

Any age.  In my classes, I often have many many students well over 50.  Some have written before and let it go for years and years, others have always thought about writing but only now are finally trying to do something about it.  I'd even argue that having some age really helps in terms of what you want to write about because older people have experienced a lot more.  One thing I noticed when I was teaching both college and at Gotham was the Gotham students were not just better writers than a class full of 18-22 year olds, they had more experiences to write about and more maturity about their approach.  At one point, I had to institute a rule in the college classes that no one could write a story about how they have writer's block or can't come up with a story.  My feeling was if you're 18, wanting to write, and all they can think of to write about is how they have nothing to write about, they might want to rethink taking the class.  But in my Gotham classes, I would never limit what students want to write about.  

Mar 14, 4:53PM EDT0
Is this where you thought you would end up as a writer, and what are your hopes and aspirations with regard to being a creative mentor to other writers?
Mar 12, 2:11PM EDT1

Not afraid of the tough questions, huh?  Uh, no, this isn't where I imagined I might be as a writer back in my 20s when everything seemed possible.  It's a steady dose of disillusionment (though I might argue life is the same basic journey) as I realized not only that the world is not exactly clamoring to hear what I have to say in fiction, but also that I'm not nearly as good a writer as I imagined I might some day be.  I always remember this time in Chicago in the 90s sitting with a buddy, who is also a writer, watching an all girl punk band at some local no cover bar, and we both admitted we wished we'd joined a band instead.  I can play a little guitar, I'm sure he could learn the bass, and that way, we'd spend our nights out and about with people rather than at home, stuck to a desk, rooting around in our own heads.  Of course that option is gone, but I do get wistful about it on occasion (despite my lack of any real guitar playing talent).  

In terms of being a creative mentor, I really just want people to get something out of what I say to them.  Again, i don't claim any special ability as an instructor, but I've been doing this for a long time and I can critique stories in my sleep.  Of course, that doesn't mean I'm always right, but I've had enough positive feedback from students over the years that I think I've done some good in the writing world, no matter how small that might be.  

Mar 12, 5:11PM EDT0
What would have been some of the suggestions you would have appreciated being offered to you when you first started writing and why?
Mar 12, 9:47AM EDT0

Don't do it!  Run away!  Go to parties, don't stay at home staring at a wall, pretending what you have to say holds any real interest to anyone.

Honestly, I wish someone had been more upfront about the nuts and bolts work ethic you need to write.  I spent a lot of my 20s flapping about, doing too much shit, and waiting for inspiration to hit before I put pen to paper.  I was in my early 30s before everything just clicked and I was able to sit down every day and write something.  One of the wonderful things about writing is how low tech it is, you don't really even need a computer, just a pencil and some paper.  You can do it any time, any place, that's incredibly freeing.  I wish I'd embraced that a bit more. 

I also wish I'd been more serious at an early age about seeking out instruction.  Not just classes where I would get input from other students, though that would've been great at a certain point in my life, but also more of an education in literature where the emphasis is on the larger ideas at the heart of any story.  I still struggle with this myself, the big picture scope of a story or a novel.  I think my education was thoroughly mediocre and I wish I'd spent more time thinking about where and what I might want to study.  

Mar 12, 5:23PM EDT0
How do you spend most of your time?
Mar 12, 9:10AM EDT0

Reading other people's fiction and making comments on it.  I am able to carve out reading time every day, but in the last few years, I've become much less good at finding time to write.  For 20 plus years, I had no trouble sitting down every day and working on writing but that's become more difficult, for a variety of reasons.  One thing I've always imagined might be a problem (though honestly, I can't say for certain it is) is the self consciousness that comes from spending years commenting on other writers' work.  It's easy to imagine this can be paralyzing when I sit down in front of my own work, though whether it actually is paralyzing remains unclear to me.  It could just be that I'm older.  I will say a few years ago, the publisher of my first novel (Double, out of "print") decided they were going to release all their books in audio format.  So I spent a couple of months reading my entire book (which I'd written some 10 years before that, and significantly, before I started teaching) into Garageband on my Mac and it was like being in a hell realm.  All I saw were the writing tics (filters, superfluous "that"s, the word 'suddenly,' on and on) that I railed against in my own classes, the hell part because I couldn't change anything.  I had to read it the way it was published; I remember thinking I could've cut 10 pages out of that book just by tightening everything.  

Mar 12, 5:43PM EDT0
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What are some of the professional writing organizations with which you are associated, and did you choose them or did they choose you?
Mar 12, 7:53AM EDT0

Honestly, I would say none.  I've always had a kind of surliness about joining anything; even something like AWG which happens once a year and seems to be the center of the literary world for a time is not something I've ever been particularly interested in.  I always imagine the writer character is this seemingly misanthropic weirdo character who lives in his own shack between two towns and sometimes gives a wan wave to those passing by.  

I will mention one thing that's been very good to me as a writer, writer's colonies.  It's not exactly an organization, though they are generally called fellowships because the ones I've been to (Ucross in Wyoming twice, Millay Colony in upstate NY, MacDowell in NH, the Hambidge Center in Georgia) have not only been free, they provide three meals a day and all the time and space you might need to write.   I spent eight weeks in NH in the late 90s, it was like the best guest house ever.  Free food, plenty of interesting people to talk to, I even found a pickup basketball game in town with locals (when I was ready to leave, one of the guys offered to find me a job roofing in Peterborough because we all liked playing ball together).  And I got so much work done.  If you have the time and the inclination, I highly recommend researching art colonies.  There's something about having unlimited time to work on writing that really allows you to drill down and focus.  

Mar 12, 6:08PM EDT0
Which authors and genres do you enjoy reading and do you believe this preference will affect the advice you offer?
Mar 11, 12:46PM EDT0

I typically read mostly literary fiction, which I understand is a loaded term but I don't mean it that way.  I've liked a lot of genre fiction, though mysteries continue to stymie me, I've tried again and again to read mysteries and while there are a couple of writers associated with mysteries that I like (Megan Abbott comes to mind), I just can't seem to be interested in mysteries.  A quick look at my Goodreads feed and here are the last few books I've read:  

The Largesse of the Sea Maiden - Denis Johnson

Little Fires Everywhere -- Celeste Ng

Manhattan Beach - Jennifer Egan

The Burning Girl - Claire Messud

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley - Hannah Tinti

James Joyce - Edna O'Brien

Does this affect the advice you offer?  Absolutely, I tend to teach this course as literary fiction writing courses, which in no way means I'm not open to more genre-oriented writing.  The writing principles are the same, but in terms of examples I use, they are mostly literary fiction examples.  

Mar 11, 2:14PM EDT0
What are some of the fees involved in the registration and application process for an online creative writing course and which courses offer the best value for money?
Mar 11, 10:01AM EDT0

I'm no expert on fees, it's not something I have any part in as the instructor.  I imagine most online writing places have all that information on their websites, I'd take a look there. Online classes associated with universities are, I imagine, more complicated and generally more expensive, but that's about as much as I know.

And in terms of best value? I guess that depends. If you take a class with a university, do you want college credit for that?  As part of something bigger, a major or a minor?  Then it might be worth the money and all that goes with taking a college class.  Generally, the non-credit creative writing places are a lot cheaper, but the classes don't count as college credit.  

Mar 11, 10:43PM EDT0
What are some of the types of computer software necessary for online creative courses and which do you believe are the most effective and why?
Mar 11, 6:41AM EDT0

No software is needed in my experience.  See an earlier answer where a tech person answered a similar question about software and viruses.  I'm in no way an expert, I have experience with exactly one online place, Gotham Writers Workshop, I can't really speak to other places.  I know a lot of universities now teach creative writing online, it's quite common, and I think it unlikely many of these require the download of software to be in the class.

In terms of most effective, I really only can speak to the classes I've taught.  Gotham has been around for a long time, they have an entire city's writers to choose from as instructors, and I've heard a lot of positive things about other classes from students in mine. But really, this is something that can be researched.  Read reviews, look at the description of courses, figure out cost.  I will say if you want to write creatively, the workshop format works online and is a good way to get input on your writing from a lot of sources.  Again, I'm no expert but I imagine most of the online creative writing courses follow some version of workshopping.  

Mar 11, 4:05PM EDT0
What level of computing knowledge that one needs in order to get the best out of an online creative writing course?
Mar 11, 4:35AM EDT0

I would say minimal, if you go on a computer with any regularity, then there's nothing you'd have to do beyond that.  You click into links, how to submit work is streamlined and easy.   Most people write on some other software, MS Word for example, and paste it into site.  Sometimes people get a little confused by the design or by how the class works, but that generally gets sorted out in the first couple of weeks.   You are reading everything on a computer screen, not everyone loves that, but it's not difficult to navigate the writing site.  And there's plenty of help available if something happens.  

Mar 11, 10:48PM EDT0
What do you believe the future holds for reading and writing?
Mar 11, 1:39AM EST0

Wow, you really went for the big question.  And this is a big one. I tend towards pessimism, especially in terms of the kind of writing I do.  There is simply not as many outlets as there once was, few magazines even bother to publish fiction anymore, and getting a book published these days can be a little like winning the lottery.  It used to be that someone might have a great basic idea for a novel, but the novel itself is a mess and needs editorial help.  And writers used to get that.  Not so much anymore, one of the side-effects of the rise of MFAs in our literary culture is that publishers and agents and magazines can expect a certain level of proficiency, which has allowed a lot of places to simply not use editors anymore and to expect that a story will at least be technically competent.  And people don't read books the way they once did. The rise of flash fiction as a format (something I like, I'm just saying...) seems at least partly because many of us don't have the time or the attention span to sit down and read a novel.  

Yet one of the ironies of our social media culture is that people are reading and to an extent writing more than ever.  People text constantly, which is a form of writing, if not a particularly interesting one (it is useful though).

And if you examine even reality TV shows, what everyone is looking for is a story.  You watch a show like Garage Squad (car mechanics fix up some person's car), there's always a story that goes along with the repairs.  Someone has just returned from the military, or someone's father died before fixing his beloved car, on and on.  Story remains king in our culture, and as long as that's true, I think there will be people reading and people writing.  But I don't see the market for literary fiction (that term again, I hate to keep using it but have no alternative term for it I can use) expanding.

At the same time, from my place as a creative writing instructor, it often seems like everyone is trying to express themselves on the page.  One of the things that really surprised me when I started teaching at Gotham was how accomplished so many of the students were.  It's quite common to hear from a student that they've written six novels, gotten to the end of all of them.  Of course, most of the time they remain unpublished, but the sheer amount of work and writing energy I see in a typical class is thrilling.  I don't see that going away, ever.

Mar 12, 2:26PM EDT0
What happens to a student enrolled for an online course that cannot complete designated assignments on time?
Mar 10, 4:45PM EST0

Nothing happens.  People post late work all the time and it's fine.  I comment on everything a student posts, late or not.  And in my classes, if you're going to be late on one of the longer pieces that get workshopped by everyone, you can let me know and I can move it back. 

The only time  it can be a problem is when you aren't keeping up with commenting on other student work.  Students often notice if you aren't commenting on their work so they can be loathe to comment on yours.  This is a difference between in person classes and online.  In person, you're sitting across the table from the other students and there's more at stake in terms of being prepared.  If you aren't, everyone in the workshop sees that.  It's all a little more abstract online and it's easier to disappear from an online class.

Mar 11, 1:21AM EST0
What are the benefits and drawbacks for a writer to explore other writers in their field?
Mar 10, 2:39PM EST0

I honestly don't see any drawbacks, you should read and read and read some more.  What did Faulkner say about reading?  He probably actually didn't but he always gets credit for this quote:

“Read, read, read. Read everything -- trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You'll absorb it.Then write. If it's good, you'll find out. If it's not, throw it out of the window.”

And I believe that.  I posted this earlier, it's a piece I wrote about managing what you read when writing and covers some of the specific ways reading can inform your writing:

Reading the Right Thing While Writing

When I was in film school, I met fellow students all the time who would say to me some version of "I don't want to watch movies, I want to make them," this in response to any attempt to have a detailed discussion of classic movies.  It's hard to imagine many writers saying something similar, I don't want to read books, I want to write them.  No one says that.  Reading is central to why most of us want to be writers.  That doesn't mean you have to be reading constantly while you're writing.  I can imagine situations where the voice of certain books can really mess with the voice of what you're writing.  I go into this a bit in the article.  

Mar 11, 3:07AM EDT0
What teaching philosophies, do you believe, work best when attempting to teach thought processes and character creation?
Mar 10, 12:18PM EST0

In terms of character creation, take a look at my answer earlier in this AMA, I pasted a character exercise I use in class where you the writer answers a bunch of very specific questions about the character, which not only generates a lot of backstory history about a character, it can often generate story ideas as well.  

Other ideas about characters is picking someone you know and loosely basing this character on them.  I do this occasionally, usually trying to pick someone I don't know very well, often using the person's physical presence without ever trying to capture the actual person's personality.  

In terms of teaching thought processes for creative writing, that seems a particularly open ended question which could be answered a lot of different ways.  I tend to teach writing in a very pragmatic manner, this sentence/phrase/word isn't quite working, try to find a more specific detail here.  One thing that's important for a writer to learn is how to step back from your work and judge it somewhat objectively.  This isn't always possible, but a good writing workshop class can help you to come to understand what in your story is working and what isn't.  Often scenes aren't rendered clearly enough on the page and it can be difficult for a writer to understand that since they know exactly what it is they're trying to say.  Understanding how your fiction is read by other people is a valuable trait to learn.  

 I truly believe that space is a short story is sacred, which in a practical sense means don't include any detail or information that we already have.  Repetition is very common in fiction, writers often don't seem to fully trust what they've said so they say it again, in a different way (take a look at the last 20 pages of Donna Tartt's "The Goldfinch," it says the same thing over and over again and needed some serious editing).  Most of the time a writer isn't really even aware they're doing this, but if they become aware (and everyone's writing mantra should be some version of "Be aware"), then they can recognize these repetitions on their own.  

Besides that, I think there are mechanical things a writer can do to make the work better. I have a whole series of these announcements I use in my classes and often they're very practical and things you can do mechanically to make your writing.  Here's an announcement I use regularly -- 


Below I've posted a small part of one of my old lectures, this part pertains to filtering. This way, if I see a filter in one of your exercises, I can just write "filter" and not explain what I mean each time. Filtering in fiction is particularly common because it's a very natural way to write. It's natural to, for example, tell us a character is looking before describing what that character is looking at, but most of the time, you can simply go to the description of what the character is looking at without bothering to tell us that he's looking. Filters tend to dilute the immediacy of the writing and the prose is almost always stronger and crisper if you delete the filter.

At the very least, you want to be aware of it and make a decision one way or the other.This should be the mantra for this course. Awareness. Often I may make comments you don't agree with and that's fine, more than fine even, but one reason I make those comments are that I want you to be aware of a possible issue (like filtering) so you can decide whether it works better with or without the issue in question.

From my Description lecture from Fiction

Filtering If you might say that the first two problems in descriptive writing are:·       

Insufficient detail·       

Excessive use of abstraction,

Then the third would be filtering. Filtering is the needless filtering of an image through an observing consciousness.Example of filtering:

Turning, she noticed two snakes fighting in among the rocks.


She turned. In among the rocks, two snakes were fighting.

This is active and vivid and not diluted by the observing consciousness, the need to use “she noticed.” This filtering isn't always so easy to notice because really everything is filtered through an observing consciousness and there might be some confusion where useless filtering starts and strong POV finishes. But filtering can also be contagious, once you start doing it, it can be difficult to stop. I mention it to make you aware of it so that whenever you see a phrase like “She noticed/she saw/she remembered,” etc, you'll ask yourself if you need to filter the following observation through a character or would it be better to go right to the description.

Version 1 (moments of "filtering" underlined)

Mrs. Blair made her way to the chair by the window and sank gratefully into it. She looked out the window and there, across the street, she saw the ivory BMW parked in front of the fire plug once more. It seemed to her, though, that something was wrong with it. She noticed that it was listing slightly toward the back and side, and then saw that the back rim was resting almost on the asphalt.

Version 2 (filter-free)

Mrs. Blair made her way to the chair by the window and sank gratefully into it. Across the street the ivory BMW was parked in front of the fire plug again. Something was wrong with it, though. It was listing toward the back and side, the back rim resting almost on the asphalt.

Notice how nothing is lost by losing the “filtering” and how much better it reads, how much clearer and less diluted the observations are. This is the kind of mechanical revision you can do, it doesn't take inspiration, it just takes awareness.

Mar 12, 1:05PM EDT0
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Marisa Donnelly