One Exercise I Learnt At University That Seriously Improved My Writing

2015 Artwork Annotated bibilography article sketch

Although I hardly ever write any fiction these days, I used to write a lot of fiction when I was at university. Creative writing courses often get something of a bad rap in the mainstream press, but the lessons you learn in them can be extremely useful – regardless of what kind of creative stuff you end up doing afterwards.

Anyway, the interesting thing about the creative writing courses I took was that, as well as making you learn more about writing through sheer repetitive practice and giving you a chance to discuss your fiction with lots of other writers, the coursework assignments had a really interesting requirement.

As well as having to write a short story and then write an essay about your short story, the coursework assignments also required you to compile a list (or an “annotated bibliography”) of everything that has inspired your short story – with a brief explanation of why it inspired you.

When I started taking creative writing lessons at university, I was always puzzled by this requirement. For a long time, it seemed like an extremely contrived exercise and I’d struggle to think of enough influences on my work in order to make a reasonably-sized annotated bibliography.

Likewise, I was also puzzled about why the university was asking me to list my influences, despite many stern warnings about the dangers of plagiarism during the early parts of the course. I mean, surely they’d want me to write entirely “original” fiction? Right?

But, eventually, something just clicked and my work became a lot better as a result.

In short, I gradually started reading cooler books than I did during the first year and a half of my course. I also started getting into comic books. I re-watched a lot of great movies that I hadn’t watched in years. And then I realised that it’s ok to be inspired by all of this stuff.

Not only was it ok to be inspired by all of this stuff, but it was actually encouraged. As a result, my writing started to improve dramatically.

You see, one of the clever things about the annotated bibliography was that it was supposed to be a reasonable length. There was a very real possibilty that you’d get lower marks if your bibliography was too short.

What this meant is that you couldn’t just be “heavily inspired” by one or two things (which would just lead to derivative and unoriginal writing, which might even border on plagiarism), but that you had to be inspired by a lot of different things.

In other words, you had to find a way to turn lots of different things into something entirely new and original. The more influences you had and the more different they were, the better your coursework would be and the higher marks you would get.

This taught me a powerful lesson about what makes a great story (or a great comic). Creative people are often told to create “completely original” stuff, but there’s no such thing as a completely original story, comic or work of art.

Everything is inspired by at least one other thing. The originality comes from both what writers choose to be inspired by and what they do with that inspiration.

And, the more things you are inspired by, the more original, interesting, new, unique and different your story will be.

So, if you’re ever curious about how to improve your own writing, take a look at one of your stories and ask “what inspired this?“. If you can only think of a couple of things, then that’s probably a sign that you need to read more widely, watch more movies, watch more TV shows, play more computer games etc..

And, if you’re worried that being inspired by lots of different things might make people accuse you of plagiarism, then look at some interviews with your favourite authors. Listen to them talk about what inspired their work. Chances are, they’ve probably been inspired by a lot of other things.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

2 comments on “One Exercise I Learnt At University That Seriously Improved My Writing

  1. Lindsay says:

    That is a great perspective! It’s true that plagiarism gets trotted out as the One Big Demon to avoid but that everyone is inspired by something. How many TV shows have done a “Breakfast Club” episode? How many spins on “Romeo & Juliet” will there be at the end of time? And I love them all. We return to these influences because they contribute to the human experience.

    • pekoeblaze says:

      Thanks :)Good point, I mean there’s a difference between being heavily inspired by something and ripping something off (although, of course, it’s perfectly ok to totally rip off “Romeo And Juliet”, since it went out of copyright centuries ago). I guess that people tend to complain about “rip offs” when a lot of things that are heavily inspired by the same thing appear in the media and it turns into something of a cliche (eg: films using “Matrix”-style slow motion footage in the early-mid 2000s).

      But, yeah, there’s no such thing as a truly “original” work of art. I mean, even the oldest cave paintings known to humanity were inspired by things that people saw in real life.

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