The Good vs. The Bad; or, Why Didn’t I Have A Creative Writing Teacher Like This?

Today, author James Van Pelt* posted a blog entry on good poetry vs. bad poetry over on his LiveJournal.  You should go read it.

In particular, his list of characteristics of good vs. bad poetry (in the photograph of the whiteboard) struck a chord in me, because it seems to me that they apply to all creative writing, not just poetry.

The first three seem particularly applicable:

Good: Specific
Bad: General/Vague

Good: Appeals to the senses
Bad: Abstractions

Good: Interesting/fresh language
Bad: Cliches/familiar language

Looking at the editing I’m doing now on the first book of my “Winterbourne” series, I can see where, when I’m having problems with a scene working the way I want it to, it’s probably because I’m failing at one or more of those three characteristics.  Either I’m being too vague, or too abstract, or the language is dull and boring.

For example, early in the story, the heroine, Celia, describes her father’s steam-powered horseless carriage:

Celia had always loved riding in it.  She liked the way people turned to stare and point at the contraption as it made its way down the street.

Which, even I can admit, is kind of vague.  I’ve noticed, on this editing pass, that I’m awfully fond of having characters “make their way” from one place to another.  “Make their way” tells us nothing about the character or what he or she is doing.  Is she walking, running, or shuffling along with her head down?  Is he in a hurry, or does he look like he’s lost?

So after editing, the passage became:

Celia loved riding in it, delighting in the way people stared and pointed at the contraption as it hissed and hummed its way down the street, spewing steam and cinders in its wake.

Which is a bit of an improvement, anyway; it’s more specific as to why people would stop and stare, and it uses the senses to remind the reader that the vehicle runs on steam power.

(The description, by the way, is loosely based on my experience of riding in a Stanley Steamer some years ago.  They really do make a sort of humming, whistling sound as they roll along.  Not what I expected from a steam-powered vehicle.  Which just goes to show that you never know what experiences in your life might come in handy again later.  I’d really love to do it again sometime, if only so I could take better notes. )

So I’m going to try to keep these guidelines in mind as I finish my edits to Celia’s story.

How do you think these guidelines could help you in your writing?


*Mr. Van Pelt (I can’t help thinking of him as “Mr.” Van Pelt–he is a teacher, after all!) is also an English teacher who lives in Grand Junction, CO.  Topics on his blog range from writing to teaching to running (another of his passions).  After seeing some of his postings regarding exercises he’s given his creative writing classes, I really wish I’d been able to take a class from him when I was in high school.


(Gah!  I wrote this yesterday at lunchtime and set it to autopost in the evening…and somehow put today’s date in instead of yesterday’s.  Sorry about that!)


About sheilamcclune

Aspiring author, sharing the tidbits I've learned along the way.
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2 Responses to The Good vs. The Bad; or, Why Didn’t I Have A Creative Writing Teacher Like This?

  1. Jim Van Pelt says:

    Thanks for the shout out about my post. Today was a great day with those kids too. I love it when classes go well.

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