43. Things I learned from the University of Iowa creative writing course.

The seven-week course is almost over now. I’ve been taking it since the beginning of October. I learned the term MOOC – massive open online course. I have no idea how many students there were – hundreds certainly. We’ve had video lectures from 15 writers about their craft, read nine pieces of writing, engaged in discussions moderated by six teaching staff, and done seven writing exercises.

Of course you don’t get in a massive free course what you get if you pay – namely critique and mentoring from a successful writer. But nonetheless, I’ve enjoyed it. There have been times when I’ve been cross and frustrated, most particularly by the apparent emphasis on the literary to the exclusion of other genres, and on the rubric of “trusting the writing”. This seems to privilege the subconscious over the conscious, the observational over the analytic, character over plot, and the inspirational over the perspirational. Ironic perhaps in the US which is the home to so many writing toolkits and methods.

It’s hard to say yet whether the course has made me a better writer. My wife says she can’t see any difference in my writing. But that would need time to ferment and bed-in. It’s certainly made me more fluent in what I can say about writing, and therefore probably a better critic.

I thought I’d share with you what have been the most important insights (for me) of the course.


  • Characters should be interesting, not necessarily likeable
  • Characters change over time


  • Dialogue should appear lifelike but isn’t – the reader suspends disbelief
  • Don’t overdo dialect – a little goes a long way
  • Vary the size of speeches
  • Dialogue is about showing what can’t be told. Dialogue enables the writer to convey information, emotional information, psychological information, of which neither the characters nor the narrator are yet fully aware


  • Voice is an ambiguous term. It can mean authorial voice (i.e. style), narratorial voice, and character voice. Don’t worry about “finding your voice” – it’s natural, it’s just your own style.
  • Different characters will see the same setting in different ways
  • Voice is about mentality. Characters can be the embodiment of ideas, to keep the reader engaged with the idea
  • If voice is a mentality, rather than just diction, then building a character is building a world

Story, plot and structure

  • A storyline should achieve the quality of being surprising yet inevitable
  • Some writers are “planners” and other are “pantsers”. Neither is superior, they’re just how different brains work. Both merge at rewrite stage.
  • A story is the events that happen. A plot is the sequence of causality that makes these events happen (“plot” is the name for the events seen in the light of their endings) Structure is the decisions we make about how to deploy the plot to tell the story in its most compelling form. The storytelling may be better than the story
  • In literary fiction, which may be character-driven rather than plot-driven, narratorial or character voice is a major determinant of structure. In other genres, the author’s decisions about voice are relatively independent of decisions about structure
  • As well as point of view (POV), consider point of telling (POT), and point of entry (POE). POT is the point in time from which the events are being narrated. POE is the moment at which you enter the beginning of the story or some specific part of the narrative. There may also be a consideration of Point of Exit – when you decide to leave the story.

Setting, description and world-building

  • Description can show how the two worlds – physical world and emotional world of the story – interact. It should show us a singularity – a world we’ve never seen before and will never see again. Not necessarily a bizarre world, but one which overlays the physical wold with an emotional world. The external world becomes an extension of character
  • Vivid description is a portrait of a mind thinking its way through the world.
  • When you’re describing a landscape, you’re trying to describe it comprehensively and precisely but not necessarily exhaustively
  • Images can function in a work as powerful hinges, ways to transition between places and times and they can be powerful tools for transitioning within fiction. They give us access to the associative nature of memory, allowing us to suspend the linear movement of plot and plunge into the past.
  • Worlds, whether they are imaginary or real, not only have things in them, but relationships between those things which are governed by rules that often differ from those in the everyday world. So as well as observing, world-building involves analysis.

Some of these insights came from the lectures, some from dialogue with staff and other students. The final class of the course deals with the dreaded topic of revision. Since I’m still in the middle of that, I’ll leave sharing what I’ve learned from that until the next post.

4 thoughts on “43. Things I learned from the University of Iowa creative writing course.

  1. Excellent summary. The course was intense, and your recap helps me pinpoint what I, too, valued about the experience. I can also use your summary as a reference as I forge ahead. To that end, for clarification, could you please provide a specific example of an image serving as a transition? Having trouble understanding that abstraction without without one.


  2. Hi Paula, thanks. I’m glad it was useful. An example of an image allowing you to transition from one point in the timeline could be someone listening to a song that was the one that was “their song” in their first love. Listening to it now transports them back to that love. It allows you to move backwards in the timeline and introduce backstory.


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