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Contributors:Dana Bisignani.

This handout discusses the writing obstacles most frequently faced by beginning poets and fiction writers and will offer tactics for addressing these issues during a tutorial.

Working with Creative Writing Students: Tutoring Beginning Poets & Fiction Writers

This presentation is designed to introduce writing center tutors and staff to various methods of working with beginning creative writing students.

Contributors:Dana Bisignani.

This handout discusses the writing obstacles most frequently faced by beginning poets and fiction writers and will offer tactics for addressing these issues during a tutorial.

Tutoring Creative Writing Students


As creative writing programs grow, more creative writing students will begin visiting writing centers to receive feedback on their work. Many of these students will be enrolled in introductory level writing workshops and will at some point have their writing workshopped by their peers, who will most likely be beginning writers as well.

This resource discusses the writing obstacles most frequently faced by beginning poets and fiction writers and will offer tactics for addressing these issues during a tutorial.

For more information about working with creative writing students, view the accompanying PowerPoint presentation "Working with Creative Writing Students" available here

Discussing Creative Work with the Student Writer

While creative writers often draw on very personal material for their poetry and/or fiction, when discussing the work with the student, remember that a poem or story written from the first person perspective may still be fictionalized. Not all creative work is "confessional" in nature.

Refer to the "speaker" in a poem, or the "narrator" in a story, rather than assuming that the voice or character is the writer themselves.

Example: "I can see this poem focuses on the speaker’s mother."

"This narrator seems to be angry at his father."

Students may be comfortable discussing their creative work as personal material or may let you know that the speaker is in fact them. However, students will benefit from looking at their work more objectively and from realizing that the material from which they are drawing can be manipulated even if it initially came from real life.

Common Pitfalls for Beginning Poets

Students who are writing poetry for their first workshop will face some of the following obstacles.

Beginning poets tend to:

Abstraction vs. Image

Beginning poets often rely on abstract concepts, such as despair, love, evil, heaven, or hate. These words are loaded but general and don’t tell the reader much about the writer’s perspective or experience.

Remind the student that people read poetry to experience the world through another’s perspective. Good poetry is personal and specific.

Here are some ways of helping the student move past abstraction:

Moving Beyond Clichés

Beginning poets often rely on clichés because they are comfortable, familiar, and hold truth. However, clichés are not unique or surprising. We’ve heard them before. Often, clichés are merely placeholders for something the student is still trying to articulate.

Remind the student that clichés aren’t unique or specific and that their personal perspective and experience will be much more compelling.

Here are some ways of helping the student revise clichés.

Revising Sentimental Language

Beginning poets often draw on personal experience or relationships for material; however, they may have a hard time looking at such material objectively. If a student’s language and images seem overly sweet or precious, then their writing may be suffering from sentimentality.

Here are some ways to help them think anew about their subject.

Moving Beyond the Original Subject of the Poem

In The Triggering Town, Richard Hugo discusses two subjects in the poetic writing process, which he calls the triggering subject and the found subject. The triggering subject is what got the student started writing. However, poems are seldom about just one thing. The found subject is what the student writes their way into, where they leap from the original subject into something more.

Beginning students often have trouble making this leap and can become stuck in their triggering subject.

Here are some ways you can encourage them to look beyond their initial subjects.


Almost all beginning poets will need practice overcoming abstraction, cliché, and sentimental language, as well as making the leap from triggering subject to found subject. As with any writer, encouraging the student to see the poem not as a finished product but as a work in progress will leave the poem open to greater possibility.

Contributors:Dana Bisignani.

This handout discusses the writing obstacles most frequently faced by beginning poets and fiction writers and will offer tactics for addressing these issues during a tutorial.

Common Pitfalls for Beginning Fiction Writers

Many of the issues with which beginning poets struggle will also apply to beginning fiction writers. However, students writing fiction will also struggle with some craft issues specific to their genre.

Beginning fiction writers tend to:

Summary vs. Scene

Beginning fiction writers will still be learning how to differentiate scene from summary and when to use each. Their stories may not yet have clear distinctions between one scene and the next, or their story may be one long summary. It is often helpful to reinforce the differences between summary and scene during the tutorial, especially if the student’s story has a great deal of summary.

Scene: takes place in real-time, like a movie, usually contains dialogue between characters, and should be used for important interactions and events.

Sample Scene:

She was quiet as he drove her home. He parked by the curb in front of the yellow house with its overgrown lawn. She reached into her purse and pulled out a white envelope and handed it to him.
“Read it later,” she said.
The car door squeaked as she got out.

Summary: moves quickly, giving the reader important highlights or reminders, and is used for background information. Bits of summary often occur within scenes.

Sample Summary:

He remembered the letter she’d written him last summer. She’d given it to him on their last date after he’d driven her home. She’d said she never wanted to see him again. He still had the letter tucked under his shirts in a drawer.

A written scene is like a scene in a movie: we watch everything that happens to the character(s) as the action unfolds. Summary is more like watching a character talking to you on the screen about something that already happened to him/her: this would get boring if it went on for too long.

Telling vs. Showing

Most of us have heard the old adage “show, don't tell.” In order to become involved in a piece of prose, a reader must be able to see, hear, taste, touch and smell things throughout the story. Is the setting painted clearly and vividly? Are characters described well? Showing is especially important when writing scenes.

Here are some ways to help students concentrate on showing.

Getting the Scope of the Story Under Control

Many beginning fiction writers have read more novels than short stories. While novels have hundreds of pages to lay out setting, character, and action, a short story may have only twenty pages (or less for an introductory workshop). If you notice that a student’s story lacks action in the first few pages or seems to be dragging, s/he may be struggling with scope.

Here are ways to steer the writer in the right direction.

Fixing Stereotypical Characters

A student may or may not be aware that s/he has employed a stereotypical character. If they’re not aware, point it out to them and work from there. Stereotypes may appear in issues of race, gender, sexuality, class, even a character’s occupation or interests.

Remind the student that stereotypes are predictable, and readers would rather connect to a character that seems more real, flaws and all.

Here are some ways to help the student flesh out a stereotyped character.

Reining in Overly Dramatic Plots

Most beginning fiction writers worry about plot. Will it be entertaining and hold the reader’s interest? Will it be exciting enough? However, plot often evolves from strong characters, not shocking events. If a student’s story contains exploding cars or houses, car wrecks, or multiple deaths, they may have an overblown plot.

Here are a few tactics to help them out.


Most beginning fiction writers will need to work on showing vs. telling, scope, character development, and plot progression. Encourage them to read as many short stories as they can for models, and remind them to keep it real in order to keep the reader involved.

For more suggestions on working with beginning poets and fiction writers, view the accompanying PowerPoint presentation “Working with Creative Writers.”

Contributors:Dana Bisignani.

This handout discusses the writing obstacles most frequently faced by beginning poets and fiction writers and will offer tactics for addressing these issues during a tutorial.

Helpful Resources for Creative Writing Students


-Burroway, Janet. Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. Longman, 2006.

-Cameron, Julia. The Right to Write. Tarcher, 1998.

-Goldberg, Natalie. Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. Shambhala, 2006.

-Hugo, Richard. The Triggering Town. W.W. Norton, 1992.

-Lamotte, Anne. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Anchor, 1995.

-Laux, Dorianne and Addonizio, Kim. The Poet’s Companion. W.W. Norton, 1997.

-Stern, Jerome. Making Shapely Fiction. W.W. Norton, 2000.

Web Sites:

Other Resources:

Contributors:Dana Bisignani.

This handout discusses the writing obstacles most frequently faced by beginning poets and fiction writers and will offer tactics for addressing these issues during a tutorial.

Using Metaphors in Creative Writing

What is a metaphor?

The term metaphor meant in Greek "carry something across" or "transfer," which suggests many of the more elaborate definitions below:

Metaphor Table
Definition Origin
A comparison between two things, based on resemblance or similarity, without using "like" or "as" most dictionaries and textbooks
The act of giving a thing a name that belongs to something else Aristotle
The transferring of things and words from their proper signification to an improper similitude for the sake of beauty, necessity, polish, or emphasis Diomedes
A device for seeing something in terms of something else Kenneth Burke
Understanding and experiencing one thing in terms of another John Searle
A simile contracted to its smallest dimensions Joseph Priestly

Related terms

Related Terms Table
extended or telescoping metaphor: A sustained metaphor. The teacher descended upon the exams, sank his talons into their pages, ripped the answers to shreds, and then, perching in his chair, began to digest.
implied metaphor: A less direct metaphor. John swelled and ruffled his plumage. (versus John was a peacock)
mixed metaphor: The awkward, often silly use of more than one metaphor at a time. To be avoided! The movie struck a spark that massaged the audience's conscience.
dead metaphor: A commonly used metaphor that has become over time part of ordinary language. tying up loose ends, a submarine sandwich, a branch of government, and most clichés
simile: A comparison using "like" or "as" Her face was pale as the moon.
metonym: The substitution of one term for another with which it is commonly associated or closely related. the pen is mightier than the sword, the crown (referring to a Queen or King), hands (referring to workers who use their hands)
synecdoche: The substitution of a part for the whole or vice versa (a kind of metonym). give us this day our daily bread

Why use metaphors?

Creative ways to use metaphors

Most books give rather boring examples of metaphors such as my father is a bear or the librarian was a beast. However, in your poetry (and fiction for that matter) you can do much more than say X is Y, like an algebraic formula. Definitely play with extended metaphors (see above) and experiment with some of the following, using metaphors...

Uses of Metaphors
as verbs The news that ignited his face snuffed out her smile.
as adjectives and adverbs Her carnivorous pencil carved up Susan's devotion.
as prepositional phrases The doctor inspected the rash with a vulture's eye.
as appositives or modifiers On the sidewalk was yesterday's paper, an ink-stained sponge.


Metaphor Table
Scratching at the window with claws of pine, the wind wants in. Imogene Bolls, "Coyote Wind"
What a thrill—my thumb instead of an onion. The top quite gone except for a sort of hinge of skin....A celebration this is. Out of a gap a million soldiers run, redcoats every one. Sylvia Plath, "Cut"
The clouds were low and hairy in the skies, like locks blown forward in the gleam of eyes. Robert Frost, "Once by the Pacific"
Little boys lie still, awake wondering, wondering delicate little boxes of dust. James Wright, "The Undermining of the Defense Economy"