Creative Writing in Practice

The British Museum

An optional module for second-year art and design students at the University of Brighton

'Creative writing in practice' is an optional module for second-year art and design students at the University of Brighton. It aims to help students improve their confidence, experience and ability to use words in a variety of creative forms. Creative writing is defined here as poetry, prose and drama, and all writing which is not normal academic or technical writing. This is a description of the module, including a course outline and examples of some activities used during two years.

The module was developed and taught by CETLD Higher Education Officer Rebecca Reynolds. Staff involved at various points included Jac Cattaneo, lecturer at Northbrook College; University of Brighton; Mick Hawksworth, Design tutor, University of Brighton, Sharon Maas, novelist and writer in residence at the University of Brighton; award-winning author Eithne Nightingale; Catherine Moriarty, curator of the Design archives at the University of Brighton; and author Alison MacLeod.

Aims and structure of module

To see the description of the module for students, and a week by week outline, see Related Files above

Students filled in a sheet at the beginning of the course about their creative writing experience and what they wanted from the course. As the course progressed students' interests became clearer, and could be grouped into three main areas:

  • interest in improving the way they described their projects and other coursework
  • interest in producing good pieces of writing for others to read, using different genres such as drama, poetry and short story
  • interest in experimenting with creative writing in a similar way to experimenting with art and design practice; here students were interested in the process as much as the product, and sometimes made parallels between the way they worked on designs or artwork, and the way they wrote.

Playing with story structure

The aim of this activity was to experiment with story structure and look at the possibilities and limitations of following a prescribed structure. In groups, students were given a jumbled up list, on separate pieces of paper, of these elements of a story:

  • set the scene
  • trigger
  • quest
  • reversal/change
  • critical choice
  • surprise
  • resolution

They then put them into a logical order.  After comparing them and agreeing on an order, we practised writing stories according to this structure by playing a game.  Students started a story by setting the scene in one sentence, this was passed to the next student who wrote a ' trigger' in one sentence, and so on as the pieces of paper were passed around class and the stories got longer.Possible variations are to pick a few of the elements, jumble them up and ask students to base a story around a different order, for example: resolution, trigger, quest.  This encourages experimentation with difference timeframes and departs from what can be seen as a predictable structure.

Student feedback:

' It was fun to collaborate in a fast way with the classmates on this.’

' Helped me understand a story structure better and how to tell a story.’

Looking at word/image interaction

The aim of this activity was to analyse word /image interaction, which might have implications for students' own work and for bringing together creative writing and art and design. Students looked at a picture of Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, which was actually an advertisement for Louis Vuitton luggage (the image can be found on this website: We looked in detail at the phrases below to see what each one did to the image.  The first was the actual advertisement caption. 

  • Some journeys cannot be put into words. New York. 3 am. Blues in C.
  • Lines
  • Keith Richards by Annie Leibovitz 
  • You can’t always get what you want

For example, the word 'lines' could evoke: the lines on Richards' face; lines in the composition of the picture; lines of music; the fact that Richards is playing a role here for the advert, like learning lines; lines of cocaine. We came up with a list of things which words can do to images, for example: undermine, explode, fix, explain, complete and so on. Students then wrote captions for various images, analysing and discussing what each one brought out of the pictures.

Student feedback:

' I really got engaged, especially in art school where it's important to be aware of how you can affect the impact of images.'


In this session design tutor Mick Hawksworth came in, pretending to observe the lesson, then had a heated conversation with Rebecca Reynolds which students only learnt later was scripted rather than spontaneous. The two took up polarised and somewhat stereotypical positions on the topic of artists' books, Rebecca arguing that to make books into an object missed the point of them, Mick arguing that students at art college had a duty to challenge and innovate, and a book could take many forms, not necessarily requiring words. The students then wrote short continuations to the conversation in pairs, and these were acted out by Rebecca and Mick.  Students then briefly discussed which continuation they preferred, and why. Mick then talked to the class about artists' books, explaining his work as a tutor on an artists'  books module.

Students then compared the differences in the presentation of ideas in the drama and in Mick's talk, coming up with a list of elements of drama which included:

  • tension
  • personalities
  • a sub plot (some had put a sub plot in the continuation to the drama, inventing a history to the relationship between the speakers which affected the argument)
  • emotion
  • differing viewpoints
  • a story


To listen to Mick and Rebecca practising the conversation before the lesson,click the play button to the right:

Click here to listen to the audio

Student feedback:

'Good shock introduction!'

‘It was entertaining and showed how creative we were as a group.’

Factual and semifictional writing

This session focused on fictionalising fact, the different degrees to which one might do this, and motivations for doing it. First we read excerpts from texts which fictionalised fact to different degrees: a description of the relationship between Frank Russell and Elizabeth von Arnim in ' Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Marriages' by Katie Roiphe (click here to read this [ link to sheet 3]); the description of passengers on the Titanic in 'Every Man for Himself' by Beryl Bainbridge; and Gillian Naylor's description of her university education and start in the design industry in 'Art and Design at Brighton 1859-2009' edited by Philippa Lyon and Jonathan Woodham. We discussed degrees of fictionalisation in the extracts, and why you might choose to fictionalise to different degrees. This was also partly to prepare for a visit to the Brighton Art and Design archives the following week.

The second half of the session was led by Northbrook College tutor Jac Cattaneo, and looked at using events from one's life in writing.  It used this quotation from Barack Obama's autobiography 'Dreams from My Father' to discuss how and why we may tell stories about our lives:

'I learned long ago to distrust my childhood and the stories that shaped it.  It was only many years later, after I had sat on my father's grave and spoken to him through Africa's red soil, that I could circle back and evaluate these early stories for myself.  Or, more accurately, it was only then that I understood that I had spent much of my life trying to rewrite the stories..' (p.xv)

Further activities included ' free writing '.  During this activity we wrote what came into our minds without editing, as a way of freeing up the writing process, and writing things which we might not otherwise and which might take a place in later writing. The module the following year included free writing and focussed free writing at the start of each lesson.

Student feedback:

'Influenced final task and overall very interesting and useful.'

'Good to get the perspective of an experienced writer'

Visit to archives

In this session the curator of the Brighton Art and Design archives, Catherine Moriarty, showed the students some archival materials, including documents from the Festival of Britain.  Students were encouraged to use these as inspiration for a piece of writing.  For an example of student work, see Related Files above. A session in 2010, led by writer Alison MacLeod, consisted of a visit to Brighton Museum and exploration of their chair collection as inspiration for a piece of writing.


We practised various activities with reading and writing poetry. One involved breaking a piece of text up into poetry to see what this did to the language.  The text (chosen almost at random) was this from 'Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Marriages' by Katie Roiphe, which we had looked at an earlier session:

'His moods were electric, at times oppressive.  He worked himself into excessively angry states about life's million minor frustrations.  It was almost as if one could feel the air pressure rearrange itself around him.' (p.118)

Elements of the language which emerged when it was broken into poetry included: an increased focus on the sounds of words; words at line endings assuming more importance; a slowing down of the narrative; and an intensification of the emotions expressed.  We then practised cutting words out and changing some remaining words to make a better poem.

Final project

The brief for the final project was broad: students had to produce a work which included a piece of writing of up to 3000 words.  They also had to write a rationale of 1000 words explaining factors which have influenced the work and what they were hoping to achieve. Students developed this work over the second half of the course.  Work included a song, a children's book and poetry.