Why teaching creative writing matters – Helen Brain

Why it is important to teach creative writing?

I view creative writing as a craft with techniques that can be mastered. Many new writers are frustrated by the gap between the story they see in their head, and the words they put down on the page. I aim to teach them techniques that will help narrow that gap.

How did you get into teaching creative writing?

A friend told me that South African writer’s college was looking for online tutors, but you had to have won a writing award to apply. Luckily I had. They took me on to teach Writing for Children. I saw that my students needed more basic skills before they focused on characterisation and plot, so I asked the college if they’d like a basics course. They agreed, and it’s turned into their most successful course. I wrote a follow up to the basics course, and I now teach all three through the South African, UK and New Zealand writer’s colleges.

I’ve taught well over 1000 students over the last ten years, with an over 80% completion rate. They’ve been between 11 to 84, and based all over the world.

What creative writing exercise or prompt do you use that produces interesting results from writers?

My basics course has three modules. The first teaches ten essential techniques.  The second module builds on these skills and focuses on building scenes. In the third module the students write a scene from their own idea, and we work on it through three drafts. This has been a winning combo – I think because the extensive feedback gives them confidence, and there’s lots of opportunity for practicing the skills so they become ingrained (hopefully)

What is the one piece of advice that you would give to new writers who are at the beginning stages of exploring their craft?

Take time to learn your craft, and never stop trying to improve. You can have the best story idea in the world, but unless you can convey it to readers in a way that they enjoy, you won’t get anywhere.

Any particular resource (website or book or anything) that you would recommend to writers?

My go-to book on plotting is John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story. I love that book. I’ve recently sold my Elevation trilogy to a US publisher, and I’m convinced it’s largely due to Truby’s tight plotting technique which guarantees twists and turns in the right places to maintain reader interest.

SA Writers College


In 2019 I will be running monthly face to face workshops in Cape Town. Each session will focus on improving one particular writing technique. Find out more on my Facebook page Helen Brain Author, or email me at helen@helenbrain.co.za to find out more.


I was born in Australia and raised in South Africa. I trained as a professional musician at UCT, but have worked as a crafter, school teacher and editor.  I published my first book for children 20 years ago, and since then have published more than 60 books for children and young adults, as well as a memoir, Here be Lions.

The last five years have been devoted to my YA trilogy, Elevation, a cross genre series  which melds mythology and ecology in a post apocalyptic Cape Town. Book 3, The Fiery Spiral has just been published in South Africa. (2019)  The world rights have been bought by Catalyst Press in the US, and they’ll be publishing book one (The Thousand Steps) in November 2019.