The Mastery Path for Writers: a new way to learn the skills you need

Lesson 11: Kinds of Material

July 7, 2014

Tags: 3. Content-Mind Practices

It’s impossible to create a piece of writing—in any genre—without content. Naturally, skilled writers also need a command of language; but words are not the most important aspect of a piece of writing. Words are only the medium through which a writer’s content is communicated. If a piece of writing has nothing to say, has no content, then no one will want to read it.

Beginning writers are often not aware that different kinds of writing require different kinds of material. In a way, writing is like cooking: you have to begin with ingredients. But if you’re making spaghetti sauce, you’ll need different ingredients than if you’re baking a cake. Similarly, if you’re making a poem or a short story or a novel, you’ll need different materials than if you’re writing an essay or an academic paper or a business report.

There are two main categories of material writers use: material that enables them to represent something, and material that enables them to talk about something. If you learned how to write in school (as most of us did), then you are probably familiar only with the second kind of writing—because that’s the kind of writing we have to use in academic papers.

Writing that talks about a subject is sometimes called discursive writing. In addition to academic papers, this kind of writing is often used in essays, op-ed pieces, and some nonfiction books. The main materials we need for such projects are information and ideas.

Another kind of writing that talks about a subject is journal-writing. Here the subject is usually the writer’s own experiences, and the main materials are the writer’s thoughts and feelings.

If you have written a lot of academic papers, or have kept a journal for a long time, you may find yourself frustrated or stuck when you try to write a poem or a story. Why? Because what we call creative writing is NOT the same as discursive writing. It requires a completely different kind of material.

That’s because a poem or a story does not talk about things; it pictures them. And to make pictures in writing we don’t use information and ideas—or feelings; we use images.

Let me put this another way: Different kinds of writing require the use of different mental faculties. Academic writing, for instance, requires only the use of the intellect. Journal-writing requires the use of emotion and insight. Creative writing requires the use of these faculties as well as the faculties of observation and imagination (and others). If you have not trained your faculties of observation and imagination, then you will not be able to collect the images that are the main material for poems or stories or creative nonfiction.

Fortunately, it’s never too late to develop these faculties. With practice, you can wake up your powers of observation and your imagination so that they serve you well in creative writing projects (and in other areas of your life).

Take some time to look through some of the material you have collected. What kind of material do you have? Are you talking about something (using information and ideas, or giving your feelings)? Are you making pictures (using images)?

Now take a look at some writing of the kind you want to do. What kind of material is this author using? Information and ideas? Feelings? Pictures? Some of all of these?

What kind of material do you want to learn how to collect?

If you want to collect discursive material, read the “Required Writing” chapter in How To Be a Writer or wait for the lessons on Required Writing that will be posted here.

If it’s pictures you want to collect, then the next few lessons (or the chapter on “Imagination” in How To Be a Writer are for you.


  1. July 14, 2014 5:39 PM EDT
    Now, this Lesson confused me, Barbara. Is "A Picture Worth a 1000 Words" like Mrs. Smith taught us in 6th grade, or is it "1000 Words is Worth A Picture"? Did you just turn my sleeve inside out?
    - km
  2. July 14, 2014 6:14 PM EDT
    Can you be more specific about what confused you?
    - Barbara
  3. August 19, 2015 8:55 AM EDT
    I am confused as well, but I do believe that the previous commenter was using a method that is sometimes called "tongue in cheek". Meaning that they were being sill, teasing or attempting light hearted sarcasm. ;)
    My confusion lies with the word "discursive". I had always learned the word "expository" in regard to writing about a topic. Since the words "discursive" and "expository" are not synonyms, I'm wondering if you are saying that when writing - a writer should explain a topic with an argumentative mind-set. This may be fine for an op-ed article, but not so sure about other types of writing.

    There are two, rather opposite sounding definitions for the word "discursive" in the Oxford dictionary. One being a negative connotation (wandering)and the other far more positive (fluent). Could you explain further?

    Fun with words, eh?
    - Meg
  4. September 18, 2015 11:04 AM EDT
    Barbara, isn't it obvious?
    - Jennifer Thompson
  5. September 19, 2015 10:35 AM EDT
    Meg and Jennifer: Thanks for your comments. I'll explain as best I can. "Discursive" comes from "discourse," which my dictionary defines as "a formal discussion of a topic in speech or writing"--that is, writing that talks "about" things rather than presenting the things themselves. If you want to present the things (or people) themselves--if you want readers to experience them through the senses-- then you are doing "representational" writing.
    - Barbara Baig