Teaching Creative Writing: a Quick and Knotty Guide

The guide is “quick” because good writing is based on just a handful of principles. It’s “knotty” because no subject is harder to teach. Simple, not easy: that’s the problem. The need for clear writing is not going away; in our increasingly information-oriented age, young people who don’t know how to put sentences together on paper are going to be at a disadvantage in the job market. Becoming fluent in written English is not less vital than computer literacy, math wizardry, or science proficiency–at least if you want to be understood. That’s why composition is still an important part of the school curriculum, and “creative writing” is an important part of composition. Most English teachers understand the rationale behind what they’re doing. The problem is that blank piece of paper on the reluctant writer’s desk.

All other subjects are reciprocal: a student takes in information, digests it and synchronizes it with what she already knows, then reproduces it on a test, project, oral or written report. Creative writing requires a kid to draw almost entirely from herself and her experience. The effect of sitting a 13-year-old at a desk with instructions to “write a story” might be something like throwing a toddler into the deep end of the pool with only one command: “Swim!”

writing teacher

Two views of teaching writing

The Blessed and the Rest: Many of us grew up with the notion that writing talent, or any other kind of talent, is inborn. In some children a natural verbal ability will combine with an observant, introspective personality to produce a natural little stylist.  Some kids are writers, others aren’t. If we try to squeeze a poem or story out of the non-writers, we’re wasting our time and bruising their egos.

Every Child an Artist: The opposite view holds that each of us is an entire universe, within which flow untapped streams of creativity. The notion is that once we help the child connect with his inner self, or gain access to the other side of his brain, we will release hitherto-unsuspected energies and gifts. The ability to do whatever a student truly wants to do is lurking in his subconscious, and learning how to do it is mostly a matter of unlearning all the reasons he thought he couldn’t.

Both of these views are true in part. Plenty of students will never learn to enjoy writing and will never be better than adequate, no matter how hard a teacher rattles the bars of their inner selves. But at the same time, every child is gifted with some type of creativity. Creative writing is the process of applying the tools of language to the varieties of our own experience. It is using what we have to express ourselves verbally–nothing more than that, but also nothing less.

In my opinion (which is a minority opinion), creative writing need not be taught seriously in the early grades. Making first-third graders write stories, poems and essays while they’re still learning to read and form letters with a pencil usually amounts to much struggle with little gain. When the children reach fourth or fifth grade they can proceed more naturally from reading to writing.

At this age, the emphasis should be mostly on content: what they write, not necessarily how. Also, most children at this age take more naturally to fact-based writing: reporting on what they read or learned about a subject. Writing about their feelings can be frustrating for them. Not that they don’t have feelings–they just aren’t equipped to analyze them yet, and don’t necessarily feel comfortable doing it. If they’re not pushed into premature adolescence, elementary-age students are interested in learning facts, and usually don’t want to emote over them.

That changes in junior high, when young people start feeling everything, and thinking about their feelings is a major occupation. So it’s a good time to write about them, too. But how? I’m not one of the just-get-in-touch-with-your-feelings-and-you’ll-automatically-know-the-best-way-to-express-them school. Writing is a craft, like needlepoint or wood-carving. The way anyone learns a craft is by first learning how to use the tools, then practicing his or her technique to some degree of competence. Given that a 7th or 8th grader knows how to write sentences (and I know that can’t always be assumed) any child of that age can learn to write competently, even effectively.

What to write about? That’s the question: kids often don’t believe they have anything to write about. But the problem is that they have TOO much to write about.

Think of a student’s life as a diamond mine. It’s full of gems, but also full of the day-to-day stuff that crowds our lives. Creative writing is going down into the mine, chipping out the diamonds, and cutting and polishing them to a finished work: maybe even an object of beauty. A writer uses certain tools to do this. The first is vision: training herself to see what incidents of her life are worth cutting. The next is focus: learning to cut off all the superfluous material that won’t contribute to the story she wants to tell. The third is detail: cutting small facets to add up to one sparkling picture. The fourth is refinement: learning how to evaluate what she’s written and improve on it.

My four basic rules are these:

  • Make it relevant. A creative writing assignment should be based on what the students know, what they have experience in, or what they can relate to. Don’t ask for their thoughts on family relationships in the abstract before they’ve had a chance to write a description of their own grandmothers.
  • Help them bring the subject into focus before they start writing. Generalization is death! Insist on a sharp focus: expound on one aspect of your favorite movie; write about the one experience of summer vacation that meant most to you; explore one quality of your best friend that you appreciate.
  • Be crystal-clear about what you want. I’ve found it helpful with beginning writers to make a list of specific instructions to go along with an assignment. If they’re describing a place, ask them to include some indication of the time of day and season of the year; describe a smell associated with this place, show one or two activities going on, etc. This may seem confining, but it isn’t. It helps them to maintain the focus and gives them tangible goals to aim for.
  • Finally, teach them to revise, because no writer writes it right on the first try. Learning to evaluate and rewrite is just as important as learning to write in the first place.

Of course, HOW to do all this is another question; I could teach a seminar on the details (And I do! Just ask!). But failing that–and cheaper, too–is my book Wordsmith: A Creative Writing Course for Young People. Wordsmith is a self-teaching, kid-friendly manual with all kinds of exercises, projects and writing assignments that can be adapted to the classroom. It’s available from Common Sense Press.