There are many different views on how to teach creative writing and enhance creativity, but I am convinced that far too often teachers and writing mentors are teaching in ways that are not only possibly wrong but that actively discourage budding authors. Or at the very least, their methods don’t give students the freedom they need to discover what they write best. Here are some writing group tips that I’ve learned along my writing journey as both a student and author.
Take three separate creative writing classes I’ve taken over the years, one in middle school, one in high school, and one in college. You might think you know which one of them was the most enjoyable, but you’d probably guess wrong.
My eighth grade writing class was the most fun I’ve ever had in a classroom. Every day our teacher would give us prompts on the board. We did lectures about characters and writing, but for the most part, the entire class was dedicated to simply writing. I enjoyed it a lot because I like writing fiction, as opposed to poetry or nonfiction. I remember most of this class, and I had a great time.
My high school creative class was awful. We had several different units where we had to write in a specific genre. The first unit we went through was a personal narrative unit, where we had to reflect on ourselves and write about deeply personal things. I hated that unit the most because I was forced to share things I didn’t want to tell anybody. After that, we did a poetry unit and then a VERY short fiction unit. I hated that class every moment I was in it.
My college class was mediocre at best. Every time we met, the teacher would give us a lecture on writing. At that point, I had already written and published a book and the instruction was on points I had already researched and thoroughly understood, so I would find myself zoning out. We had four units. Poetry, nonfiction, fiction, and screenplays. I would write all the assignments at the beginning, then proceed to check out for the rest of the unit. It was, in my opinion, weeks of wasted time.
I think far too many creative writing teachers are doing it wrong. At its core, writing is a form of creative art. It is also an individual process, and in every class, you will have those who are poets, those who are novelists, and those who are essayists. When people are forced to write a genre they’re not interested in, especially for extended assignments, they will hate the class, as I did.
The key to a successful creative writing class is freedom of expression. Your students shouldn’t be confined to one genre or expectation. The reason so many people hate school in general is because it’s a constant guessing game of trying to figure out what the teacher wants so you can get the best grade, rather than actually learning useful information to prepare you for life and your career. If you assign units like two of my teachers did, the class becomes more about you than it is about the students.
That said, I understand my first creative writing class might not have been ideal for poets or essayist. That’s why I’ve combined my knowledge as a student and an author to give you a short list of things you SHOULD do in a creative writing class, along with a list of things you SHOULD NOT do. These tips are geared toward a classroom setting, but would also work great for a more informal creative writing group.
- Give prompts. Some people have no idea what to write. My first book was inspired by a prompt from my eighth grade creative writing class. Because of that class and the positive encouragement there, I eventually became a published author. Prompts help writers get started, and while this forces them outside their comfort zone to fit their usual genre around what you have given them, it doesn’t force them to write in a genre they detest.
- Give lots of prompts. My first creative writing teacher gave us a prompt every day at the very beginning of class. I still have my creative writing notebook from that year, and there are countless novel ideas contained within its pages.
- For assignments, you can have separate prompts for each, but my first creative writing teacher did something different. With most assignments we were told to select a prompt we had already done and expand upon it, focusing on one element. For example, she had us write a bunch of short prompts centering around setting, then had a follow up assignment requiring us to choose one of those prompts and expand upon it, adding another element such as mood. This way, students will have a solid base for future projects.
- Encourage the writers to explore outside their normal genre. Some might not realize they like another genre better, and it’s good for them to try new things, especially if they are young. College students probably have that figured out by the time of taking the class, but some might not. At most, though, assign one only paper per genre, so students can branch out while not becoming overwhelmed with constant constrictions. There is nothing more mind numbing than an entire unit and weeks wasted on poetry when you just want to write, say, a space opera.
- Aside from those few assignments, allow students to write in whatever genre pleases them most. You will have a lot of different types of papers coming through, and that’s less boring for you to read anyway.
- Focus less on grading, and more on writing. The main point of a creative writing class is to help students find their passion in writing. It doesn’t matter if their work is perfect, or if they followed the prompt exactly. As long as a student is writing and improving, that’s all that matters.
- Provide your students with optional resources as best you can. My middle school and high school teachers didn’t do this, and understandably so, but my college professor sent us several opportunities to write outside of class and encouraged us to submit our writing to competitions and newspapers. Some students are made for writing, and as their teacher, you can help them get started.
- Require reading for the class. Reading is the best way to learn how to write, and to get new ideas. Writers of all kinds should always be reading—especially aspiring writers. But like with writing assignments, don’t devote an entire reading unit to one genre or you will lose many of your best future writers by boring them into disinterest. (See entry #4 below.)
- Have the students create a portfolio. Some classes make the portfolio out to be a really big deal, but it shouldn’t be a source of stress for your students. Both of my latter creative writing classes had portfolios, but my first one did not, and I wish it had. Writing portfolios are a way for students to either submit their work or have it in an organized place so they can look back on it later to revise old ideas.
You SHOULD NOT:
- Lecture, lecture, lecture. Of course some lectures are important, but keep it to a minimum. The creative minds that come through your classroom are going to get very bored if all you do is talk at them.
- Be a harsh grader. What’s the point? As I said earlier, the point of a creative writing class is to write and discover a passion. If you give your students a bad grade regardless of their effort, they’re going to hate the class, and, by extension, writing in general. Genre expectations, word limits, grammar policing, etc, do not have a place in this sort of artistic environment.
- Force your students to write something deeply personal. This one goes without saying. If they want to, they can, but never force someone to open up to you—that will only make them resent you. (Or it will force them to make up a fictitious story to pass off as truth.)
- Assign book reports, or specific books for them to read (outside of the textbook for the class and perhaps one short story or a book of their choice in each genre so they can get a feel for the differences). You can have a reporting system where students tell you how much they have read, but book reports are a waste of time, and it’s hilariously easy to fake a book report in most cases. And of course, do not continually assign them a certain book to read. Not everyone is going to like the same books. All that matters is that they are reading, and that’s going to look different for everyone depending on what genre they write in.
Those are all the tips I have to make your creative writing class more effective and enjoyable! Remember, this is all my opinion. I have never been a teacher, let alone a creative writing one, but from my experiences as a student, this is how I would run my classroom or creative writing group.
Keep on writing!
Have you taken or taught a creative writing class or group? What did you like or not like about it? Let me know in the comments!