Creative writing for secondary students

Author: Amy Cotton

Creative writing can be confrontational and therefore scary to both students and teachers alike. We all have imaginations, but the fear of being judged for the way we express ourselves can stifle expression.

Often students will complain that they don’t know what to write, or that teachers don’t understand what they write. Sometimes they’ll state they don’t know how to start.

The truth is that fluency as a creative writer takes constant work and practice. Some of the best writers in the world will take years to write a single novel, but we expect students to create whole stories in 40 mins. So, given that we can’t change the assessment of creative writing, what can we do to help our students?

Create safe zones for writing

Allow students time to write without the fear of their work being read, or worse, assessed. Writing sheer nonsense on a page is better than writing nothing at all in these circumstances, so even if they are stuck, encourage the student to write. They might want to write the same word over and over – that’s okay. Let them get bored with that and write something else out of frustration. Frustration is a good motivator for artistic expression (although not the only motivator!)

 

Take it back to basics

Before we ask them to write a story, let’s focus on getting the foundations right. Centring whole lessons on establishing a setting or developing characterisation allows students to work together to develop imagery. For instance, use a photograph of a setting or person and ask them to describe it. What you’re looking for is to elicit responses of increasingly complexity. For example, if the photo is of a man ask what does he smell like? Why does he smell like that? Do people notice the scent? Eventually the students will begin to disagree with each others’ ideas – that’s great. Now get them to justify why their idea shows more about the character. And when the students are adding meaning and justifying that meaning, step back to allow that discussion to self-perpetuate. At that point, the class is using literary techniques to justify what they are creating.

 

Make use of genres

Encourage students to explore the tropes of genres and use them in their storytelling. They might use them as expected, or subvert the genre for their creative purpose. Genres are often avoided by teachers, but they are a great way to explore literary techniques and common imagery. There’s no reason why students can’t tap into a genre to add depth to their creative writing.

 

Question why the story exists

Students can ask the following questions as they develop their stories:

·         What does the protagonist want?

·         What is the protagonist’s dilemma?

·         What is happening right now in the story that is urgent?

·         What happens if the protagonist does or doesn’t get what s/he wants?

Does plot matter?

It depends on the exercise. If you’re conducting just a writing exercise, plot may not be important. Eg, if you’re just working on building settings.

However, for a short story that is going to be assessed, plots will help. The hero’s journey is the most well known narrative structure, but sometimes can’t be replicated well in a student’s story. They might choose to do just a portion of the hero’s journey, or a simplified version such as:

·         Introduction to character

·         Introduction to dilemma

·         Reason for character’s impetus to doing anything at all

·         Conflict (what impediments must the character struggle through to fix the dilemma?)

·         Resolution – success or failure?

·         Coda – was there something to be learned?

 

Practice, practice, practice

The most important element is, again, practice. Articulating the imagination takes constant work and editing, and sometimes you have to be willing to just throw work out.

I ask hesitant creative writers to try 5 mins a day. They can do it on their phones, but they have to just write about something they saw, felt, heard, smelt or experienced. If they didn’t experience it in real life, I’m encouraging of what they experienced in their imaginations – just write it down! It won’t be perfect, and it doesn’t need to be, but the more they write, the more fluency they will achieve, and the more they can borrow and edit from their previous work when they need to write something new.