In language arts classes, as our students move into upper secondary school, teachers tend to move away from teaching creative writing and shift more towards teaching formal essay writing. This is understandable, considering that many kids will be heading off to university soon and we want to focus on the kind of writing most of them will need.
After all, throughout university, students will need to be able to write a thesis statement, hook their reader with a strong introduction, develop supporting arguments, and wrap up their ideas in a conclusion. These are all difficult skills to master, so teachers tend to emphasize lessons which help students develop ideas and organize them coherently. We also teach students MLA formatting and how to edit for spelling and grammar, since structure and conventions are obviously important in essay writing.
Since class time is limited, however, we rarely touch on sentence fluency or word choice (other than transition words) — often leading to some rather bland and boring essays.
What teacher hasn’t groaned as they face a pile of mind-numbingly lackluster essays? This is precisely why I’m a strong believer in injecting creative writing into the high school curriculum. In spite of feeling pressed for time, we still need to make sure we cover more creative forms of writing. It doesn’t matter if we choose personal narratives, short stories, or poetry.
All of these help our students hone writing skills that they can then apply to their essays. But, even more importantly, giving students time to explore their inner world can help them learn to love writing.
Here are three ways teaching creative writing strengthens our students’ writing while helping them become life-long writers:
1. Creative writing provides voice and choice
When we allow students to write creatively, we give them the freedom to imagine, to think deeply, and to dive into a discovery of themselves. Writing is thinking, and we often don’t even realize what we think until we put pen to paper.
At first, in creative writing workshops, some students will want prompts (which I believe we should avoid) and will balk at having to think for themselves — but with practice, they gain confidence in coming up with their own ideas and fleshing them out. Giving our students time to let their minds wander, to choose what they want to write about, and to develop their own unique voices is empowering.
Writing creatively not only allows students to explore their inner universe, but it also gives them the space to try out different genres and begin to discover the joy of writing. The more our students practice writing, the better they become at it. And the stronger they write, the more they’ll enjoy it. This is the positive cycle that engenders a love of writing.
2. Creative writing hones writing skills
When we take a break from writing literary analysis or compare-and-contrast essays and give our students time to write deeply about their inner life, we can focus on writer’s craft, teaching students how to include imagery, similes, and metaphors in their pieces. We can show them how to create sentences with rhythm and combine short, choppy sentences into complex sentences. We can teach them the power of a short sentence that stands alone. We can look at how word choice changes meaning, how switching adjectives out of order grabs the reader’s attention, and how the use of participles adds action to their description.
Because of the nature of creative writing, the lessons we teach focus more on the beauty of language than on structure. Once students master these techniques, they can also apply them to their essay writing, invigorating their work.
After a unit on memoir, in which we focused on using “snapshots” and “thoughtshots” and weaving simple sentences into complex sentences, one of my students wrote an incredible literary analysis essay. When I asked him about the improvement in his writing, he said, “When I wrote my memoir, I learned how to include important details that showed what I was thinking. So I tried to do that here. I also learned to play with sentences. I open another document, paste in some of my sentences, and then try writing them in different ways. It really works!”
3. Creative writing helps students see essays from a fresh perspective
Working on creative writing allows students to come back and look at their essays from a different angle.After taking a break and then circling back, I often hear students who were struggling say, “Ah, now I get it….” Sometimes the mind just needs a breather in order to come back stronger.
In her first draft of an essay on The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, one student wrote: “Charlie is a kind character who hides his feelings until he can’t stand it anymore. Then he explodes and reacts badly.”
After a creative writing unit, she wanted to go back and revise her essay. She rewrote her sentence like this: “Despite his kindness and wish to do good, Charlie tends to bottle up his feelings until they start to boil; when the pressure builds and the volcano finally erupts, it causes considerable damage.”
Both sentences are correct; they both support an idea in an essay. But which one actually grabs you and makes you want to keep reading? By rewriting her essay using her renewed sense of sentence structure and her developing mastery of literary devices and word choice, this student produced something she felt truly proud of.
Creative writing is the heart and soul of language arts
I’ve often heard people argue that “creative writing is a waste of time because very few of our students will become writers.” Granted, most probably won’t. But the skills students learn in creative writing can be transferred to every other kind of writing they do.
It’s important to remember that writing isn’t just about organizing one’s thoughts into an essay, it’s also about captivating the reader. There’s no point in teaching our students to write well-structured essays if no one wants to read them. Even though an essay may be perfectly well written, beautifully organized with a strong thesis statement and supporting details, it’s still the well-crafted sentence, and the compelling word choice and imagery that captures the reader’s attention.
Let’s infuse students with the joy of writing by occasionally stepping away from formulaic writing and allowing them to explore their souls and write with heart.
My favourite resources for Writer’s craft:
Wondrous Words by Katie Wood Ray – although this is written for elementary school, her lessons can easily be upgraded to secondary.
Image Grammar by Harry Noden – This book is chock full of mini-lesson ideas and activities to support them.
The Writing Thief by Ruth Culham
Craft Lessons by Ralph Fletcher
After the End by Barry Lane