Creative writing is writing about events in an imaginative way. Novels, plays, short stories and poems are some examples of creative writing. We often think creative writing can only be done by “experts” — that is, poets, playwrights and novelists. Interestingly, however, creative writing can actually be cultivated through classroom writing activities. Students learn to write creatively by reading and analysing the works of experienced writers and by writing stories, poems or plays of their own. This helps them to acquire both the language (vocabulary and structures) and narrative skills (making an interesting beginning, using dialogue skilfully, weaving in contemporary, everyday events to sound more natural, etc.) that they need.
This unit is about how you can promote creative writing amongst your students. It aims to help you and your students explore how a narrative can be developed into an interesting story, or how the words we use every day can be arranged into a rhyming poem. The unit should help you encourage your students to explore and write descriptions that appeal to the senses, arguments that are convincing and narratives that relate ordinary events in an extraordinary way. Your task is to help your students notice what makes the texts creative rather than a collection of ordinary factual information.
Upon completion of this unit you will be able to:
A short story is a short work of fiction that is usually written in prose, often in narrative format. This format or medium tends to tell a story in lesser detail than longer works of fiction, such as novels or books.
A novel is a long narrative in literary prose.
Drama is a type of fictional text that tells a story through dialogue between characters. Unlike novels, drama uses set directions in place of descriptions, and is divided into scenes and acts rather than chapters.
A comparison between two things (objects or events) made in an overt and obvious manner, using words such as like or as: As fast as the wind, majestic like a lion, etc.
The word metaphor is from the Greek meaning transport. A metaphor makes a comparison between two things (objects or events) by transferring the qualities of one to the other in a non-obvious manner. For example: he is lion-hearted/her mousy nature/the black sea. In the first example, the quality of bravery of a lion is transferred to the person, the second one transfers the timidity of a mouse to the girl’s character, and in the third example, black is used for its negative characteristics such as dirty, destructive and angry.
Teacher support information
Creative writing is considered to be any writing — fiction, poetry, non-fiction, drama. etc. — that falls outside the bounds of normal professional, journalistic, academic and technical forms of writing. Works in this category include novels, epics, short stories and poems (see Resource 1: Why and how to teach creative writing, and Resource 2: Kinds of creative writing). A creative writer often gives his or her readers pictures to see, sounds to hear, or things to taste, feel and smell. Note that creative writers look for words that help us to see and hear what they have seen, heard or imagined.
A writer can tell us about the things he or she has seen or imagined by using descriptive words such as shining, narrow, huge, small, glowing, etc. He or she may also use phrases or expressions like the road was a ribbon of moonlight, the wind was a torrent of darkness, his heart was jumping, etc. Expressions like these are called figures of speech.
A number of teaching techniques, including story retelling and shared writing, can help you develop your students’ creative writing skills. (See Resources 3a and b on shared writing).
In an effort to develop her students’ creative writing skills, Mrs Rweza, a secondary school teacher, decided to use the story re-telling technique. She prepared herself by reading several stories and picking one that she thought was suitable to read to her class.
During the creative writing lesson, she invited her class to listen carefully to the story. After the story was read, Mrs Rweza guided her students in discussing the important parts of the story. She used questions such as How does the story begin? What happens in the middle? What is the problem? What causes a problem? How does the story end? What are the descriptions of the characters in the story? Is the main character a hero, a villain or a victim? Who sorts out the problem?
Working in groups, the students also discussed and reached a consensus on what they would include or exclude if they were to reconstruct the story, and why.
At the end of the first lesson, Mrs Rweza asked the students to write their own version of the story as their home assignment.
In the next lesson the students discussed their stories with their partners. Then Mrs Rweza asked some students to present their stories to the class.
She was amazed by the descriptions, arguments and explanations that the students wrote. She realised that this was an effective strategy for developing creativity and imaginative thinking in students.
Points to ponder
Activity 1: Promoting creative writing through shared writing
Activity 2: Developing imagination
Present the following story to your class:
A short, thin man was standing in front of a big box. His big eyes were popping out and his mouth was full of saliva. He was thinking, “This is my catch! I will no longer be hungry, skinny and weak.”
Suddenly a large woman appeared from nowhere. She lifted the heavy box as if it were empty, and ran away with it as fast as the wind. Before the little man could say anything, two policemen came running up behind him and asked, “Have you seen a big box anywhere?”
He looked at the policemen and then turned around again, but the woman and the box had disappeared.
You can also use this technique to teach students to write different kinds of passages.
Activity 3: Writing a rhyming poem
Provide a selection of poems for your students and have a class discussion on what is special about them.
Your objective is to have your students identify points such as unusual combinations of words, use of rhyming words, special comparisons like similes and metaphors, and so on, with examples from the poems.
The students now need to practise using their imagination to compose something creatively. You can begin with simple activities such as making a list of rhyming words, then combining or using them in creative and unusual ways and making short verses with them.
As a first step, ask your students to write five words that end with the same sounds; for example, beat, eat, seat, heat, meat/set, net, bet, let, whet/hen, den, ten, wren, Zen.
Let the students use the words in interesting and usual expressions that describe something (object or action) creatively; for example, similes such as burning like heat or metaphors such as an icy sheet.
Guide the students in writing five short sentences that end with the rhyming words.
Guide the students in discussing in groups what appears to be special about their sentences.
As a homework assignment, ask your students to write two verses of a poem of their own.
This unit has familiarised you with the techniques of developing creative writing skills in your students. These techniques included retelling a story orally and in writing, as well as the process of shared writing. Your students will also have learned how to practise writing short stories and simple poems.
Resource 1: Why and how to teach creative writing
What is creative writing?
Creative writing is any composition — fiction, poetry, or non-fiction — that expresses ideas in an imaginative and unusual manner.
Creative texts are texts that are non-technical, non-academic and non-journalistic, and are read for pleasure rather than for information. In this sense, creative writing is a process-oriented term for what has been traditionally called literature, and includes novels, epics, short stories and poems. Creative texts may be descriptive, narrative or expository, based on personal experiences or popular topics. Any kind of writing that involves an imaginative portrayal of ideas can be called creative writing.
Why should we teach creative writing to students?
Creative writing sharpens students’ ability to express their thoughts clearly. It encourages them to think beyond the ordinary, and to use their imagination to express their ideas in their own way. Learning about creative writing also makes students familiar with literary terms and mechanisms such as sound patterns or metaphors. This, in turn, can help students to improve their command over the resources of language — for example, vocabulary, sentence patterns and metaphorical expressions — when composing their own creative work.
It has also been argued that creative writing helps develop critical thinking skills, as students learn to question and to “think outside the box.” The ability to evaluate a piece of literary work improves students’ problem-solving abilities too.
Approaches to teaching creative writing
The teaching of creative writing basically focuses on students’ self-expression. It is taught by taking students through a series of steps that demonstrate the process of writing. As a first step, students are introduced to a range of fictional and non-fictional texts, with their attention being drawn to the distinctive structural and linguistic features of each text. They are also sensitised to the purpose, audience and context for which specific texts are written. The students are then given practice in the use of linkers, connectives and other semantic markers that are used to connect and present ideas logically in a text. Typical semantic markers in narrative texts are words such as because, although, when, where, since and so on; they perform various functions in the text, such as showing time relationships, cause and effect relationships, conditions, sequence of events and so on. The students are then gradually taught to dramatise events by:
Lastly, students are helped to express more complex and layered meanings in stories that:
Resource 2: Kinds of creative writing
Creative writing usually includes descriptive, expository, narrative and argumentative texts.
In a descriptive text, a writer gives his or her readers pictures to see, sounds to hear, and things to taste, feel and smell. Expository writing defines, explains or describes how something is done or how something happens. A narrative describes an event chronologically, usually with a beginning, middle and end. An argument is intended to convince others of something or to persuade them to do something. The following are examples of different types of creative texts.
A sample descriptive passage
Soil is a dynamic medium in which many chemical, physical and biological activities constantly occur. Soil is a result of decay, but it is also a medium for growth. The characteristics of soil change in different seasons. It may alternately be cold or warm, and dry or moist. When the soil becomes too cold or too dry, biological activity becomes slow, or stops altogether. Biological activity speeds up when leaves fall or grasses die. Soil chemistry thus changes according to season, and the soil adjusts to different climatic conditions, temperature fluctuations and the amount of moisture in the atmosphere.
A sample narrative passage
When I was a child I always wanted a dog, but my mother refused, saying she didn’t have time to look after it and we didn’t have space for a dog to run around. When I was 14 we moved to a bigger house with a big garden, but Mother still refused to let me have a dog. One day a friend of ours brought us a puppy that he’d found abandoned by the side of the road. He was adorable! He had big brown eyes, velvety ears and a happy smile. I pleaded with Mother to keep him. Eventually she gave in to my promises of looking after the dog, working hard at school and taking on extra chores.
I called the dog Murphy. He was very loving but also very energetic and I found that I had to spend two hours a day running with him and playing with him. One day he escaped out of the garden and killed our neighbours’ chicken. I felt ill with anxiety in case Mother made me give him away — or worse, have him put down. Luckily our neighbours loved dogs and told us not to worry about it. They asked only that Murphy not be allowed to escape from the house again. We promised that we’d do our absolute best to make sure he didn’t sneak out and cause more trouble.
One day, when I was 19, I came home to find Mother sobbing. Murphy had spotted a cat in the street and had squeezed out of an open window to chase after it. In his excitement he didn’t see a car coming. The driver didn’t have time to stop and he hit Murphy. Our only consolation was that Murphy died instantly and didn’t suffer. I was surprised by how upset Mother was by Murphy’s death. She always said she hadn’t wanted a dog but when he died she was the one who seemed to miss him most.
(Written by Lesley Cameron, Maple Ridge, Canada)
A sample expository passage
The settlement of Liberia was founded in 1822 by freed blacks from the United States of America. It was organized by the American Colonization Society—a body of white Americans who believed the increasing number of freed blacks in the southern states was a danger to the maintenance of other blacks in slavery. Representatives of the Colonization Society forced local African chiefs in the Cape Mesurado area to sell them land by threatening them at gunpoint. In the decade that followed, further settlements of freed blacks from America were made along the coastline from Cape Palmas to Sherbo island.
Though originally organized by American whites, educated blacks soon took over administration of the settlement. In 1847 they declared their colony the independent republic of “Liberia.” (The name was derived from the Latin word liber, meaning “free,” from which are also derived a number of English words such as “liberty” and “liberal.”) It had a constitution modelled on that of the United States and its capital, Monrovia was named after the American president, Monroe.
(Excerpted from History of Africa by Kevin Shillington (p. 241), from the website north.mpls.k12.mn.us/uploads/2010_03_19_liberia_qs.doc)
A sample argumentative passage
Capital punishment: Is the death penalty effective?
Imagine a good friend of yours. Better yet, imagine a loved one, perhaps a little brother or sister or son or daughter. Now try to imagine life without them, simply because someone took away their life, and the murderer thought that they were above the law. What if someone took the life of your child or loved one? What are we to do about the person(s), such as these murderers who decide that they can take a loved one's life? Obviously, anyone who takes one's life, other than in self defense, should not ever be let out into everyday society to function in everyday life. Those that prey on the weak will always prey on them. A majority of those convicted and sentenced to capital punishment have been found to be "repeat offenders that continually prey on the weak and innocent”.
* Thirty-seven out of fifty (37 of 50) states in America currently hold laws authorizing the death penalty.
* Currently there are more than 2000 people on death row.
* Because of various legal interferences, a majority of executions will be stalled.
One argument cited against capital punishment is the deterrence factor, which is the likeliness of someone not to commit a crime as a result of being aware of the consequences of the crime. But many argue that the death penalty does not deter. Punishment is socially valuable because it deters criminals from repeating their crimes and may keep others from repeating the same acts. If the deterring effect misses its point, it is the fault of the justice system. At its current standing, the system is viewed as a joke because no one takes it seriously. Both the lengthy time and the high expense that result from innumerable appeals, including many technicalities which have little nothing to do with the question of guilt or innocence, have made everyone make fun of the justice system. If the wasteful amount of appeals were eliminated or at least controlled, the procedure would be much shorter, less expensive and more efficient.
Many argue that the death penalty violates human rights. Yet they do not question the reason or action that got the convict on death row in the first place. Every person has an equal right to life, "until they take another's life, then all bets are off”. Society does not understand that when a convict on death row is executed it is because they themselves took some innocent person's life. The only impression given about the death penalty should be the fact that murder is a crime punishable by death. The main purpose here is to instil fear in other people, to show that this will not be tolerated and that justice comes first, always.
(Adapted from "Free Capital Punishment Essays — Is the Death Penalty Effective?" http://www.123HelpMe.com/view.asp?id=10284)
Resource 3a: Using shared writing
The point of using a shared writing strategy is to make the writing process a shared experience, making it visible and concrete while inviting students into the writer’s world in a safe, supportive environment. At the same time, it gives teachers the opportunity of direct teaching of key skills, concepts and processes. All aspects of the writing process are modelled, although not always all at once. At the lower grade levels especially, teachers can concentrate on one or two key aspects of writing in short, focused lessons.
Using student input, the teacher guides the group in brainstorming ideas and selecting a topic. As a group, they talk about topics, audience, purpose, details they will include and other considerations. As the group composes the text, the teacher asks probing questions to bring out more detail and to help students make their writing more interesting and meaningful. The tone of this discussion should be collaborative rather than directive. The teacher might say something like, I wonder if we should add more details here. How might we do that? rather than We need to add more details here.
While some pieces will be short and completed in one lesson, others will be longer and may continue through several days’ lessons. This allows students to see that writing can be an extended, ongoing process, and it also allows the teacher to train the students to look at their work critically through strategies such as the periodic re-reading of one’s work before resuming writing and completing the composition. Some teachers include a few well-chosen, purposeful errors during drafting to facilitate the later editing stage.
Writing with the class or group, the teacher also has an opportunity to highlight and model the revision process, helping students add to or take away from their text. The group may also decide to change words, text order or other aspects of the writing to achieve their intended meaning. The teacher will often ask questions to help the students focus on communicating their message clearly and concisely. If needed, the teacher can help guide the group in adding detail, taking away unnecessary and confusing words or passages, or changing the structure of the text to clarify meaning.
The teacher can also use the shared writing strategy for editing text and focusing on mechanics and conventions such as spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and grammar. The structure of the text — that is, paragraph division etc. — is also a focus in this stage, as it is in the drafting and revising stages.
Resource 3b: Using the shared writing technique in class
Start by drawing on previous knowledge of stories and wondering/ brainstorming what kind of stories and characters the students like. (In shared writing, to wonder constantly is a strategy for fulfilling the most important function of the activity: to encourage and shape the students’ ideas about how they might express themselves best, and then how it will be written down, as in a book or on paper.)
When a consensus is reached about the type of story — for example, the class likes stories about animals — the class must then choose a character — for example, a cow.
Then the students should think of what exciting event will happen to this cow. They should agree on the event; for example, the cow gets lost in a forest. They should choose this event from all the ideas put forward by the students. This is another important lesson for students when writing creatively — many ideas are generated but only some can be selected and followed up.
Split the students into five mixed-ability groups. The groups take turns to help compose a part of the story and to illustrate their pages. This allows the students to focus their attention on the various elements of the structure of the story as they work through it.
All this shaping and teaching is done through the teacher “wondering.” The development of the setting, opening and resolution occur as the writing occurs. Working with small groups gives the teacher the opportunity to emphasise story coherence — the way each part follows from, develops or resolves what has gone before. Re-reading the story is important to assess whether it makes sense and to ensure that each contribution fits in.
Resource 4: Sample process of shared writing
Step 1: Introducing the main character
The cow lived in a village near the Serengeti National Park.
Step 2: Some events leading up to a complication
The cow jumped over the fence.
Step 3: More complications
It ran away to the forest that surrounded the village.
Step 4: Wondering
Wonder how we could make the ideas sound like a book. Did the cow try to get back to the village? Did anyone see the cow and try to bring it back? Or did the cow get lost?
Step 5: A new complication
The cow met a lion.
Step 6: The complication is developed through as a series of obstacles arise
The lion roared.
The cow cried “moo” and tried to run away.
The cow ran deeper into the forest and jumped into a river.
It saw a crocodile.
Step 10: Beginning of the resolution
The cow jumped out of the water.
The cow wanted to go home.
Step 12: Possibility of a solution
It saw a bus and wanted to get into the bus.
Step 13: Unforeseen obstacles get in the way
The bus driver told it off because cows were not allowed on buses.
Step 14: Solution
The cow ran home.
Teacher question and answer
Question: When I ask students to use their imaginations and creative abilities to compose something, I find they simply copy passages from prose or poetry texts they have. How can I motivate them to think on their own?
Answer: One of the reasons students feel anxious about producing their own texts is because we test them rather than teach them composition. For example, we say Write an essay on such and such a topic/Write a poem and bring it to class tomorrow without showing them how this is to be done. The activities described above try to address this problem by taking students through the process of creative writing, beginning from the formulation of ideas to making a draft. If you follow this strategy in the class and take students through a step-by-step demonstration, their inhibitions will gradually disappear.