Making Writing Creative

A discipline unto itself, creative writing is often sharply distinguished from formal writing. Writing practices in English classes and creative writing classes can differ, and the element of creativity is not as often encouraged in the former as it is in the latter. In these musings, I’d like to dispense with that division straight away, since all writing is creative, at its core. WAC’s mandate to increase the amount of writing in courses across disciplines allows the specific ways that happens to be up to the individual faculty member. In this way, even the integration of more writing can be a creative process for faculty and students. As we find ourselves nearing the close of another semester, encouraging students to embrace the creativity in writing can be really generative for final assignment preparation.

In my writing classes, I use freewriting as the first front of creativity. I tell my students that they should feel free to write it in another language if they know one, or add drawings. The most important part of freewriting is not the ideas it generates (since sometimes it doesn’t generate much) but the practice of writing words or symbols down on the page and waiting and seeing what happens. My instructions get more necessarily circumscribed with guided freewrites, in which students freewrite to a prompt and hand their writing in to me, but even then, I encourage them to keep their minds open and try not to worry about what they think I will think.

As I wrote in my Writing Through Blocks post last semester, visualizing and drawing are two other reliable ways to get students’ creativity flowing. Space-permitting, another really simple one is providing them with opportunities to move around the room. If your classroom is small or if students have limited mobility, simply having them close their eyes and shake out their hands or feet can recalibrate their thoughts and open their minds. (It works really well for faculty who might feel stuck, too!)

Finally, a great way to incorporate creative principles into formal writing assignments is to start by redefining for yourself what a formal assignment has to be and leaving more room within it for creativity: I call this a deconstructed assignment. If your final assignment is typically a paper, what elements of that paper are most important for your students to produce? Can you integrate other kinds of skills or opportunities for expression into the assignment alongside those deconstructed elements? My favorite deconstructed assignment that I’ve developed is one I call an annotated mixtape. It was the final assignment for an introductory composition course that I themed around rock music, ending a sequence that included a traditional analytical paper and required revision, a research video project, and an annotated bibliography. I made the prompt short and open on purpose, to leave students a lot of room to play:

For this project, you will assess all of what you have learned this semester. You must gather at least six songs and annotate each of them with a three-paragraph piece that includes your personal observations and research (from sources we haven’t read). Of these sources, at least four must be scholarly. You must also write a three-page written response showing how your learning this semester affected your thinking in the project.

As usual when I collect deconstructed assignments, my students blew me away. The at-once personal, analytical, lyrical, and feeling-ful ways they wrote about the songs they chose gave them a chance to express themselves and gave me a chance to get to know them even better while being able to assess what they had learned during the semester from their meta response. Each one was a joy to read and I learned so many new things, broadening my own creativity in ways I didn’t initially expect!

If you do design new assignments using any of these (or other) principles, we’d love to hear about in the comments or via email!

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