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!

Brainstorm, Revise, Rinse, Repeat

Literacy theorist Anne Berthoff wrote in her classic article “Recognition, Representation, and Revision” (1981) that instead of supporting a view of revision as a one-off fix for an essay’s problems, faculty “can learn to teach revision as itself a way of composing if we consider it analogous to acts of mind whereby we make sense of the world” (19). My version of this as an undergraduate, and still to this day as a doctoral candidate, is to either print out different drafts of the paper and mark them up in pen, or create different electronic files that reflect the different drafts I’ve already written. The changes become visualized and also evolve, with the potential of a new draft never removed from the possibility of looking back at previous one.

Berthoff expands on this, calling revision not a “definite phase, a penultimate stage, but […] a dimension of composing. Revision is, indeed, re-seeing and it goes on continually in the composing process” (20-21). Revision, then, is continuous and is more than fixing. I’d like to frame brainstorming the same way: rather than a quick activity in which we think of possible ideas and then move on to the actual writing, brainstorming happens throughout the process of writing an essay. It’s continuous and it, too, is a way of making sense of the world, in the frame of ideas.

The traditional way of offering brainstorming as a writing tool is to have students make a list at the very beginning of the writing process. Sometimes brainstorming involves drawing a picture. And sometimes involves sharing ideas with others: swapping ideas in order to help each other narrow down a potential topic for an essay. It doesn’t, however, stop there. Students repeat the same processes when they are choosing supporting points, when they are delving into their research to find evidence, and even when they are formulating their conclusion. By acknowledging this continuity, we can help students take some of the pressure off of the front end of idea-generation, and remind them that there are many chances throughout the process of writing an essay to shape and reshape their own ideas.

Revision, too, is often framed is more of a definitive step then the way I want to consider it or the way Berthoff wants to consider it. Instead, students revise over and over, even before the official revision process is a shared in, that is, between draft one and draft two, for example. The closer they get to the final form of their thesis and supporting paragraphs, the more they are revising. Some of it happens in their head and some of it happens on the page.

Brainstorming and revision are entwined creative processes that students repeat again and again in the course of writing an essay. They work together as students write, refine, expand, and support their original ideas, and they can help to reduce the very real anxiety many students feel around formal writing. Particularly for beginning writers, the idea of producing a final version of the paper for a professor, for a grade, can be very intimidating. Participating in the writing process is always to brainstorm and always to revise, in a very continuous manner, and in a way that’s pressure-relieving. And emphasizing the ongoing nature of brainstorming and revision helps to keep students invested in and excited by their ideas, and emphasizing ongoing revision helps empower students to make changes as they go rather than leaving it all to the end.

One of the tenets of writing that most of us who have been doing it for a while know from experience is that it’s never really finished, just as Berthoff intuits. As writing teachers, we tend to avoid talking too much about that aspect with students, so that they are encouraged to get to a (necessary!) stopping point, but it’s as true for them as it is for us. The continuity of brainstorming and revision, just like the reality of never-ending edits (or at least the never-ending desire to edit) is part of the ongoing process of refining ideas, pushing past feelings, critically reviewing messy paragraphs, letting other people help, and, finally, sending something in and moving on to the next project.

Works Cited

Berthoff, Ann E. “Recognition, Representation, and Revision.” Journal of Basic Writing 3, no. 3 (1981): 19-32.

Writing Through Blocks

Students have many feelings about writing, from the whole range available to them. Many students have several feelings, ranging from intrigue to enjoyment to anxiety to fear. Sometimes it’s not even clear what feelings they’re having. In every class I teach, I make sure to mention that it’s possible to have any number of feelings about writing, sometimes many at once, and that they can change on a dime. I make sure to mention that advanced graduate students and faculty share their feelings, both good and bad. I make sure to say that as much as I love writing, sometimes I also hate it. Hating it doesn’t negate that love; it just goes alongside it for a while.

Even writer’s block, as a concept and as a phrase, is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy that can bring out a whole host of feelings about writing. It can inspire frustration in beginning writers even when they didn’t initially sense it. (The word “deadline” works similarly.) It can also help name a very real experience, though; sometimes naming things makes them easier to handle. I talk to my classes very openly about that feeling of not knowing what to write, or not knowing which word to use, or judging one’s own ideas before they even get down on paper. I remind them that part of the challenge of college writing is being able to come up with an effective, supported argument that responds to the assignment’s parameters. It doesn’t also have to be the be-all, end-all of their scholarly output. If it were, I’d worry I didn’t have anything more to teach them.

So how can you help students in your classroom who might be handling a variety of feelings about writing and struggling with different versions of writer’s block?

Scaffold the assignment. Scaffolding is a central principle of WAC pedagogy because, just like with a building under construction, it supports an in-progress piece of writing by instituting steps to the finish line. It gives you as an instructor the chance to make sure that students understand those steps, from pre-writing to constructing a thesis statement to outlining an argument to producing a rough draft. It also helps avoid procrastination and last-minute scrambling on the part of students.

Visualize. Another great way to get students to set aside their anxiety, or to lean into it, is to use Sondra Perl’s “Guidelines for Composing” are a time-honored meditation exercise in acknowledging the complex mix of feelings writing can inspire. The full Guidelines are a series of twelve instructions, prompts, and questions. The gloss that Perl wrote is:

  • Relax, stretch, clear your mind, try to attend quietly to what’s inside–and note any distractions or feelings that may be preventing you from writing.
  • Start with a list of things you could write about. Often we can’t find what we really want to write about till the third or fourth item–or not till that subtle after–question, “Is there something else I might have forgotten?”
  • As you are writing, periodically pause and look to that felt sense somewhere inside you—that feeling, image, or word that somehow represents what you are trying to get at—and ask whether your writing is really getting at it. This comparing or checking back (“Is this it?”) will often lead to a productive “shift” in your mind (“Oh, now I see what it is I want to say”).
  • Finally, toward the end, ask, “What’s this all about? Where does this writing seem to be trying to go?” And especially ask, “What’s missing? What haven’t I written about?”

The full Guidelines are available here.

Freewrite in class. As part of your scaffolding, set aside some time at the beginning or end of a class session and have them jot down ideas. As with any freewrite, instruct them to keep their pen moving on the page, even if their sentences verge away from the paper topic. The next week, adapting Perl’s “Guidelines,” have them freewrite about one of those ideas. (You shouldn’t need more than ten minutes for either phase of this exercise in a given class session.)

Draw. Sometimes the best way to figure out ideas and words is to take the words out altogether. When students are in their head about whether their ideas are good enough and whether their sentences are strong enough, just letting them mind map or draw or even doodle can help pull them out of their anxiety and into their creativity.

Blog. Sharing ideas in writing can be less anxiety-producing in community. If students think about their audience as broader than just their professor, sometimes they are less inclined to try to please, or to write what you what they think you think they should write. Pre-writing or brainstorming in blog form has the added benefit of allowing students to give feedback to each other. Although peer review has the same effect, the added benefit of blog commenting is that it puts students’ work into a different kind of audience framework.