In this article we take a look at what is meant by 'creative writing' and why it can be a useful tool in helping improve our students’ writing skills and overall level of English.
When I look up the word creative in the dictionary I find that it means 'involving a lot of imagination and new ideas' *. For me, most writing involves imagination and ideas (they might not all be new). But, in many instances writing is fairly formulaic: there is a particular structure, fairly rigid content and much of the language is predetermined. Just think of letter writing with set phrases such as Dear Sir/Madam, I’m writing to you …, I look forward to your reply, Yours sincerely. Even essays often have fixed patterns and discourse markers.
Firstly, let’s try and define exactly what we mean by creative writing (at least for the purposes of this article).
* Definition taken from the Macmillan Dictionary https://www.macmillandictionary.com/.
What is creative writing?
We have already mentioned the formulaic nature of things such as letters and essays. It is important to realise, though, that creative writing can also be formulaic: for example, a poem will often have a fairly rigid structure. Most limericks start with the opening phrase: There was a X from X. The number of lines, the number of syllables in each line and the rhyming patterns are all also more or less unvarying. Yet limericks are seen as creative writing whereas letters usually aren’t. So what makes a limerick creative?
The main difference here is that the possibilities of pushing these limits and boundaries are far more acceptable when writing a limerick than when writing a letter.
So, our definition of creative writing in this article will be: giving students the opportunity to push the boundaries.
Does anything go in creative writing?
No, not at all. Although many people think that you can do anything you want in creative writing, this is just not the case. Creative writing does not equal nonsense writing. In fact, it can be extremely organised and demand quite a high level of control of language in order for students to express precisely what they mean.
Why teach creative writing?
As we have seen, creative writing requires controlled use of language in order to express meaning. The main reason then to use it with your students is as a way of practising the language they have been learning. It equates very neatly with the idea of a free-practice stage in many lessons where the activities include role-plays, discussions, etc. Some of the best writing lessons I’ve had are when I ask my students to write a dramatic dialogue. Although there is a structure to the dialogues – turn taking, the need for statement/question, response patterning, etc – there is far more flexibility involved.
So, creative writing activities:
- give students a chance to practise language they have learnt during the lesson or course;
- give teachers the opportunity to see how well students can use language as opposed to regurgitating it;
- allow for imagination;
- are motivating and fun;
- are demanding in terms of language choice.
Do all students like creative writing?
No. Just as not all students enjoy learning grammar, listening activities, role-plays or any of the other activities we might do in class. However, just as with other tasks it is important that students understand why we are doing them and that the activities themselves are set up clearly. If we just expect our students to produce a piece of creative writing without any planning and lead-in then we are being unrealistic and will find that nine times out of ten it will fail.
Having said this, even the best planned activities might still not work with all our students. Some students find creative writing too demanding. They might prefer logical/mathematical type tasks or kinaesthetic activities.
Can creative writing help students who are taking exams?
Yes. A good example of this is the mini-saga activity outlined in the practical ideas section of this article. This type of activity is excellent practice for summary writing which often crops up in exams such as IELTS.
How do you set up creative writing activities?
There are two different approaches to setting up creative writing activities. The most common is to start with a reading approach. This means that students see model texts that demonstrate some of the features of a particular genre. Treating these texts as part of the presentation stage of the lesson – answering comprehension type questions, analysing the language (and structure where applicable), etc – will enable students to produce a better piece of work later on.
The other approach is for students to start by writing a piece of their own. This is a kind of ‘cold’ approach, or ‘throwing them in at the deep end.’ This approach relies on the fact that students will already have done the reading aspect beforehand and will therefore already be familiar with some of the conventions. For example, most people will have read some poetry at one time or another, even if only in their L1. Therefore, they should know some of the conventions for writing poetry and will be able to produce something.
Are there problems with either approach?
Yes. If, for example, students read a number of texts as ‘models’ it may be that they try to copy these. Quite clearly these copies will be weaker versions of the original and it defeats the creative aspect. In extreme circumstances it may even ‘block’ the students resulting in them producing nothing at all. On the other hand, having no models at all may mean that students don’t really know where to start.
Some practical ideas
A mini saga is a piece of writing exactly fifty words in length. The saga tells a story and should have a beginning, middle and end, and not just be a description of something.
A good way to start the actual writing process is to choose a topic or start with a key word or phrase. In the past I’ve used idioms such as A bird in the hand … or Let sleeping dogs lie with upper intermediate and advanced classes to stimulate ideas. At lower levels, I’ve used pictures or simply topics such as My birthday, Last weekend, The kiss. The key thing is that when you initially ask students to write a fifty-word paragraph or text, the task is achievable and they are happy to start. Later on they have to edit, check and rephrase and find that it isn’t as easy as they first thought. Mini sagas are a great way to practise summarising and also allow students to focus on accuracy. For more on mini sagas go to:
Limericks have been around for centuries – even Shakespeare wrote some – but were made popular by Edward Lear in the 19th century. Limericks are short rhyming poems containing five lines. Lines 1, 2 and 5 have between seven and ten syllables and rhyme with each other. Lines 3 and 4 have five to seven syllables and rhyme. To give your students examples just look on the internet as there are hundreds of sites containing limericks.
We often ask our students to write dialogues, especially as preparation for role-plays. In order to make them more creative (and dramatic) give your students a set of words or expressions that they should try and include in these dialogues. Or give them situations which, by their very nature, are dramatic, e.g:
You’re in a lift that has broken down. Have a phone conversation with the engineer.
Put students in pairs or small groups. Tell them they are going to write a short poem together. It might be a good idea to choose a topic or theme beforehand. Give one piece of paper and pen to each pair or group. Explain that one student will start by writing the first line, then hand the pen and paper to the next student who will write the second line. This carries on for a set time or length. To make it slightly harder you could say that lines 1 & 2 should rhyme and 3 & 4 and so on. Or lines 1 & 3 and 2 & 4.