Thursday, March 15, 2007

Teaching Creative Writing

March 15, 2007

Creative writing is definitely one of those areas in which parents struggle teaching. I can see why. There is a plethora of dull, lifeless material out there in Curriculum World. Kids are cross-eyed with frustration after spending thirty minutes staring at a candle, struggling to find creative ways to describe it. (Yes, this was an actual creative writing assignment in a popular curriculum.) Candles schmandels. Kids deserve to love words, and describing a stick of wax does not promote a love of words.

Because I teach creative writing classes for our local support group, I am often asked by a parent for my thoughts on a particular writing curriculum. I've perused about a dozen of the myriad creative writing options out there. I can say that most of these are very similar in approach, so you could probably go with any of them and provide an adequate creative writing foundation.

However, I'm all for moving beyond adequate, so I'll give some suggestions as to how to make creative writing a more exciting experience. Warning: some teacher preparation will be required for this!

First of all, this is a good time to reiterate that nothing will prepare your children to be good writers better than to fill their hands and heads with good books. Read to them every day. We have literally been reading to our children from the day we brought them home from the hospital. I’m sure Jesse didn’t understand much of Western Civilization or The Journal of Systematic Botany when he was 48-hours old, but he did hear words and language and the cadence of our voices. I can’t imagine a day going by when we don’t read at the very least a chapter of a current book to the kids. [Note: We don’t read aloud to our teenager anymore in the evening, but I do Sonlight read-alouds every day. The younger two get a full dose of Sonlight read-alouds during the day and their own chapter books at bedtime.]

So, first of all, don’t expect your kids to understand how to write creatively if you aren’t reading aloud to them--or if they aren't reading books themselves. Next: a problem that I have found across the board with creative writing guides is that they try to put writing into a box: here's how we write a story, here's how we write a form poem, here's how we write about ourselves. Now while these are the three basic genres of creative writing (fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction), a whole lot of other good stuff is waiting anxiously just between the lines.

The best book I've found so far is a little gem called If You’re Trying to Teach Kids to Write, You’ve Gotta Have This Book! by Marjorie Frank. This book is absolutely packed with fun writing exercises. It will take you some time to go through the book yourself and pick exercises, but it is well worth it. Two other books I like are WordPlay CafĂ© by Michael Kline and Kids Write by Rebecca Olien. (And since I'm often asked, if I were going to pick any one creative writing program, other than creating my own, it would be the Bravewriter program. I like what I see there.)

Drawing from ideas in the books above, you can then create your own creative writing curriculum. You can take a page or idea each week and easily have a year’s worth of really stimulating creative writing exercises. I'm not talking about sentence structure, paragraphs and essays. I'm talking about letting your kids explore creatively with words and language. I know that may sound daunting, so let me give you some specifics.

* One day a week, have an actual lesson in creative writing. Start at the beginning—with words. Explain that all writing is made up of words. Make a list of words that sound really interesting: sassafras, oozing, buttery. Be word collectors. Try putting words together in odd ways, such as “The oozing sassafras sleeked and slithered onto the buttery Birkenstock.” Read "Jabberwocky." Encourage your kids to collect words that they like throughout the week. (You might post this in a central location, like the refrigerator.) Your kids will start thinking about words. That is step one. They need to learn to appreciate and really get to know words intimately.

* The next week, talk about synonyms and adjectives. Give them a list of “bad words” that they absolutely cannot use: big, good, nice, pretty, small, very, cool, went, said. Have them make posters OUTLAWING those words (like a “no smoking” sign with the word crossed out). Encourage them to think of more descriptive words, and fill those in around the poster. For example, instead of “said,” they can write, “chattered,” “shrieked,” “whispered,” etc. This is a good time to introduce them to the thesaurus.

*The next week, talk about strong verbs. Have them come up with exciting words for everyday words, such as eat (e.g., gobble), walk (e.g., lumber), and talk (e.g., chatter). Try to get them to outdo each other (and you) by coming up with outrageous words for simple actions. Look for poems with strong verbs, or find examples is stories where the author chose to use a word like “tiptoe” instead of “walk.”

* The next week, teach them how to turn boring sentences into exciting ones using adjectives and strong verbs. This has been a favorite exercise for all my writing classes: take a sentence like "She ate dinner" and turn it into "The headstrong acrobat insisted upon slurping her spaghetti upside down." Make up lots of sentences and expand them together. (Did I mention yet that Mom or Dad should be doing this with the kids?) In class recently we turned “The man went to the city” into “The aging rock star rode his psychedelic tour bus into Chicago for his final performance.” Come back to this exercise again and again. They love this.

So there are just a few sample lessons, but add this to the above:

1. In addition to your one-day-a-week short lesson, let your child pick out a writing journal. Then get your kids to write in it at least 3 days a week by giving short writing prompts. Start small. Let's say that you are beginning with adjectives (and this is a very good place to begin). Give an assignment Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, such as: On Tuesday, write three words to describe your brother, three words to describe the smell of your dirty laundry, and three words to describe the taste of the color orange. Follow a pattern like this for those three days. (If your kids are older than 3rd grade, increase the number of required adjectives if necessary.)
The options for writing prompts are limitless. Your writing prompts could be lists: List 10 ways to catch an armadillo; list the top ten things you'd like to do on a rainy day; list 10 ingredients in elephant pie.
Here are just a few sites for writing prompts. I’d recommend wading through and finding the most exciting prompts—and some I would avoid completely (such as, “what do you dislike about yourself?”):
The Teachers' Corner
Can Teach Prompts
Writing Fix
Daily Writing Ideas
Journal Writing
Ed Helper

2. Share your work. This is a VERY important part of the process. Mom (or Dad) needs to do this, too. Sit down with your kids and do the assignment, too. Then share your work! There is something immensely gratifying to a child to get to share his writing in this way. I can't explain it, but I have seen it work again and again. Even if you decide to stick with a traditional writing program, YOU should do the work, too, and share your writing with your child.

3. Consider a traveling mascot. In my creative writing classes, we have a special friend who goes home with a different child each week. This session it is Philip the Frog, a plastic tree frog. The lucky student takes home Philip and the notebook, and their job is to record Philip’s adventures at their house. I’ve had students take photos of Philip’s week, and I even had a girl send Philip to Chicago with her father on a business trip! You can easily translate this into your own family. Find a special critter. Encourage your child to take the Critter with him to various activities and to write from that Critter’s perspective. Parents should do this, too. So, one week can be the child’s week (rotate through the kids if you have more than one), the next week mom, then dad, etc. You could even send the critter to grandparents and ask them to write about the critter’s week with them.

4. Don’t worry about grammar and spelling. Please, please don’t stifle their creativity for a misspelled word! There are plenty of other opportunities for correction.

There isn’t anything inherently wrong with books that teach creative writing. It’s just that most of them are dull and much too often kids begin to dread writing because of boring assignments. Kids are often terribly upset with their moms for signing them up for my creative writing class. Their mothers tell me that they hate writing. Usually by the second week of classes, these kids are practically jumping out of their seats to get to read their journal writings and assignments aloud in class. My main point in all of this is that you can make creative writing more exciting by venturing outside the traditional books. Creative writers must first learn to love language, and that first step is too frequently neglected in guidebooks. As the poet William Cowper once penned, “Variety's the very spice of life, That gives it all its flavor.” If your kids are struggling with creative writing, check out the books I listed above. Search the internet for “how to teach creative writing.” Don’t rely on some “approved” curriculum provider’s crummy guide. If you take the time to give them just one fun lesson a week, you’ll change their view on writing creatively—and you’ll get your own creative juices flowing, as well.


Thursday, March 15, 2007 - You are awesome!!!
Posted by sharonkay (IP Not Logged)
I appreciate you taking the time to put all those helpful hints down for those of us who are writing-challenged! And not just hints, but wonderful advice from a respected writer and a grown-up who is amazingly gifted at verbal and written expression! Thanks for giving!

Thursday, March 15, 2007 - WOW
Posted by BeckyB (IP Not Logged)
This is just where we are right now!!! I NEEDED HELP!!!! I gave my boys an assignment - saw what they did - and thought, "What am I doing wrong??" So - I'm saving this and reading and re-reading and going to go looking at the books you suggested!! Thank you!!!

Thursday, March 15, 2007 - Untitled Comment
Posted by kateyz (IP Not Logged)
When Billy was tiny I read to him all the time, from the newspaper and magazines. I figured at such a young age, content didn't matter as much as the sound of my voice.
Thanks for the creative writing ideas, it's definitely an area we struggle in.

Friday, March 16, 2007 - YES!!
Posted by debbiecorley (IP Not Logged)
Amen! I totally agree with everything you stated here. I have used this approach with my kids and it is proving to have paid off. We are also avid readers, which I agree makes all the difference.

Davis is now in eighth grade and is quite a good writer. I wanted to make sure I wasn't just biased, so I enrolled him in a (Co-op) Compostion class. This teacher claims to be tough, but so far Davis has loved being in her class, and has gotten A's and a few B's on his writing assignments. We have used some of the books you mentioned, and I agree that a love of writing will flow out of a positive experience... and from lots of reading.

We have been quite light on formal grammar until now. I admit that I am learning right along with Davis. My education is definately lacking in that area!

My 5th grader still has a lot to learn about mechanics, but she likes to tell stories, so I just let her go. When I feel it is necessary, I will help her to "bone up" on her grammar issues as well.

Thanks for the links. I will check them out. It's always fun to find something new.

Thanks for your enthusiasm, too, It's encouraging to have someone else "sing my song" once in a while, and to remind me that I do have a plan.... and I am not just a Loony Toon!

Friday, March 16, 2007 - Untitled Comment
Posted by hsmomof2 (IP Not Logged)
Oh, this is fabulous, a keeper. And it should be in the next Carnival of Homeschooling.

Friday, March 16, 2007 - Wow-thanks!
Posted by Glory (IP Not Logged)
You make creative writing sound quite do-able! My oldest dd(10) loves to write, but I think your ideas would knock her socks off!

Sunday, March 18, 2007 - Excellent suggestions!
Posted by recon77 (IP Not Logged)
I think Sarah that your suggestions were excellent. First, I would agree is to have your children read, read, read, and read to them. Also, I think the quality of writings has to be closely evaluated and of the highest caliper. I think that both morally and creatively it should all be there.

Challenge their vocabulary levels. Read Chesterton to them and some Shakespeare, at the right points. IOW, lots of variety.

Then, I would also agree, have them daily journal or nowadays start a blog.

Love of the language can develop IF they have challenging books such as Sayers and others that stretch the English vocabulary.

I would also encourage possible online collaborative writings with other people using Google Writely.

Also, like in Finding Forester, sometimes they should be encouraged not to think but just to start typing (if they are at that age). Sometimes, the mechanical act of typing/writing is what spawns creativity itself.

Monday, March 19, 2007 - Untitled Comment
Posted by chickadee (IP Not Logged)
i need to bookmark this post it has so much good information in it. i should actually print it out!

Wednesday, March 21, 2007 - Writing Woes
Posted by Anonymous (IP Not Logged)
You must have been channeling my frustration because creative writing is anything but creative in my house! We do well for short bursts of time and then lapse back into boredom.

Great ideas...I recommend the sharing your writing advice. It does work!

Wednesday, March 21, 2007 - Untitled Comment
Posted by mom at (IP Not Logged)
I loved this post! I want you to be MY creative writing teacher. I want you to make me a list of writing prompts, and a week by week creative writing lesson plan. Better yet, I want you to come to my house and do this FOR And yet...every time I read about creative writing and the concept of regular journal writing comes up, my heart flops over and slithers dejectedly over my liver and past my spleen and lands with a half-hearted plop somewhere in the vicinity of my left little toe, moaning, "It'll NEEEVER work!" My son won't write. He WON'T write. Especially not in a journal (I even tried calling it something more fun, but he was onto me qucker'n a hungry flea on a dawg--and it wasn't purty). He will sometimes fill in blanks in workbooks, but only with the very least words he can possibly get away with. He will literally spend half an hour trying to figure out how to say it in three words instead of four. He was in a 'real' school for four years. Four "professional" teachers, two one-on-one technicians, an occupational therapist, a speech pathologist, a school psychiatrist, a special education teacher, and the district autism team could not make my son write regularly to prompts in a journal--despite his high IQ and obviously precocious vocabulary. So, shoot, woman! Fabulous ideas, if only they'd work!

HOWEVER, I love the idea of starting with just great words. And I'm going to give that a shot. THANKYOU so much for the idea. At least it's a direction to go in.

Thursday, March 22, 2007 - This is fantastic advice!
Posted by ComfyDenim (IP Not Logged)
I'm copying and pasting it into an e-mail and e-mailing it to myself. :-) I've been wondering how I can get Mini-Me past her simple sentences and then I stumbled across this today. Thank you so much for sharing all your wisdom!!


  1. AMAZING advice!!! I have a 6th grade boy who actually enjoys free-writing, but there hasn't been much improvement in his writing skills over the years and I wasn't sure how to teach writing without killing the enjoyment! These are AMAZING tips and I cannot WAIT to get started!!! Thank you so much for sharing! You have NO idea what a blessing this is!

  2. Thank you SO much! I LOVE to write but have never been in a class with writing prompts, or the idea of loving words presented (which I do). How fun! I am going to start on this tomorrow with my 3 oldest kids. (11, 10 & 8). Thank you for posting this online!

    1. Sounds like you will enjoy the writing prompts right along with your kids!

  3. I was wondering if you could help with something. I am teaching at a homeschool co-op for the first time, weve never even attended a co-op. My little ones are still very little (3 and 6m) so I dont have a whole lot of teaching writing experience. I will be teaching a creative writing class for 3-5. Since we only meet one day a week, for 10 weeks, can you suggest what you would choose to cover? I thought about doing some fun things, like biographies of other students, advertising, interviewing, etc. Any suggestions would be GREATLY appreciated.
    (ps if you would rather email my email is

  4. Hi Sarah!

    I started the "loving words" lessons with my kids. We wrote them all on the white board in our school room. The kids loved it and even Daddy added a word at the end of the week! With our wide age range, 6-11, we had every thing from ding-dong to archaeology and I added Autumnal Equinox and Daddy added pneumatic.

    Today we did the "bad words" lesson and found SO many new fun words to use in place of the common words. I was surprised to see how easy it was to come up with other words for "said". We had been using a readers to teach phonics to the younger kids and all they ever used was "said" or "cried". Bellowed and announced are 2 of our new favorites. I can't wait for the kids to write in their journals and hopefully use some of these words!


  5. Just discovered this...THANK YOU SO MUCH!

  6. I love writing and am teaching it this year to a variety of grades. You have compiled some really great advice, thank you for sharing your tips on creative writing :)


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