Before we start, I want to mention that we’ve covered some of this subject in my podcast, Writing Excuses. For instance, one of the podcasts tagged “Education” is called “Do Creative Writing Classes Really Help?” You may find other episodes that can answer questions that may arise while you are teaching. You may also be able to find specific episodes that you would like to assign your students.
Help them learn to read
I would actually suggest that you use reading to launch into your writing workshop. Find out what the students like to read, what they really enjoy.
My colleagues and I often talk about “reluctant readers”. These may be children and young adults (often boys) who have gone through life reading only what is required of them. They haven’t found something that sparks their interest, something that causes them to read for their own enjoyment. A goal that we should have as educators is to reach out to these reluctant readers and help them to discover the joy of the written word for themselves.
I think often times educators assign books for their curriculum that are worthy, literary works, that certainly have value and appeal to some. However these works may fail to draw in the reluctant readers and they get by without enjoying them. Since this is their only exposure to reading, they may be less likely to read of their own will.
Harry Potter was a series that helped a lot of children discover the joy of reading. It drew in a lot of reluctant readers. Other series have done the same thing. They have been successful because they market themselves to a wider range of interests. That being said, not everyone enjoyed Harry Potter or those other series. It is important to discover what each person likes to read.
So the next question may be, how do you help individual readers discover what they like to read if they haven’t read much and may even be adverse to it? The answer is to discover their interests and then help them to find those interests in books. Almost everyone uses stories as a part of their entertainment. If they don’t like to read, maybe they like to watch movies or TV. Find out what they like to watch, focusing on the types of plots and story lines that they enjoy, perhaps even what types of characters they like. Then, help them find a book that is accessible to them. Find a book that matches their reading level and interest, perhaps a book that is quick paced, a book with a lot of action, or a book that matches their humor. Perhaps a book that deals with types of characters they like, whether the characters are funny, romantic, wise, powerful, etc.
Once the students start reading, they are already teaching themselves how to write. They are learning how characters and plots work; they are getting exposure to written dialog and description. Continuous reading is essential for someone to improve their writing. If they start closely mirroring the characters, plot, or other story elements from their favorite books that is okay. I think that is how most writers start out. They will learn to create their own worlds and plots and characters as they go.
Sometimes I think writers get stuck because they are trying to make what they write totally original. I often recommend that authors take the backbone of the plot of a story they like, even from a movie, and build their plot around it. Some of the elements of my Mistborn trilogy came from Ocean’s 11. Using the baseline of another story can be especially helpful in getting them started.
There is no hard and fast rule about which elements a writer should begin working on. He or she can develop characters, plot, magic, the world of the novel, and other elements in any order before they begin writing.
Your students are going to read and write at different levels. Try to discourage comparison/competition among them. Students performing at lower levels may be embarrassed or frustrated that they are not performing at the same level as their peers. Perhaps you can emphasize that ever writer is continually learning and improving, even the most successful published authors continue to learn. I teach a creative writing class at Brigham Young University in Utah and I find myself learning from my students at times. Everyone has a unique skill to offer, an individual approach to their writing. You might encourage the students to discover how to learn from each other no matter what level they may be on.
Help them learn to think and express themselves
My next piece of advice is to discover how to best help your students learn to think and express themselves creatively. Sometimes this involves asking what if questions about different scenarios or characters. It’s okay if what they come up with is not completely original. Encourage them to keep asking questions and then answering them. If they keep asking and answering questions about the work, no matter how crazy the questions may sound, they will think of many different things. You might emphasize discovering things that are new to them without worrying if they are new to others. Along with new ideas, they can think about new ways to describe things. They may start with cliches; encourage them to think about the thing they are describing in a different way. Have them ask more questions about what they are describing and encourage them with their new descriptions.
Help them learn the rules of language
My final piece of advice is about grammar, sentence structure and editing. They need to learn the rules of language; that is important. When they are actually writing something creatively though, have them turn their internal editor off. Tell them not to worry about mistakes with grammar and language use; they can always revise later. It can be hard to get to the next sentence or expression if you are hung up on trying to get your sentence or expression perfect.
That’s all the advice I have time to give you right now. Please take all this for what it is–advice. You can tailor to your own program, taking and changing what is helpful, or disregard it altogether. I’m sure that much of it is review for you. More than anyone else, you will know best how to help your students and to meet their needs.