3 Ways Creative Writing Can Improve Reading Skills

Many of us take for granted the fact that we can read and understand a newspaper article. Did you know that, according to a 2011 study conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, 29% of adults in the United States don’t read well enough to understand a newspaper story written at an eighth grade level?

Many of us take for granted the fact that we can read and understand a newspaper article. Did you know that, according to a 2011 study conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, 29% of adults in the United States don’t read well enough to understand a newspaper story written at an eighth grade level?

Not only is the lack of reading comprehension skills a problem for that segment of the population, but it’s also a societal issue with deeply felt and long-lasting consequences. How can citizens be informed voters if they can’t educate themselves on the issues? How can they improve themselves, their families, and their communities if they don’t know the opportunities available to them or the challenges they’ll have to face in the “real” world? How can they bridge racial and cultural differences if they don’t know how to relate to people outside of their immediate circles?

From my own experience working with students who struggle with reading comprehension, I’ve noticed that three major factors prevent students from understanding these newspaper articles: 1) the students’ limited vocabulary, 2) the students’ limited knowledge of the historical and current events that may be referenced in newspaper articles (especially op-eds), and 3) the students’ tendency to shut down when faced with varied sentence structure.

Recently, I’ve been introducing creative writing exercises into my reading skills class and think that some creative writing exercises can address these common issues. Here are three ways that creative writing can combat the three challenges I mentioned above:

1. Timed descriptive writing exercises can expand students’ vocabulary. Learning how to write descriptively is one of the first skills I teach my creative writing students. By giving students who struggle with reading comprehension a timed descriptive writing exercise, I can challenge them to continue brainstorming new ways to write about a subject. I assign a time period that makes them just slightly uncomfortable (about 10 minutes) and a subject – like a desk – that’s relatively boring. Using Google and websites like Thesaurus.com, the students can explore and discover new words and phrases to use once they’ve exhausted their own ability to write extensively about one specific subject.

2. Writing a character into an assigned setting can help students learn history lessons they didn’t learn in school. Many of my reading students have a limited knowledge of American and world history. Before we tackle a piece of writing that references a historical or cultural event, I will try to give them background information. For example, today I shared with my students an article about physicist Isaac Newton, who dabbled in alchemy, the process of trying to turn base metal into gold. We also explored the time period during which he lived. Asking your students to write a short story by placing a character into 17th century England, among the alchemists, can generate interest and curiosity. The background knowledge may also help them understand a more current piece of writing.

3. Asking the students to rewrite a boring paragraph can help them feel more comfortable with varied sentence structure. Most of us are familiar with the most common sentence structure: subject + verb + direct object. However, passages that consist only of sentences written according to that formula are excruciatingly boring. I can give my students the following sample paragraph:

I went to the store. I picked up some orange juice and tortilla chips. I waited in line for 10 minutes. I realized I forgot my wallet in my car. I left the store.

Boring, right? Invite the students not only to elaborate on some of the details but also to rewrite the sentences so that they don’t all begin with “I.” Allow them to impose their own creativity on this paragraph and then ask them to notice how each sentence is different. The more they feel comfortable writing varied sentence patterns, the more they will open themselves to reading varied writing styles.

Have you ever had trouble understanding a reading or even another subject? How did it make you feel and what steps did you take to help you move toward understanding?

(Photo by inju)

The Challenge of Collaborative Storytelling

In my creative writing course, I try to incorporate as many group writing exercises as possible. You may be thinking, “But isn’t writing a solitary act?” Writing can be both an individual and community effort. Two projects that my students particularly enjoy are the group novel and the class short story.

In my creative writing course, I try to incorporate as many group writing exercises as possible. You may be thinking, “But isn’t writing a solitary act?” Writing can be both an individual and community effort. Two projects that my students particularly enjoy are the group novel and the class short story.

For the group novel, I divide the class into pairs or groups of three. As a class, we brainstorm the novel’s major elements: main characters, setting, central conflict, point of view etc. Then, we roughly outline 10 chapters and try our best to make a narrative arc. Each pair or group is assigned a chapter they must write to the best of their abilities, consulting with the writers of chapters before and after them to make sure each chapter flows into the next. At the end, I collect all the chapters and compile them. The class has a chance to revise the novel together. Some group novels have come out better than others, but the students always enjoy this exercise because it manages to be completely ridiculous and instructive at the same time.

Another favorite group writing exercise is the collaborative short story. All students write their names on a blank sheet of paper and then free-write on any subject for two minutes. Then, the students pass the sheets to another student. In two minute spurts, the students must continue the story, and the task becomes more difficult as the stories become longer; students must skim what has already been written and simply continue to write. At the end of this period, the writers receive their original sheet of paper. I believe this exercise teaches students how not to censor themselves in a first draft and how to maintain narrative drive in a story.

In an effort to show the power of collaborative storytelling, I would like to complete a version of these exercises and publish the resulting story in my upcoming collection The Prescribed Burn. As an added incentive for potential backers of my Kickstarter campaign, I’ve decided that, if I can reach 75% of my goal by this Friday, I will give all my backers – regardless of their pledge amount – the chance to help me write a new story for the collection. I’ll invite all backers to contribute a word or phrase that I will have to include in the new story. After each word or phrase, I will insert a footnote that cites the contributor’s name.

Have you ever tried a collaborative writing exercise? What was the result, and would you ever consider doing it again? I personally enjoy these types of challenges because they push me out of my comfort zone and inspire me to write about subjects I wouldn’t normally pursue.

(Photo by michaelcardus)

Essay Writing Can Feel Like Playing Pretend

Imagine being asked to coach an Olympic swimming team. Even though you’ve taken swimming classes at the local Y and have splashed around a pool with your friends, you don’t know the first thing about Olympic-level swimming. That’s how many students feel when they’re asked to write an essay.

I already know from my experience reading student papers that students have trouble writing introductions for academic essays because they rarely have to worry about catching a reader’s attention. These students know that the teacher has to read their papers, so why bother trying to interest the teacher in the subject? After all, I’m getting paid to read their work.

To reawaken the students, I ask them to imagine leaving their essays on an empty seat of a train or a bus. Would someone who picks up the essay want to keep reading past the first sentence? Or would the stranger toss it aside?

The fact that an instructor is usually the only person reading a student’s essay can cause other problems for the student. Consider this idea: some students have difficulty writing academic papers because they have trouble assuming an expert tone when they know the person or people reading the papers is more expert than they are. In the writing center where I work, I overheard two colleagues discussing this theory, and it kind of blew my mind.

Imagine being asked to coach an Olympic swimming team. Even though you’ve taken swimming classes at the local Y and have splashed around a pool with your friends, you don’t know the first thing about Olympic-level swimming. That’s how many students feel when they’re asked to write an essay, especially in an introductory-level course where the instructor (the expert) is the audience.

I think this problem is especially magnified in courses that aren’t necessarily writing-focused – like History, English, or Psychology – but that require essay writing. In my writing classes, I allow students to assume the role of experts by giving them the chance to choose their essay topics. This way, they can enlighten me about something I don’t necessarily know. They can assume an expert tone because they are imparting knowledge from their life experience.

However, in a History course, students most likely must write about something they don’t know very well, something the instructor is teaching. The goal of a History essay, especially one in an introductory-level course, is for the students to prove their ability to make connections and draw conclusions based on the knowledge they have been given. In this case, the instructor always has the advantage.

So how can an instructor who requires essay writing help his or her students feel less disadvantaged and discouraged before they even start writing? One idea is for the instructor to assign an essay topic that allows the students to make connections between the subject matter and their lives. Every student comes with his or her own body of knowledge and life experience, and allowing the student to share this singular wisdom encourages ownership and authoritativeness.

An instructor should also encourage creativity. If he or she can work outside the box of a five-paragraph or even a five-page essay, the instructor should invite the students to write in different forms, like stories or poems. How can the students show that they grasp concepts and ideas by expressing them through narrative? These types of assignments also require the instructor’s creativity and open-mindedness but even if they are used sparingly I believe they can help students build confidence while developing voice and style.

(Photo by Mai Le)

Pen as Ninja Sword

One of my students decided to compare and contrast the way I maneuver my pen to the way a ninja brandishes a sword. I admit that I do wield a certain flourish as I click the pen top and get ready to circle-underline-correct-suggest. I don’t like to think of my pen as an attack against the student, though.

This morning in class, while I was reviewing my students’ comparison/contrast essays, one student decided to compare and contrast the way I maneuver my pen to the way a ninja brandishes a sword.

I admit that I do wield a certain flourish as I click the pen top and get ready to circle-underline-correct-suggest.

The pen is my ultimate tool. In a writing class, I can lecture, provide examples, and assign exercises, but most of the learning takes place when I sit beside a student and show him or her how an existing piece of writing could be improved. This doesn’t mean editing the paper for the student but rather simply highlighting places where he or she can focus more attention.

I don’t like to think of my pen as an attack against the student, though. When I click my pen top, the student and I are entering the writing together, and we are seeking ways to slash away the errors and defend the parts of the essay that don’t need as much work. We are doing the bold work of revision, which does require a certain bravery.

The next time you have to edit your own writing, go forth with courage and confidence. Hold your pen with pride or type your keys with commanding fingers. The process may be violent and difficult, but you must remember that you are defending the English language from ignorance and laziness.

(Photo by jonathanb1989)

On Being Easy

In their final papers, many of my students admitted that they entered the semester with the notion that Intro. to Creative Writing would lead to an easy A and not require a lot of work. Well, they were surprised by assignments that were rigorous and demanding. Why do students expect creative writing to be so easy?

In their final papers, many of my students admitted that they entered the semester with the notion that Intro. to Creative Writing would lead to an easy A and not require a lot of work. Well, they were surprised by assignments that were rigorous and demanding.

Why do students expect creative writing to be so easy? Why hasn’t the discipline earned the same level of academic respect as composition or English literature?

In grad school, as the only MFA student in a composition pedagogy class filled with students studying (you guessed it!) composition pedagogy, I spent an entire semester researching this. I knew that my professor looked down on me, and I worked hard to prove to everyone that I was indeed a serious student and that my expertise was worth something.

I came to the conclusion that creative writing as an academic discipline isn’t taken seriously because a lot of people practice creative writing as a hobby. Few people write theses about postmodernism in their spare time or do rocket science in their basements. But anyone can write creatively, which is why a lot of my students came with the attitude that they already knew what they were doing.

However, in a world over-saturated with information, creative writers who actually want to be read must learn the techniques that will charm an audience. That is no easy task. And very few people can do it well.

Many of my students don’t think they will ever utilize creative writing in the workplace. But they are so sorely mistaken. Skills that students learn in creative writing are both practical and valuable. In fact, these skills can give an ambitious employee an edge over his/her coworkers or other people in the job applicant pool.

Just last week, my boss at my other job asked me to help him with a presentation that had nothing to do with creative writing. But, to make the presentation more interesting, I included a sample script with imaginary characters. My boss and I agreed that this would make the presentation more palatable. I mean, what’s the point of a presentation if no one pays attention to it?

Creative writing is not an easy A because I never graded the students’ creativity. Each one of my students expressed his or her creativity, in varying degrees. I gave them feedback about how they could improve the effectiveness of their message or push their imaginations.

Over the course of the semester, many of them were confused about their grade standing because I wasn’t giving any letter grades. But their final grades were based on whether or not they completed assignments, came to class consistently and on time, and followed directions.

When many students failed to complete assignments, come to class consistently and on time, and follow directions – yet still expected an easy A – I realized just how little respect students have for creative writing. Wouldn’t any other professor of any other discipline expect and enforce the same policies?

Creative writers may never find the cure for cancer or solve world hunger, but they may be able to write about those things in such a way that inspires the right person for the job.

(Photo by howieluvzsus)

The Waiting Is the Hardest Part

I asked my students to come up with a plan for the future of their writing lives. If they want to continue writing outside of class, how will they motivate themselves? What will inspire them? Where will they go to write? Who will they ask to read their work? Many of my students decided that forcing yourself to write just ruins the experience.

I asked my students to come up with a plan for the future of their writing lives. If they want to continue writing outside of class, how will they motivate themselves? What will inspire them? Where will they go to write? Who will they ask to read their work?

Many of my students decided that forcing yourself to write just ruins the experience. You should write when you feel inspired and not worry about making it happen. If you must force yourself to write, you probably shouldn’t be doing it anyway.

I both agree and disagree. I must force myself to write. I love the act of writing but sitting down to a blank page or a story that I know needs a lot of work makes me anxious and exhausted. If I didn’t force myself to tackle these things, I’d never probably never write anything.

Based on my students’ logic, I should probably just stop trying.

However, I do try because I know that, once I start, I will enter my “happy place”. Once I find my momentum or start tinkering with words and sentences, I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing. And usually, when I force myself to sit through the uncomfortable feeling of beginning – even if I don’t finish with something perfect (I never do) – what I do gain is something more than I had when I started, which was nothing.

If I updated this blog only when I felt inspired, I’d probably never update it at all. Having an active blog is important to me so I stick to a schedule. Many times, when I sit down to write a blog post, I have no idea what I’m going to write. But I always write something, and I usually surprise myself – sitting with my thoughts for a few minutes reveals that I have more than a few things on my mind. And, even though many of my posts are far from perfect, at least I can see that I have something written where nothing before existed. I can only move forward from there.

I frequently feel inspired, but I don’t always feel like writing. When I was younger and had more free time, I could sit down with a pen and paper and capture every inspired moment. Maybe my students take for granted the time they have to daydream document their thoughts. These days, when I feel inspired, I’m probably busy with something else or about to fall asleep. But carrying those thoughts, when you’re inclination is to write them, can be a huge burden.

In an interview with the Paris Review, writer Fran Lebowitz said, “…I realized how much easier it is to write than not to write. Not writing is probably the most exhausting profession I’ve ever encountered. It takes it out of you. It’s very psychically wearing not to write—I mean if you’re supposed to be writing.”

Scheduling time to write can be cathartic. I know that when I force myself to write, even if I don’t immediately feel inspired, eventually something will spark emotion or an idea. If I don’t necessarily feel inspired to work on one thing, then I scrap it temporarily. But I won’t stop writing. I’ll focus more closely on my blog or try to develop another story or poem.

Anyway, if you’re serious enough about writing that you want to develop it to the point of completion, you’ll have to revise. Revision is not easy; you’ll have to be honest with yourself and trudge through something that you likely don’t want to revisit. You’ll most likely have to force yourself to revise, but knowing that you’re most likely improving the piece helps.

As a class, we concluded that, if you have interest in writing for yourself only, then you can wait for inspiration to strike. But if you have interest in writing for an audience, any audience, you are going to have to motivate yourself beyond waiting for that aha moment.

(Photo by Bohman)

Not Far from the Maddening Lib

Yesterday, my students and I discussed literary magazines and their role in literary culture. I think my students were surprised by the broad range of subject matter that writers cover (a poem about photographing snakes, a story about drunk girls in stilettos, another poem about a burning Christmas tree) and how a magazine exists to suit every interest.

Yesterday, my students and I discussed literary magazines and their role in literary culture. I think my students were surprised by the broad range of subject matter that writers cover (a poem about photographing snakes, a story about drunk girls in stilettos, another poem about a burning Christmas tree) and how a magazine exists to suit every interest.

Many creative writers write because it’s the only mode of expression that allows them to do things ad libitum (ad lib), or “as you wish”. If you had the chance to write whatever you wanted, wouldn’t you try to push the boundaries?

I was showing off an issue of one of my favorite literary magazines, Tin House, and explaining to them what I liked about the magazine’s various features: stories, poems, essays, interviews, book reviews, pictures, even games!

I flipped to a two-page spread of a mad lib, which the editors had created by deleting words from Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”. I wanted to prove to my students that literary magazines can be fun and even interactive!

“Let’s do the mad lib!” The chorus of voices overwhelmed me.

We had reached the end of class, and I had already finished my lesson. The fact that a literary magazine was getting them so excited brought a huge smile to my face. So I told each student to share the first word that came to mind: ninja, derelict, placenta, Kanye West, and toad were just a few.

What made this mad lib unique was that the blanks didn’t specify a part of speech. So my students were free to choose nouns, verbs, adjectives, and even adverbs, even though those parts of speech didn’t necessarily fit in the context of the story.

I wrote each word in the corresponding blank. When we finished completing the blanks, I read the story out loud (you can read the story here). I could barely finish reading it because we were all laughing so hard.

Yes, the exercise was funny, but I actually liked doing this mad lib because it forced us all to reconsider how words can and cannot bend their parts of speech. Even though a lot of the words didn’t necessarily match the part-of-speech that Poe intended, they still somehow seemed to work in the context.

For example, if you use your imagination, you might be able to imagine how a word like “disingenuous” could be a noun, or how a word like “snowflake” could be a verb.

Also, this exercise made a story that we’ve all heard a million times (assuming that you’ve studied Poe in an English class) seem new again. “The Tell-Tale Heart” is actually a brilliant story, but many boring English teachers have ruined it for students. Despite the fact that we butchered the story, it still retained its original meaning and tone. Playing with a story can make it fun again!

The process of completing a mad lib, where anything goes, mimics the process of creative writing. When you approach a blank page, you never know what might happen. Opening yourself to the possibility of touching the unknown is sometimes scary, but the result will always surprise you. And sometimes even make you laugh.

Professor Potty Mouth

I tweet whenever the mood strikes and I have access to a Twitter application. I tweet when I’m planning my classes, when I’m writing, when I’m reading, when I’m at the grocery store, when I’m on the bus, and sometimes when I’ve been drinking a little too much. I hardly censor myself.

If you follow me on Twitter, you know that I don’t take the social networking tool very seriously. But I’m always shocked by how seriously other people take my Twitter account!

In a meeting a few weeks ago, the CEO of an established company asked me, “What are your strategies for attracting new followers?”

Well, I don’t really have a strategy. I just tweet whenever the mood strikes and I have access to a Twitter application. I tweet when I’m planning my classes, when I’m writing, when I’m reading, when I’m at the grocery store, when I’m on the bus, and sometimes when I’ve been drinking a little too much. I hardly censor myself.

And some other people don’t seem to like that. I’ve received direct messages from followers who have never even met me, suggesting that I “Stop tweeting right now! You’re embarrassing yourself.” One very bitter person told me that I am unfit to be a professor because I include curse words and “low” vocabulary like “dude” in my tweets. As a writer who uses “dude”, how could I ever expect to achieve any success?

I just have to laugh. If you think that maintaining a PG Twitter stream is a way to achieve or maintain professional success, you have a lot to learn. I’m less concerned about cursing/diction and more concerned about tweeting something ignorant, slanderous, or truly offensive.

I know that, when it counts, I do my job, and I do my job well. Formality is meant for academic essays, business e-mails, proposals, and press releases. Twitter does not require formality – I know that because something that wants to be taken seriously wouldn’t be named “Twitter”.

Also, I’m 25 years old. Sure, I am old enough to be a responsible adult, but I think my casual, sometimes naive, tweeting reinforces the fact that I do still have a lot to learn – and I never pretend otherwise.

For anyone who thinks that cursing taints my image as a professor, I just have to ask: have you ever taken a creative writing class? My absolute favorite professors – the ones who were always the most animated, passionate, and approachable – cursed like sailors.

I rarely curse in class – I said bullshit last week and felt weird about it – but my students use “bad” words in their writing. And they use the words intelligently. Some of the readings I assign include more profanity than I post on Twitter in a whole year.

Writing that contains profanity is not simply meant to have shock value. In fact, skilled writers usually do cursing so well that the readers hardly notices it – the curse words become part of the book’s normal, accepted vernacular.

If you’re telling people how they should behave on Twitter, then maybe it’s time for you to get off the computer and read something that’s meant to be taken seriously, like a book. But stay away from Ulysses, The Catcher in the Rye, and Slaughterhouse Five.

(Photo by meddygarnet)

On “Word Garbage” and Heavy Reading

In order to be a great writer, you do have to write a “difficult” work. But what’s “difficult” is the subject matter, the relationships between the characters, and the emotional weight of the story. “Difficult” should describe the reader trying to get the work out of his or her head.

In class yesterday, one of my students asked, “In order to be a great writer, do you need to write works that are difficult to understand?”. He was frustrated by an essay I had assigned: “The Poet” by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

He cited Crime and Punishment as another example of a tedious book – why was it necessary to read 20 pages of description about a room? I hope he never has to read Moby Dick.

I let the other students answer before giving my own opinion. Most of them agreed that, yes, Emerson is difficult to read. However, we try to read his work because we know we are going to learn something new, that we will find a reward once we reach the end.

But the student kept pressing for answers. “But why should we have to read complicated sentences and unnecessary words to get to that point?”

I tend to agree. If Emerson was living and writing today, in the same style, very few readers would tolerate his work. We expect information to be delivered to us clearly, without embellishment or “word garbage” (coined by another student). Writers, if they expect to have any readers, must cater to this attitude.

Some students remarked that, in 1844, reading was the only form of entertainment – what now seems like torture was once a pleasant diversion.

While reading Emerson’s essay in preparation for class, I found myself wanting to condense every paragraph. I could strip down most of the sentences to simple, coherent statements and only keep some of the flowery language that particularly struck me. For example, I really like “For we are not pans and barrows, nor even porters of the fire and torch-bearers, but children of the fire, made of it…” but could do without the rest of that long, convoluted sentence. Easily, I could knock off three full pages, and the reader probably wouldn’t miss anything.

In addition, while reading, I had to focus intensely in order to read every single word. Emerson meant for us to read every word – his diction makes that obvious. However, the long paragraphs and complicated sentences make my eye want to jump to whatever seems most important.

Reading Emerson is more a history lesson than a model of how to communicate today, to contemporary audiences. Experiencing the writing of that time, a reader can’t help but wonder why someone would want to write that way. The writing reflects the culture of thought; sentences like “We stand before the secret of the world, there where Being passes into Appearance, and Unity into Variety” gives us clues about the ways that intellectuals discussed topics like philosophy and science.

In response to my student’s question: In order to be a great writer, you do have to write a “difficult” work. But what’s “difficult” is the subject matter, the relationships between the characters, and the emotional weight of the story. “Difficult” should describe the reader trying to get the work out of his or her head, even months after reading it. A great writer shouldn’t be difficult to read; a great writer should understand and anticipate his or her reader and make consolations for that person.

At the same time, a great writer will never “talk down” to the reader; he or she trusts the reader will understand complicated concepts. A great writer is like a professor who teaches a very complicated subject to a class of beginners. The subject matter is heavy, but the instructor must explain it in a way that intelligent, mature students can understand. That means: making consolations and having patience while remaining stringent.

A great writer knows that he or she can’t win them all.

(Photo by jennaddenda)

The Blinding Light of the Beginning Writer

I don’t like grammatical errors, not because I’m a grammar snob – I’m the first to admit that I don’t know every single rule and nuance – but because poor grammar in a piece of writing interferes with my ability to read it. Grammar can be taught; if someone wants to learn grammar badly enough, that person can learn it.

I don’t like grammatical errors, not because I’m a grammar snob – I’m the first to admit that I don’t know every single rule and nuance – but because poor grammar in a piece of writing interferes with my ability to read it.

Grammar can be taught; if someone wants to learn grammar badly enough, that person can learn it.

Most children learn grammar simply by listening to language. They may not be able to explain the difference between “is” and “are” and when to use those words appropriately. But they figure out how to use those words without thinking too hard about them. Later, in school, students learn the rules that describe the grammar they absorbed as children.

Sometimes, a child isn’t able to learn all the nuances of English grammar simply by listening to others speak. That’s why grammar lessons are helpful – they clear everything up for the student. Usually, as you get older, your grammar will improve, simply because you begin to understand and have rules for the way you have communicated your entire life.

However, having a working command of grammar doesn’t necessarily make anyone a good or imaginative writer. As most people grow older, their imagination fades. Imagination cannot be taught.

In fact, I think some of the best, most imaginative writing could be produced by enthusiastic, passionate young writers who don’t necessarily have the best command of grammar. I’m not trying to make excuses for native English speakers who don’t have a working knowledge of grammar by age 18. But the ones who still try to write despite their frustration with the language, the ones committed to expressing their ideas and emotions – those young writers produce some of the best, most imaginative writing.

Writing, without fully understanding how to do so, is quite brave, especially when we have so many other ways to communicate.

It’s up to someone who appreciates imagination and creativity to approach these writers and teach them the value of grammar, to possibly show them a new way to learn. Not everyone with poor grammar is careless, and many have ideas that they deserve to express.

When I read something by a beginner, I typically value imagination over order, but I value order because I know readers don’t have patience for disorder. And they deserve to see the beginning writer’s light too.

(Photo by Abulic Monkey)