The Biggest Mistake New Writing Teachers Make

When someone is new to teaching creative writing, you’ll often hear them say things like this:

“I want my students to be free in their writing.”

“I don’t want to limit them.”

“I want them to express themselves creatively, without rules or constraints.”

These are all admirable goals from great new teachers–and I said all of these things myself not very long ago–but I still cringe when I hear them. New writing teachers often misunderstand how freedom and creativity are best encouraged, and our desire to let our students be “free” is usually more of a hindrance than a help.




Most people assume–understandably so–that broad, open-ended prompts are the best way to give kids freedom. By asking kids to “write about a memory” or “express something that is important to you” they believe that they are giving kids room to flex their creative muscles.

In reality, though, open-ended prompts encourage kids to rely on clich├ęs and “safe” answers, rather than pushing them to dig deeper for unique, creative ideas.

Imagine watching an improv comedy show. In one scene, the actors are told, “Okay, make up a scene.”

In another scene, they are told, “You are in a doctor’s office. One of you is holding a pineapple. The other one has to say ‘My monkey is missing!’ at some point. Neither one of you is allowed to use the word ‘the.'”

Which scene do you think will end up being more creative? More artistically free and interesting? More rewarding to the actors when they pull it off?

The same goes for writing–if you want your kids to be free and creative, try giving them a bunch of interesting rules to follow. This will push them to abandon the “safe” answers and explore what makes their brains really unique. Here are some examples of rules that have worked well for my kids:

– Include at least one smell, two sounds, and a description of a texture

– Include at least one simile, one metaphor, and a symbolic object

– At some point, one of your characters has to say. “That’s a terrible idea.”

What rules would you give your kids to help them be creative? I’d love to hear them!

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