So, you’re going to teach Creative Writing. Congratulations! Now comes the hard part–what exactly does that mean? What should you be teaching? What skills should your students be learning? In this post, I’m going to share some essential Creative Writing skills you should be teaching in your high school Creative Writing class.
If you’re looking for more tips to teach Creative Writing, check out this post. And if you need help planning the Creative Writing semester, this post should help.
(Looking to skip the planning entirely? Grab all of my Creative Writing skills lessons right here!)
Creative Writing Skills #1: Show. Don’t Tell.
The advice to “show, don’t tell” is some of the oldest and most consistent advice given to young writers. And it’s for a good reason–they really struggle with it!
About half of my students come into Creative Writing with these big elaborate stories they want to tell. But when they actually get into writing, their stories feel more like a list of events that happened.
I’ve seen months of plot happen in just a paragraph of my students’ writing. Students need to learn to slow down and create an experience for their readers. It’s how a story unfolds, after all, that makes it worthwhile–not the events themselves.
Tips for Teaching “Show. Don’t Tell”
Like all creative writing skills, you’ll want to show your students some really good mentor texts first. Find some excerpts from books with really juicy descriptions. Share these with your students.
After they have some examples, give students time to try “telling” an event, description, or emotion instead of “showing” it.
I do this by giving each student a “telling sentence” and asking them to turn it into a “showing” paragraph. A student might get a sentence that says something like, “Billy felt angry.” Then, they’ll have to write a whole paragraph that implies Billy is angry without actually saying it bluntly.
If you want to save yourself some time (and the mental anguish of brainstorming a bunch of bland sentences), you can get my “Show. Don’t Tell” Mini-Lesson right here. It includes a slideshow, student worksheets, and those telling sentences.
Creative Writing Skills #2: Precise and Concise Language Choice
Now that your students are learning to slow down and offer descriptions in their writing, it’s time to help them focus on their word choice.
Diction is immensely important to a writer–especially when storytelling gets more advanced. A lot of our students want to write down the first words that come to their minds and then “be done.”
But we know great writing doesn’t happen like that. We have to teach our students to find the best word, not the first word–without abusing a thesaurus.
Tips for Teaching Better Word Choice
First, you’ll want to show your students some examples of really great concise and precise word choice. You’ll also want to show some not-so-great examples. The comparison should be eye-opening for your students.
Now, the best way to become more precise in your diction is to improve your vocabulary. We probably can’t make great strides in improving our students’ vocabulary in just a quarter or semester of Creative Writing.
But we can show them how to improve some of the most commonly used vague language. One great example of this is the word “got.”
It’s pretty rare that “got” is the best verb for a situation, but we–and our students–use it all the time. If we can teach students that “got” is a red flag for vague language, that’s a huge step!
We can also teach our students to avoid filler words.
If you need help putting this all together in a lesson, I have a no-prep Precise and Concise Langauge Mini-Lesson right here for you. Included is a slideshow, students worksheets, and a reference handout for students they can use every day.
Creative Writing Skills #3: Dialogue
Your students are starting to put words on a page and–hey–they’re not bad!
But at some point, your students are going to have their characters talk to each other. And this can be when stories get really, really bad.
Early on in your Creative Writing class, encourage your students to start listening to the way others speak. Where do they pause? What slang do they use? When do they use complete sentences and when don’t they? You can even ask students to jot down conversations they overhear.
A great writer has an ear for dialogue, and this skill begins when students become aware of speech around them. Encouraging them to eavesdrop will help them write realistic dialogue later. Just remind them to be respectful. Eavesdropping in the cafeteria is one thing. Listening outside someone’s bedroom door is another.
Our students not only struggle with mimicking real, authentic speech, but they also struggle with punctuating it. Depending on the skill level of your students, you may have to pick your battles here. Cheesy speech might be worth ignoring if there’s no quotation mark in sight.
Tips for Teaching Dialogue Writing
First, and foremost, I like to cover punctuating dialogue first. For one reason, it’s because punctuating dialogue is either right or wrong. It’s easier to learn something that is objective.
For another reason, I, personally, can’t stand reading poorly punctuated dialogue. My English teacher’s eyes just can’t see past it.
Only once the quotation marks, commas, and periods are at least close to the right spot do I focus on trying to improve the content of students’ dialogue.
Students’ dialogue writing is only going to get better through practice and observing real-life speech. However, you can give them some tips for writing dialogue better.
For example, remind your students not to have characters talk too much. I’ve seen stories with pages and pages of dialogue. Each character’s every little “hi,” “‘sup?” and “‘nothin’ much” gets recorded. Let your students know they can skip anything that doesn’t add value to the story.
If you need help planning this lesson, I have a done-for-you Dialogue Mini-lesson right here. It includes a slideshow lesson, worksheets for focusing on both punctuation and craft, and a writing exercise. Get it here.
Creative Writing Skills #4: Mood
If you can only teach your students the above Creative Writing skills, you will no doubt improve their writing tremendously. But if you want to take your students’ writing up a notch, encourage them to think about the mood in their poetry and stories.
Students will no doubt have heard this literary term from their regular English classes, but it’s always worth reviewing first. Plus, they’ve probably read for mood, but creating it is a totally different game.
Tips for Teaching Mood
There are so many ways you can teach your students to create mood. It’s a pretty fun topic!
You might want to begin with some brainstorming. Like, what kind of mood might a horror story have? A comedy? You want students to understand why, as a writer, mastering mood is important to them.
Then, like always, you’ll want to share some solid mentor texts. I love horror stories for showcasing well-written mood, but love poems are also good for this.
Whenever possible in Creative Writing, I like to mix up the media, so I have students first analyze the mood of various classic paintings. As an English teacher, it tickles me to show students that these literary terms apply to art of all kind. Film clips would work really well, too.
Then, challenge students to write a scene and evoke a specific mood. You could randomly assign the mood or let students pick.
In my Mood Mini-Lesson, I have students analyze the mood in painting first. Then, I have them choose a card. Each card has a different mood written on it. Then, students must describe a setting that evokes that mood. You can get this mood lesson for yourself here.
Creative Writing Skills #5: Tone
Well, if you’re going to teach mood, then tone is the likely next skill, right?
Teaching tone and mood is important because their differences are subtle, but important. Until students study tone, they might mistake it for mood and mix the two together.
I never expect my students to master tone. It’s difficult and something that even professional writers polish over the course of many drafts. But it doesn’t hurt to get students thinking about the impact of their word choice.
Don’t forget to remind students of the importance of choosing those precise and concise words. With tone, it’s truly what makes a difference.
Tips for Teaching Tone
After defining tone and showing great examples of it to your students, give them some space to practice identifying it.
I like to cover informal and formal tones–not just emotional tones. Identifying whether a piece of writing is formal or informal is a great first step for students. It’s a little easier but an important skill and might give your students a bit of confidence in their tone-identifying skills.
Once they know what tone looks like, they can try to create it themselves.
The activity I do involves having students write a short scene.
I randomly give my students a tone to use. I also randomly give them a situation. So, a student may have to describe “eating lunch in the cafeteria” with a “romantic” tone. The results can be pretty entertaining!
If that sounds like a lesson you’d like, you can get my Tone Mini-Lesson right here. Includes are a slideshow, students worksheets, and the slips for tones and situations.
And, if you’re teaching mood and tone, I have a FREE Mood and Tone Handout right here!
Creative Writing Skills #6: Voice
I put voice last in this blog post, but it could just as easily have been first. Voice is difficult to define for students, but it’s something they should be working on crafting throughout your whole Creative Writing class.
Even if your students never quite master their literary voice (who does?), it’s a good skill to discuss with them. If students understand the concept of literary voice, it will make them better writers and more analytical readers.
Tips for Teaching Literary Voice
You’ll first have to define voice for your students. This can be challenging. It might be easier to focus on a few aspects of voice–like diction or syntax–in order to explain the concept.
Discuss with students their favorite authors. What does their “voice” sound like? What about the authors you’ve read and studied together?
Give students examples of strong voice to examine (the stronger the better). Have them discuss the techniques and style of each mentor text.
To drive this home, I do a fun activity with my students. I take three very different poems by authors with very different voices. Then, I cut them up, line by line, and mix the three poems together. My students are then tasked with putting the poems back together!
To do this successfully, they’ll have to look for styles that match. Rhyming may be part of one author’s voice, but not another. One author may create a dark mood while another uses humor consistently. It’s a great way to drive home how voice can be an author’s calling card.
This activity and some additional practice are included in my Voice Mini-lesson. Also included is a slideshow to introduce the concept. You can save yourself some time and get the lesson here.
These are some skills that I think are essential for any Creative Writing class. There’s no one right way to teach any of these skills, and teaching from multiple angles is best.
Whenever possible, I like to make my Creative Writing lessons hands-on. Even the most die-hard students get sick of writing every minute of every class.
If you, too, would like some hands-on lessons and short activities that cover these essential skills, check out my Creative Writing Workshops Bundle. Each lesson includes everything you need to teach, model, and help your students master these skills one at a time.