The Hidden Power of Creative Writing

April 19, 2023
Articles creative writing ELA information writing

When we think of writing, we usually think of essays. For many people their writing “careers” started and ended with the essays they wrote for their English classes, and this preconception is hard to break. There is, of course, a vague understanding that writing is important, but it’s difficult to explain what the inherent value of writing is outside of a “reward” like receiving a good grade or getting an edge in the job market. So, when the topic of creative writing is brought up, it becomes a Sisyphean struggle to justify it’s inclusion in normal school curriculum, let alone why parents should pay to let their children write silly stories. But like so many things in the world, the value of creative writing cannot be easily explained in the language of transaction – there is no input x to get y in creative writing. 

Despite the misconceptions many people have of it, creative writing is an important area of study that has inherent value and can have deep personal and educational benefits for students.

One of the simplest arguments in advocating for creative writing is how it can be much more appealing to students than standard essay writing or literary analysis. Although it can be hard to admit, it’s easy to understand why a child may not be interested in thinking about why Jack and Jill had to go up the hill to fetch a pail of water or why a teen doesn’t care about Romeo’s infatuation for Juliet. So many of the books we include in our curriculum’s “literary canon” feel outdated and it can be hard to have students from all different backgrounds relate to the characters. 

Of course, there will always be books that we do not “click” with. But when a student does not, or cannot, engage in a class there is no teaching and there is no learning. And when done right, creative writing can fulfill this niche because it tends to center the student and their experiences.

To be clear, creative writing – as it is used in this blog post – is a wide and varied subject, but it is not “easier.”

When educators and students think of “creative writing,” the prompts might seem even more bland and uninteresting than for a conventional essay. Prompts like, “What would you do if you found a wallet with $1,000 in it lying on the ground?” or “Would you rather spend a week alone on a deserted island or hiking in an empty forest? Why?” generally don’t excite a student’s imagination. While these questions do ask the student about their experiences, the question is so simple and the tone almost childish. It sounds bland and generic. So, while there are some students who will enthusiastically answer these questions, the students who we want to coax out of their shell will probably turn up their noses at these prompts just like with an essay.

But when creative writing is done right, it centers the student’s experiences and gives them much needed agency at a time in their life when they often do not feel in charge of themselves. Students need to have the freedom to write about what they’re interested in and issues that feel personal. This encourages them to find the motivation to write from within themselves instead of being “forced” to do it for a grade. 

This is where most people would argue that, sure, having students write is great but just writing stories isn’t very academically helpful. And while it is understandable why this line of logic is so common, one of the benefits of creative writing is precisely that it forces us to rethink what “good” or “useful” writing is. Justin Parmenter, a teacher writing for Teachers & Writers Magazine, explains that creative writing is often overlooked because it cannot be measured on a test and cannot contribute to a model of education centered on standardized testing [1]. But its importance lies outside of its measured “usefulness.” Creative writing helps students “feel… connected to the content [they’re learning] on a personal level” [1]. And the more engaged that a student is, the more that they will learn from what they’re doing. 

That isn’t to say, however, that practicing creative writing does not have very tangible benefits. One of the places where students struggle the most in English classes is understanding writing skills like literary devices. A student who is told what a metaphor is might be confused when you ask them to give an example of a common metaphor, but most students use them without a second thought in their day-to-day lives. Another example is a high school student who might struggle with summarizing a book for class, but is able to easily explain everything that happened during a football game on T.V. last weekend. Logically, these disparities make no sense. Why are these students able to do one thing but fail when the same task is assigned to them inside of an academic framework?

Part of this is interest. Like we explained earlier, students can feel uninterested in their school work because it feels detached from their real world experiences. Even high schoolers are still children, and it can be hard to engage them in something that they do not want to do without some kind of incentive. For some students, that incentive is to get better grades or to attend a good college, but for many others they need other motivations. Going back to our hypothetical high school student, he is probably interested in football, but not the book he is reading in class – so he is not retaining the proper information to learn these academic skills.

Creative writing, then, gives students the motivation to write and provide them with these academic skills without them even realizing it. When a student writes a story, they need to think of all the details – the characters, setting, the vocabulary and literary devices used, themes, and so on. None of these things are taken from thin air. So, students get a hands-on chance to learn how these different writing skills function. Writing for Greater Good Magazine, writer Laura Bean explains that through creative writing, students “learn to include the juicy details of their stories (who, what, when, where, why, and how)” [2]. Asking a student what an author might have been trying to accomplish by utilizing a metaphor sounds very abstract, until you have the student try it for themselves. Now, they’ve learned that authors are making choices in their writing – just like they are – and by looking at their own choices, they can come to better, more thoughtful conclusions about why an author utilizes different techniques. 

As high school English teacher Mary K. Tedrow writes: 

“When we analyze the books, poetry, and essays we read, we are simply describing the choices an author made on their road to composing a piece. When students are heavily involved in creating those pieces themselves, they will more easily see what authors are doing and understand the messiness required in producing effective communication” [3]

Creative writing also helps students see learning as something that can build community. In many professional creative writing workshops, writers share their work with a group and meet up together to give critical feedback. Giving students the chance to participate in a creative writing workshop not only helps them build their own writing skills, it gives them a chance to analyze their peers’ writing and think about how to help them improve. They learn to “focus on learning from mistakes and welcoming challenges rather than thinking they’re doomed to be dumb or unskillful” [2]. This also helps them build self-confidence and express agency over what they choose to put down on the page. One of the reasons that creative writing is so effective at doing this is because there are no “right” answers. Instead, students are encouraged to try different techniques and explore how they can address issues in plot or character in their own way. 

Studying creative writing is also not an end-all-be-all of a students’ academic life. In fact, a student who enjoys creative writing might find themselves looking for more books and engaging more deeply in their English classes when they realize that writing, like anything else, is a skill that you can learn and build up. They can find authors and stories that they connect with and learn from. The reason we ask students to become better readers and writers is not because we want them to get a perfect score on a standardized test, but because we want them to learn from what they read and use those skills to become better critical thinkers. And in that way, creative writing is just as valid of a way to engage with reading and writing as analytical essays and reading comprehension worksheets.

Because creative writing is a skill, it can be nurtured and honed outside of the classroom as well. There are writing groups across the world for people of all ages and, while most people cannot make a living as a writer, being a good writer opens the door for many new opportunities. Some possible jobs that a writer can get are as a copywriter, grant writer, communications specialist, and more. Even if someone decides not to pursue English in college, they can always keep writing their own stories and even submit them to literary magazines. 

Although creative writing is often overlooked, it has real academic and personal value to the people who have given it a try. In a culture where being “on the grind” and finding success is continually pushed, we need to find a space to value activities outside of their utility. That goes for academics as well. Creative writing is a great example of how we can encourage students to work for self-satisfaction and create a more positive relationship with academia.