“Creative writing is not just concerned with competence in replicating a practice, its students are not just learning craft, but flexing their muscles as entrepreneurs within our cultural future […] We defer inventive thinking at our peril.” (Munden, 2013, p1).
Ever since the University of East Anglia established the first MA in creative writing in 1970, there has been extensive debate on whether creative writing should be taught as a distinct discipline within education. Many writers and teachers have voiced their opinions over the years; John Barth (1985, p3) argues that creative writing “can be learned, by the able; it can be studied, by everybody and his brother; it can even be taught, even in school,” while in contrast Kay Boyle (1975, p1) dramatically asserts that “all creative-writing courses should be abolished by law.” Hanif Kureishi (2014, p4) offers more balanced advice for contemporary students, stating that “aspiring writers who wish to be taught plot, structure and narrative are not mistaken, but following the rules produces only obedience and mediocrity.”
Despite this controversy, the number of universities that provide degrees in creative writing continues to grow, with over one hundred courses currently being offered in the UK alone. More students than ever are leaving secondary education to pursue a degree in this subject, which implies that there is something inherently essential about the place of creative writing within the curriculum of our schools as forerunners to these institutions.
However, in September 2015 the Department of Education (2015, p11) announced that they are axing the Creative Writing A-level – bringing the subject’s value into question. Having only been established in 2013, it is currently the only recognised qualification for creative writing in secondary education, and by discontinuing it, the DfE has effectively undermined its worth. The DfE explained that “it became clear that for AS and A-level in creative writing […], it has not been possible to draft subject content in accordance with the department’s guidance and Ofqual’s principles for reformed AS and A levels.”
Ofqual’s dilemma about subject content highlights a conflict within the subject; the assessment of something that is essentially a social practice and not merely a skill. As Anderson (2014, P97) states, “problems can arise when writing is approached as a discrete, individual skill to be learned in school, primarily in order that it might be tested. This is because writing is a socio-cultural practice, or set of practices. It involves people making meaning and getting things done within a cultural context…” By its nature, writing is universal, all-encompassing and intentionally broad in order to evoke higher order thinking.
The challenge of assessment also appears to have had a deeper impact in the development of the creativity within the whole curriculum according to Ferrari, Cachia & Punie (2009, p26). Assessment was reported as having a restricting impact on the educational process, endorsed by the work of Wyse and Jones (2003). They stated that “testing has narrowed school provision at the expense of creativity.” We are made to ask whether children should be encouraged to foster a curiosity that enables a freedom to be creative, rather than restricted by conformity that is so often created by the system of assessment?
But what exactly does it mean to be creative, particularly in regard to writing?
Goodwin (2004. p2) describes creativity in literacy as “the ‘effective surprise’ that occurs when the unpredictable connections of otherwise unrelated bits of knowledge or experience spark new insights and understanding.” By this definition, creativity is often impulsive and random, which implies that it is unfeasible to assess every learner in the same way. It is something often noted by teachers and students; assessing creative “worth” is subjective.
This, surely, is to be expected. Creative writing is about imagination, being original/innovative, breaking conventions, going beyond the obvious. Robinson (2013, p 5), the former national advisor on creative and cultural educations, argues that “creativity is not a linear process, in which you have to learn all the necessary skills before you get started. It is true that creative work in any field involves a growing mastery of skills and concepts. It is not true that they have to be mastered before the creative work can begin […] The real driver of creativity is an appetite for discovery and a passion for the work itself.”
Robinson’s definition seems appropriate for two reasons. Firstly, it accepts the notion that creativity is inherently inside all children; that it can be nurtured and encouraged, mastered and honed, but initially, the innovation must come from within. The second reason is because his definition keeps a love of learning and intellectual curiosity at the heart of what it means to be creative.
Corbett and Strong (2011, p2), argue that breadth of reading is crucial to the development of creative writing, which contradicts Ofqual’s current narrowing of the curriculum. They assert that “Unsurprisingly, the best writers in any class are always readers. Reading influences writing – indeed the richness, depth and breadth of reading determines the writer that we become.” It is important that we actively encourage pupils to read widely in order to support their creative development in writing and also across the curriculum. Blythe and Sweet (2008, p310) warn us about the dangers of a narrowly prescribed reading list stating that those “who assign the great works can perpetuate the cloning effect,” where the writing of all pupils in a class begins to conform and mimic the work of a studied author(s). They also question the legitimacy of the assigned literature, asking “Who, some ask, determines what makes a great work “great”?” By avoiding a prescribed reading list, the creative writing A-level enables pupils to discover ‘greatness’ for themselves based on their exposure to a plethora of different writers.
Furthermore, it is important to distinguish the synergy between the knowledge acquired through reading and pupil development of creativity through producing original writing. It is the role of the teacher to enable an environment where students can effectively analyse other writers’ works and then apply their individual creative talent. As stated by the author and teacher Gibbons (2009, p10), “There has to be a balance between teaching features of writing and leaving a space within which the child can experiment, yes, play with language.” This balance between effective experimentation and teaching writerly techniques is essential for children to productively channel their creative playfulness and take ownership of their work.
What might an appropriate creative writing reading list look like? A short, reasonable list might include a variety of authors, poets and playwrights, in a plethora of different forms and genres – for instance, Shakespeare, Vonnegut, Harrigan, Huxley, Orwell, Ford, Thomas, Salinger, Lee, Durrell, Bryson, Donne, Elliot, Fitzgerald, Moore, Bradbury, and Atkinson. For AS and A-Level students, such a list may be more extensive than they’d encounter even in English Literature, yet there is no limit to the number of writers students of writing should read. As Corbett and Strong assert: the “richness, depth and breadth of reading determines the writer that we become.” It also promotes a holistic approach to creative writing as this emersion technique encourages a limitless horizon for pupil learning. By setting challenging goals, we can create learning that stretches every pupil by offering a syllabus with an infinity rich list of literature to suit the strengths of each child.
Part of the risk of teaching creative writing in schools is that a medium that is supposed to free the student – the writer – from constraints can become restricting, when the only focus of the course is to pass exams and fulfil pre-set criteria. Yet the value of teaching creative writing does expand to other areas of a child’s – indeed a person’s – skill set and development. In particular, the innovative thinking and inventive assertiveness that children foster through creative writing seems to be fundamental across the curriculum. Poetry written in creative writing classes becomes the lyrics to songs used in Music lessons; while essay skills are improved in History or Business Studies; investigative, innovative thought applied to Science experiments; grammar and vocabulary skills improve in Foreign Languages. In short, teaching creative writing helps pupils become students not just of writing or of literature; but of the world.
Creative writing is rooted in having original ideas. Therefore, how can we expect pupils to flourish imaginatively and artistically by conforming to narrow assessment objectives? As Paul Munden, the director of National Association of Writers in Education, warns us, “We defer inventive thinking at our peril.” (Munden. 2013, p1).
It is only within a safe and supportive environment that pupils are able to cultivate their flair for expression in a manner of different mediums to produce overwhelmingly imaginative, thoughtful and evocative writing. What is the point of creative writing? Everything.
Anderson. G. (2014) ‘Writing’ in Davidson, J. and Daly, C4th edition,’ Learning to Teach English in the Secondary School, A companion to school experience.’ Suffolk: Routledge.
AQA Subject Content:
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Blythe, H & Sweet, C. (2008) ‘The Writing Community: A New Model for the Creative Writing Classroom’ from Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture Volume 8, Number 2. Duke University Press
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DfE (2015). Additional reformed GCSE and A level subject content consultation:
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Frater, G. (2004) ‘Improving Dean’s writing: what shall we tell the children.’ Literacy. 38, 78-82.
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Goodwin, P. 2004 ‘Lieracy through Creativity.’ (Oxford) David Fulton Publishers.
Kureishi, H. 2014, ‘What they don’t teach you at creative writing school,’ The Telegraph 25 January. Available from: < http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/10594606/Hanif-Kureishi-What-they-dont-teach-you-at-creative-writing-school.html>. [15/12/15]
Kroll, J & Harper, G. 2008. ‘Creative Writing Guidebook.’ London: Continuum.
Minot, S. 2003. ‘Three Genres: Writing Fiction/Literary Nonfiction, Poetry, and Drama’ 7th ed. (London) Longman.
Munden. P. 2013. ‘The Rise of Creative Writing’. SecEd Magazine 2/05/13.
Available from: http://www.sec-ed.co.uk/best-practice/the-rise-of-creative-writing [15/12/15]
Ofqual. ‘Further Decisions for Completing GCSE, AS and A Level.’ 2015. Available from:
Robinson, K. (2013) ‘To encourage creativity, Mr Gove, you must first understand what it is.’ Guardian. 17 May 2013.
Available from: < http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/may/17/to-encourage-creativity-mr-gove-understand > [15/12/15]
Wyse, D & Jones R. 2003 ‘Creativity in the Primary Curriculum’ (London): David Fulton Publishers.
About the author of this post
George Vernon is a writer and English teacher based in the UK. He graduated from Warwick University with a first class (hons) degree in English Literature and Creative Writing in 2012, and completed his MA with distinction in Creative Writing from Chichester University in 2013. He has been shortlisted for the Almond Press Dystopian Short Story competition and won the Kate Betts award for most promising piece of fiction. When not teaching, George can be found writing; learning; living; loving. He tweets as @MrGeorgeVernon