AWP Recommendations on the Teaching of Creative Writing to Undergraduates
AWP has created these recommendations to clarify the goals, methods, and curriculum of teaching creative writing to undergraduates. These recommendations are addressed to new teachers of creative writing, who need to have a clear understanding of how and why the pedagogy for undergraduate students differs from the pedagogy for graduate students. These recommendations are also addressed to Program Directors, department chairs, and deans who must ensure that classes in their purview meet rigorous standards of instruction.
Whereas the general goal for a graduate program in creative writing is to nurture and expedite the development of a literary artist, the goal for an undergraduate program is mainly to develop a well-rounded student in the liberal arts and humanities, a student who develops a general expertise in literature, in critical reading, and in persuasive writing. The graduate model of workshops that center mainly on analysis of student work is not effective for undergraduates. The pedagogy with which most new teachers of creative writing are familiar, the graduate workshop, presupposes an understanding of literary tradition, an extensive critical vocabulary, and the capacity to incorporate feedback and self-criticism in revision. Because undergraduates have yet to acquire such a background, the undergraduate curriculum requires extensive reading at each level of instruction, even for advanced undergraduate workshops.
An expert writer must first become an expert reader. The undergraduate creative writing curriculum seeks to inculcate an understanding of the rhetorical components, forms, genres, great works, and periods of literature. Undergraduate creative writing classes inculcate this understanding through four basic methods:
- reading and critical analysis of canonical and contemporary works of literature;
- practice in integrating the strategies of literary models, especially through isolating a specific craft technique to achieve a particular effect;
- practice in writing original poems, stories, creative nonfiction, or plays; and
- peer review of student writing in discussions moderated by the instructor.
Students study literature “from the outside” as readers and critics and “from the inside” as writers of their own works. The goals and methods of this instruction appear below.
Many undergraduate students (especially those taking only one or two creative writing classes as electives) do not intend to become literary professionals, so the pedagogical methods of the graduate seminar are inappropriate. Some of the goals of undergraduate instruction are intrinsic to the making and appreciation of literature; some goals are extrinsic to artistic study but important to the overall success of a college education and the acquisition of vocational skills.
Undergraduate instruction in creative writing seeks to provide students with the following:
- An Overview of Literature. Creative writing classes and workshops introduce students to a wide range of literature, spanning at least three centuries, three continents, and a variety of cultural viewpoints. This overview, for majors and minors, is complemented by traditional courses in English literature, comparative literature, and other disciplines.
- Expertise in Critical Analysis. Like any undergraduate instruction, creative writing classes teach students how to think critically; the classes give students practice in making sound interpretive arguments based on the evidence of a text and in solving analytical problems.
- Understanding of the Elements of a Writer’s Craft. Creative writing instruction gives students an understanding of the components of a writer’s craft: prosody, narrative strategies, forms, genres, and aesthetics. Students learn to write well in many forms.
- Intellectual Discipline. The engagement with creative writing and criticism provides students with experience in narrowing one’s focus and energies to produce the most effective work while they meet deadlines and manage their time efficiently.
- Understanding of Diverse Cultural Values. Ultimately the study of literature is the study of humanity. In creative writing classes students study points of view other than their own. This makes them more effective not only as writers but as collaborators, coworkers, managers, and citizens in an increasingly diverse nation.
- Creativity. By requiring students to work in various literary forms and genres, creative writing classes require creative problem-solving, experimentation, and inventiveness.
- A Strong Command of Grammar. Creative writing classes require that students broaden and deepen skills they may have first developed in their classes of composition, grammar, and rhetoric.
- Persuasive Communication Skills. Because literature is not mere exposition, creative writing students learn rhetorical tactics for making both emotional and rational appeals through language.
- An Understanding of New Media Technology. Instruction in new technology is critically important for writers who would participate in the full spectrum of the writing world; this includes an understanding of writing on the web, website construction, integration of other media with writing, and desktop publishing.
Creative writing classes should utilize the following methods of instruction:
- Extensive and Diverse Reading Requirements. Workshops at all levels of a four-year course of study should require assigned texts: anthologies, novels, poetry collections, short story collections, nonfiction, and books on the craft of writing. Major and minor courses of study should include traditional classes in literature.
- Study of Literary Terminology. To prepare students to become expert readers of canonical and contemporary literature and the work of their peers, students must learn terms that identify the components of rhetoric, poetic forms, narrative strategies, genres, and critical approaches. Over a four-year course of study, this critical terminology must become more extensive.
- Study of Critical Approaches. Students must become adept at analyzing and evaluating the components of literature and the manuscripts of their peers. Critical approaches should concentrate on those modes of criticism that focus on the interrelationship between theme and formal elements.
- Practice in Critical Reading. Close reading of literary works and student manuscripts is the central mechanism in creative writing courses. Close reading enables students to learn craft strategies, discern authorial intentions, and deepen the pleasure they take in the work. Creative writing courses are especially concerned with the way literature exploits ambiguity, tension, and figurative language to generate meaning. In considering literary works and the manuscripts of their peers, students are encouraged to ask questions that exceed the parameters of strictly literary analysis and contend with the aesthetic and ethical challenges of artistic practice: Is this writer’s use of a non-linear narrative justified? What does the writer gain from experimenting with point of view that could not be achieved by a more traditional approach? What technical strategies enable a writer to avoid creating stereotypes?
- Memorization. For the study of poetry, memorization is the ultimate close reading. The memorization of poems of formal verse helps to intimate nuances of form, cadence, and rhythm. Especially in the introductory and intermediate classes and workshops, students should be required to memorize verse.
- Practice in Critical Writing. In order to sharpen students’ abilities as close readers, assignments in the writing of book reviews, critical analysis, or journal writing should accompany the creative exercises and practice in writing stories, creative nonfiction, poems, and plays.
- Practice in the Writer’s Craft. Students must be required to write frequently and to employ a variety of strategies in their creative work. For prose writing, assignments should be organized to bring students from competency to expertise in all the units of composition (effective sentences, effective descriptive paragraphs, effective narrative paragraphs, effective dialogue, effective point of view, etc.). Similarly, in poetry, assignments should be organized to present the students with increasingly complex challenges in creating various shapes of sentences, stanzas, imagery, rhythms, traditional verse forms, free-verse poetics, etc.
- Peer Review or Workshops. The students’ descriptive reactions to a peer’s manuscript provide an essential ground for a critical or craft-conscious response. In responding to one another’s comments, students acquire a more self-critical and accurate understanding of how writers narrow and define a range of themes for their audiences.
- Written Comments from the Instructor. Written feedback from the instructor is crucial in providing encouragement, in recommending additional reading, and in cultivating higher critical and artistic standards. As appropriate, the instructor provides margin notes to query the student’s choices in craft and grammar usage. Analogous to the verbal feedback provided in workshop, written comments should offer a descriptive response to the work, convey respect for the intentions of the writer, and comment on the potential of the draft, with specific suggestions for revision.
- Practice in Revision. After peer review and written feedback from the instructor, students must be required to revise work. Students need to learn what constitutes the creative process as they struggle to translate their aims in the work to a focus on the reader’s, not the writer’s, experience.
- Grading, Testing, and Evaluation. In undergraduate creative writing courses, it can make good sense not to grade certain types of assignments. For example, students might feel less free to experiment in a creative exercise if they fear the teacher’s judgment. Grades, however, should be given for most assignments, including critical analysis of literary works, feedback on the manuscripts of peers, creative exercises, and creative manuscripts for workshops. Grades for revised work should depend on how well students demonstrate that they have transformed their processes for composing and revising. In addition, participation in class discussion, so crucial to an effective creative writing class, should be heavily weighted in the final grade for the course. Because undergraduate workshops require students to acquire a mastery of literary terms, a knowledge of prosody, an understanding of genres, and a command of narrative strategies, exams are an appropriate component, especially for introductory classes.
- Hands-on Experience with New Media Technology. The institution provides students of writing with full access to computer facilities. Students must have the opportunity, and instruction that would enable them, to test their writing in a variety of formats and through a variety of technologies.
Undergraduate creative writing courses should emphasize reading literary works. Students cannot fully understand the possibilities of a genre or realize their own potential without a grounding in literary tradition and broad exposure to various literary models. In particular, creative writing courses emphasize the study of living writers in the context of literary tradition. The reading lists for undergraduate courses should be diverse on every possible axis-gender, class, ethnicity, culture, style, sensibility-in order to reflect the diverse experiences of students and to broaden their individual perspectives. Reading lists should also incorporate a range of both contemporary and classic readings so that students gain familiarity with literary tradition and understand how it influences contemporary practice.
For major and minor courses of study in creative writing, the curriculum should have tiers for introductory, intermediate, and advanced classes and workshops. (For additional recommendations, please refer to “AWP Hallmarks of an Effective BFA Program or Major in Creative Writing” and “AWP Hallmarks of an Effective Minor in the Undergraduate Study of Creative Writing.”) At the introductory level, multi-genre courses are recommended. Beginning students should be encouraged to explore more than one genre so that they may be exposed to various forms of literary engagement and communication. As students advance to intermediate courses, they should have the opportunity to acquire in-depth knowledge of a specific genre, and workshops should be complemented by at least one craft-of-a-genre course that explores the principles of craft. An undergraduate creative writing major should culminate in a portfolio of substantial length, with faculty advisors mentoring students as they learn the skills of composing and revising in a given genre.
Multi-Genre Introductory Courses. An introductory course exposes students to a variety of models and basic craft concepts useful in any genre. Given students’ lack of experience, literary discussions often focus on illustrating a specific craft element so that students can acquire a repertoire of techniques. Writing exercises implicitly teach students how to generate creative work, and they provide opportunities to imitate the style, subject, or form of a literary model. These exercises can also encourage students to seek sources outside themselves and to write in ways that are informed by their understanding of other disciplines. Often, writing exercises provide strict parameters that disrupt or re-route students’ habitual practices in order to cultivate the particular kind of attentiveness that characterizes art. Ideally, introductory multi-genre courses are structured so that time is equally divided among the study of literary works, writing exercises in rhetoric and form, and the writing of poems, stories, or plays. The early weeks of the course should be devoted to readings and exercises before students compose a complete manuscript for a workshop. While not all students in introductory or elective courses in creative writing will pursue writing as a profession, all stand to gain from the practice in writing and in exercising the analytical skills required by close reading of student manuscripts and published works.
Intermediate and Advanced Workshops. At this level, workshops should focus on a single genre, but students should be encouraged to take a workshop in at least two genres. Tiered courses increasingly emphasize students’ own writing, but this is supplemented by the continued study of literary works, which enables instructors to deepen students’ understanding of craft concepts and also to draw on course readings as examples during workshop discussion of student manuscripts. Tiered courses are concerned not only with dissecting formal elements of craft, but also with considering how these elements are integrated to achieve the total effect of the work. The study of literary works increasingly emphasizes close reading and a broader vocabulary for critical response, and often students write essays that analyze craft in a specific literary work. Writing exercises, including revision exercises, again help students to generate work and to develop their own composition process. As students advance in a tiered sequence of creative writing courses, they should demonstrate an increasing commitment to revision that encompasses a holistic approach to form and theme as well as line-by-line editing.
In responding to literary works and to student manuscripts, instructors should teach conventions of a genre and also emphasize how writers exploit grammar and syntax to achieve particular aesthetic effects. Workshop feedback should be directed by the instructor so that students consider the effectiveness of the choices a peer makes and consider how their critical responses relate to principles of craft. This feedback should build on a descriptive response to the work, which respects the writer’s intentions in the work and also provides a necessary basis for proceeding with critical analysis, since technique is judged on how well it serves the (identified) aims of the work. The emphasis should be descriptive and developmental, stressing the potential of the work that might be realized in revision. Student peers should be required to submit written feedback on manuscripts.
Craft-of-a-Genre Courses. Also known as “process” or “literary forms” courses, craft-of-a-genre courses emphasize the conceptual framework in a given genre, including discussion of rhetorical strategies, formal elements, and literary theories that illuminate the practice of writing. Such courses, though they may incorporate creative exercises, emphasize the critical analysis of literary works, especially through close reading, and develop students’ ability to relate the actual practice of a writer to general craft principles.
Media Technology for Writers: An Introduction. To prepare themselves for the full spectrum of writing in the world, students of writing must apprise themselves of their options-specifically their options as writers in the virtual world and its conjunction with other media. Increasingly writers are cultivating audiences with websites, blogs, and other mixed-media ventures. The integration of sound and image in texts, the interaction of writer and reader via web-space (e.g., the phenomenon of writers on Myspace.com), and the increasing viability of desktop publishing all compel writers today to understand, if not master, new technology. Undergraduate writing programs, therefore, are obliged to introduce students to this world in at least one course that addresses the expansion of the textual world to include visual rhetoric and the demands of different formats in which writing appears.
Senior Creative Portfolio. Students complete a creative thesis or portfolio to fulfill the requirements for an undergraduate creative writing major, and a thesis or portfolio is also strongly recommended for a minor or concentration in creative writing. This work may be largely a revision of work first undertaken in workshops, and students should receive substantial mentoring from faculty advisors, whether that is structured as one-on-one advising or in the form of a seminar course in which students submit drafts of the thesis. The length of a thesis or portfolio may range from twenty to eighty pages, depending on the genre, and students should be encouraged to be selective about what they choose for inclusion. The manuscript must be submitted in a clean, professional form, free of errors.
Other Recommendations. The undergraduate study of creative writing ideally should be supplemented by at least one course in the study of another art form (or an interdisciplinary arts course), enriching the context in which students pursue their own creative work. Often, the best writers are those who have a command of two or more languages, because knowledge of a foreign language sensitizes one to the strengths and weaknesses of one’s own mother tongue. Study in a foreign language should be strongly recommended to students if it is not a requirement of undergraduate study. Internships, work on a literary journal, and service learning courses are also recommended because they foster student writers’ awareness of the world and provide hands-on experience of professional practice in the field.
The AWP Board of Trustees