Course Philosophy: The Challenge for Student Writers

English 227, Section 004

Introduction to Creative Writing - Fall 2012

Instructor: Ryan Edel

Office Hours: Tuesday 1-3pm and Wednesday 11am-1pm, STV 414B

Course Website:

Philosophy: Forging a Path through Upheaval

The study of Creative Writing - along with Composition Studies - is currently going through a period of upheaval.  New studies in the social sciences and multiple theories regarding the nature of learning have lead to widespread disagreement regarding how writing should be taught.  Add to this the common perception that writing can’t be taught, and you see the challenge of the creative writing classroom.  Currently, there is no single “standard” for the writing classroom, and there is no uniform code by which student work is to be judged.

As a result, writing instructors follow many different approaches - as students of writing, you yourselves will no doubt find that you prefer some approaches over others .  There are some instructors who feel that grammar, syntax, and style are of paramount importance, and they emphasize these aspects of writing through drills and precise corrections of student work.  The key focus for these instructors is the clean product “free of errors,” and they often follow a prescriptive approach[1] to style and syntax.  Sometimes these instructors are called formalists[2], sometimes they follow a variation of prototype theory[3].  There are other instructors who feel that this approach stifles student creativity.  Instead, they aim to foster inspiration by welcoming all kinds of works at every stage of production.  They often focus on the process of writing rather than the final product, and they may follow a descriptive approach[4] to riting which emphasizes variations across genre[5] rather than the idea that any single style of writing will work in all situations.

In between these two extremes, many instructors seek the balance of the “happy medium.”  They correct the glaring grammatical errors, they give writing prompts to encourage new ideas, and there is always the emphasis on extensive reading and writing.  This “happy medium,” however, brings its own problems.  For many instructors, there are three nagging questions:

  1. Can I correct this student’s grammar without discouraging further work?
  2. If I encourage my student only to keep writing in this way, will he or she learn enough about other styles of writing to succeed in other rhetorical situations?[6]

These questions do not carry simple answers - and the answers will be different for each student.  Providing insufficient feedback can send the inadvertent message that a student’s work “wasn’t worth reading,” while providing too much feedback can give the impression that “this work wasn’t good enough - here’s everything wrong.”

Naturally, this creates confusion, particularly for student writers.  As a teacher, I can claim the luxury of theory to justify my teaching style - as a student writer, you realize that your grades (and even future career prospects) very much depend on how well you can produce “what they’re looking for,” “they” being your teachers, bosses, and other readers.  As a creative writer, you’re caught in a second bind in that you’re working to create work which is distinctly yours, work which will speak to audiences possibly very different from those in the academic setting.

Naturally, the majority of creative writing students are looking for a method by which to write well.  As an undergraduate, I myself looked for a kind of “recipe” for writing, a particular way of placing words on the page such that readers would love my stories.  Unfortunately for us, there is no one way to write well.  Worse still, the conflicting approaches to the teaching of writing can adversely affect your personal development as a writer.  There are beginning writers who have been told to give up very promising avenues of writing because these avenues didn't match with the instructor's expectations of "good" writing.

As a teacher, then, my focus is on trying to learn the needs of each individual student.  And I’ll be honest - this is hard to do.  It requires an open dialogue with each of you about your previous writing experiences, current projects, and goals for the future.

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[1] Prescriptive Approach: providing specific rules for how to write, such as “never start a sentence with a conjunction.”

[2] Formalist: one who sees high-quality writing as dependent upon specific sets of mechanics (such as rhyme and meter).

[3] Prototype Theory: presenting a “high quality” work as an example or “prototype” of the type of writing that students should emulate.  (e.g. asking students to read Moby Dick or The House of the Spirits.)

[4] Descriptive Approach: examining how writing and language are used by human beings in the context of differing social situations.  (e.g. identifying when “gonna” is used in conversation rather than demanding the use of “will.”)

[5] Genre: a type of writing which follows certain identifiable patterns unique to a certain type of situation.  (e.g. text messages are typically shorter than the related genre of Facebook posts, and both are far, far shorter than the genre of the handwritten letter mailed through the Post Office.)

[6] Rhetorical Situation: the context for which a writer or speaker communicates.  For example, the rhetorical situation of the classroom calls for a paper which will reveals that you’ve read the homework assignment.