How to Teach Writing

Welcome, fellow writing teachers! Here, you'll find ideas for how to teach writing, including topics, worksheets and lesson plans for fiction and poetry classes.

If you're teaching adults and want to incorporate a workshop component in your classroom, you can find suggestions for how to run a critique here.

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Topics for Teaching Poetry Writing

Click here for activity ideas.

Poetry Class Activities

Haiku
Students write a haiku, a short unrhymed poem with five syllables in the first line, seven in the second line, and five in the third line. Read more

Found poem
Students write a poem using language borrowed from non-poetic sources. Read more

Fairy-tale poem
Students write a poem inspired by a fairy tale or folk tale. 

Animal Poem
Students write a poem about an animal. Click here for examples and ideas

Epistolary Poem
Students write a poem in the form of a letter or email to someone real or imaginary.

Prose Poem
Click here to get our Prose Poetry Kit.

Persona poem
Students write a poem in the voice of someone else, such as a fictional character, historical figure, or animal.

Blank verse
Students write a poem in unrhymed iambic pentameter. Read more

Sonnet
Click here for instructions and prompts.

Music Poem
You can play music in the classroom and ask students to write poetry inspired by the sounds they hear and the imagery it brings to mind.

Golden shovel poem
Students take a line from a poem they admire and use each word from that line as the end word of a line in their new poem. Read more 

Cut-up poem
Students write a poem by cutting up a piece of text and rearranging the words or phrases to form something new.

Sestina
Click here for instructions, examples, and ideas.

Ekphrastic Poem
Students write a poem inspired by a piece of visual art.

Five Senses Poem
Students write a poem that describes its subject using details from all five senses.

Anaphora Poem
Students write a poem that uses the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of each line or stanza for emphasis. Read more

Acrostic
Students write a poem where the first letter of each line spells out a word or message vertically. Read more

Concrete Poem
Students write a poem where the arrangement of the words on the page forms a visual image related to the poem's theme. Click here to get a worksheet with examples.

Nature walk poem
Students take a walk, paying attention to sights, sounds, smells, and other sensations. Then they write a poem inspired by their observations.

Pantoum
Click here to get our Pantoum Poetry Kit.

Limerick
Click here for instructions, examples, and ideas.

Poetic translation
Students can use AI tools and online translators to explore the meaning of a poem written in a foreign language. Then, they use their poetic skills to craft a translation that reads as a successful poem in English.

Riddle poem
Students write a poem that describes something without naming it. Example here 

Erasure Poem:
Students write a poem by erasing words from an existing text and leaving behind words that form a new poem. Here's an example created from the Miranda Warning.


Lesson Plans for Teaching Fiction Writing

Character development - teaching ideas

Reading:

Group activity:

Create a character as a class using a picture of a person as a starting point. First, have the students suggest a name for the character. Then, discuss and decide on the character's age and occupation. Continue to develop the character by answering the questions in this character profile questionnaire. To start students thinking about how character profiles can lead to story ideas, ask them the following questions: What problems does this character face? What does this character want more than anything What obstacles could get in the way of the character's desires? In what situation would this character react in an interesting way?

Exercise:

Invent a character with two conflicting personality traits or desires. For example, the character might be exceedingly disorganized yet a perfectionist, or a pacifist with a quick temper, or a rebel who craves parental approval. Imagine a situation where these contradictory aspects come into direct conflict. Write the story.

Worksheets:


Conflict and Plot Structure - Teaching Ideas

Reading:

Group activity:

Present students with one of the following situations:

  • Maria goes on vacation to Hawaii.
  • David's about to get married.
  • Sandra just moved into a new house.

Ask students to suggest ideas for adding conflict to the situation you've presented. What could go wrong for the character?

Choose one of the conflict ideas and ask students to discuss what actions the character might take to try to overcome the story problem. What might happen as a result of the character's actions? How might the character react to that?

You can use this exercise as an introduction to conflict and the way it moves a story forward.

Exercise:

Write about a job interview, family dinner, celebration, or vacation where something goes terribly wrong. Your character attempts to fix the situation, but their initial efforts only make things worse...

Worksheets:


Narrators and Narrative Point of View - Teaching Ideas

Reading:

Group activity:

1) Give students this ten-minute writing task: Write about a first date from the perspective of a character who perceives the date as a disaster.

2) Pair up the students and give them ten minutes to rewrite their partners' scenes from the viewpoint of the other character on the date. This character should view the date as a great success.

Exercises:

Rewrite a fairy tale from the point of view of a character other than the traditional hero. Ideas: "Cinderella" from the point of view of one of the stepsisters, "Little Red Riding Hood" from the point of view of the wolf.

More exercises here


Dialogue - Teaching Ideas

Reading:

Discussion:

Have students read and discuss Hemingway's “Hills Like White Elephants” as an example of dialogue where neither character is speaking sincerely.

This is a story about a man trying to convince a woman to have an abortion. The man is insincere because he's trying to persuade the woman, and the woman is insincere because she's afraid of losing the man if she refuses to do what he wants.

Students can discuss:

  • How they know the characters are talking about an abortion, even though abortion is never mentioned specifically.

  • How they can tell what each character is feeling, even though it doesn't match what the characters say.

Exercises:

1) The story takes place on a long bus ride between two cities. Two strangers are sharing a seat. Each one secretly hopes to get something from the other. For example, one of them wants a job, money, or a place to stay in the city where they're headed. The other one wants love or a one-night stand. Neither of them mentions directly what they want. They pretend to make casual small talk, but each one is actually trying to manipulate the conversation to achieve their secret goal. Write the conversation.

2) This story takes place at a restaurant. Three acquaintances have gone out to dinner together. Person A has just left their spouse and family. Person B supports this decision. Person C thinks this was criminally irresponsible. Write the conversation. (Suggestion: try giving each character the voice of a different person you actually know. For example, Person A might talk like one of your coworkers, and Person B might talk like your brother or sister. Choose people who are very different from each other. Then try to express each one's unique voice so clearly that you don't need to tell the reader which character said which sentence; the reader can "hear" the difference between who says what.)


Showing Versus Telling, and Summary Versus Scene - Teaching Ideas

Reading:

Group activity:

Present students with "telling" statements, such as:

  •  Julie's angry at Tim.
  • Lorena is shy.
  • The house is creepy.

Ask students to suggest ways of showing these things instead. Use this to start a discussion the difference between showing and telling, and when it might be better to do one or the other.

Exercises:

1) Your character and their spouse are looking at a house they're thinking of buying. Write a scene which shows (without telling) the following:

  • The character doesn't really want to buy a house.
  • The character's spouse desperately wants to buy a house.
  • The real estate agent is trying to hide something about the house.

2) Two old friends get together for dinner after a long time apart. One of them is secretly in love with the other one. Show this, don't tell it.


Descriptive Detail - Teaching Ideas

Reading:

Group activities:

For an in-person class: if possible, take students somewhere outdoors.

  • First, have them take notes on visual details they observe.
  • Next, have them spend a few minutes paying attention to, and taking notes on, what they hear.
  • Then, have them take notes on smells.
  • After that, have them take notes on temperature, textures, and tactile sensations.
  • Finally, have students compare notes to discover additional details they might not have noticed.

For an online class, you can conduct a similar activity. Ask students to take notes on their surroundings, starting with visual details, then moving on to sounds, smells, and tactile sensations. Afterwards, have students describe their surroundings to the class.

Exercises:

1) Have students keep a journal, where they take notes on sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and sensations they observe or experience.

2) Prompt: Your character has to leave their hotel in the middle of the night (you decide why; e.g., to catch an early flight, for a clandestine meeting, to avoid paying for the room, etc.). Right when your character is opening the door of their room, all of the lights in the building go out. Your character is determined to leave anyway, even though they can't see a thing. At some point, your character realizes they've lost their way and are in a part of the building they never intended to go. Write the scene, using descriptive details from senses other than sight; i.e., sound, touch, etc.


Story Beginnings - Teaching Ideas

Reading:

Group activity:

Give the students some story beginnings to read, and discuss:

  • What expectations are set by each one?
  • Which beginnings make them want to read more, and why?

Exercise:

Take a story you've previously written and see if you can improve the beginning.

Try beginning later in the story to see if that works better. Experiment with starting the story in different places.

Experiment with beginning with dialogue, action or something that will provoke the reader's curiosity.


Revision Techniques - Teaching Ideas

Reading:

Group activity:

For an adult creative writing class, you could offer students the chance to workshop their pieces. It's important to manage the workshops to maintain a positive tone and prevent students from getting discouraged, especially if you are teaching beginning writers.

Exercise:

1) Pretend you're a reader coming to your story for the first time. Read the story from beginning to end. What are your overall impressions?

2) Go through this checklist and see if it gives you ideas for anything you might improve.

3) Experiment with revising or changing different aspects of your story to see if you can make it better. Keep a copy of your original version so that you always have the option to go back to it. That way you can revise without fear, knowing that none of your experiments need to be permanent.

4) Once you have a version you're happy with, go through it again and look for everything you can cut—unnecessary scenes, paragraphs, sentences, or words.

5) Read through your manuscript out loud to look for places where you can smooth or polish the language.

How to Run a Writing Workshop

In most workshops, students read an author's piece ahead of time to prepare for classroom discussion. It's important to keep the discussion encouraging and respectful.
Here are two possible workshop formats.

Workshop for an advanced class:

  • The author should try not to talk during the critique except to ask clarifying questions.

  • First, students discuss what they think the piece is about and what it is trying to achieve. At this stage, they are not judging the piece or offering suggestions. This discussion helps the author understand how well the group has grasped the piece.

  • Second, students talk about what they think works well in the piece and what caught their interest. Starting with positive feedback makes it easier for the author to listen to criticism later without becoming defensive or discouraged.

  • Third, students give constructive criticism. Ensure that criticism is respectful and delivered in a way that helps the author make specific improvements. Keep comments as specific as possible and clearly focused on the piece, rather than on the author.

Workshop for other groups:

What is most helpful for beginning writers is often experimentation and practice. The first priority is to help these writers build their confidence and stay motivated. I have found "positive feedback only" workshops to be useful both for beginners and more advanced writers. In these workshops, the authors share their work, and group discussion is limited to the following question:

"What caught your attention about this piece, or what did you think was working well?"

How to Teach Writing - Next Steps

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