Creative writing: A guide to engaging with teen students

Corrine Chan

I’m a snake owner and matcha lover with a mild shopping addiction who lives in Japan for the ...

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While today’s young people (Millennials and Generation Z) are very much just like the ones that preceded them - rebellious, searching for meaning, keen to understand the world and their place in it - they are at the same time completely different than any generation before them. The near limitless ability to consume information, organise with others, and communicate one’s thoughts makes this group very particular, to say the least.

 And so with this very unique group in mind, here are a few unique tips to get teenage kids interested in creative writing:

1. Get Internet Savvy

Gone are the days when you could ask someone - even a group of students in a small geographic community - if they “saw the news on Channel 9 last night” and expect a majority “yes.” You’d be better off asking if they saw that post on the top of Reddit; if they watched yesterday’s Cosmopolitan story on Snap, or if they followed the latest debate on Twitter. (For extra credit, you could ask about Tumblr and other ‘semi-dark social’ networks, the communities of which are humongous and deliberately nebulous - often loosely aggregated around hashtags - so much so as to be poorly grasped even by experts.)


So what can you do to connect with your students around their information sources? Put yourself in their shoes and bring the writing to them. Look into popular creative writing communities, like r/ Writing, r/WritingPrompts or r/Creepy (specifically for horror stories!). Follow hashtags on Tumblr like #shortstory and #fanfiction. Download the apps like Snapchat and LongShorts (a community of stories told entirely through social media) and check out the stories there. Ask them to write about an article you found on the front page of Medium, or on one of yesterday’s trending topics on Twitter. Just like with previous generations, writing assignments should be tailored to the content and the style that students are comfortable with today.

2. Engage On Their Topics

As we mentioned above, one trait that persists throughout each generation of young folk - and one which is markedly enhanced with today’s teenagers - is the desire to rebel. This means that you should assume an a priori dislike towards being “forced” into any action, including (and especially) forced creativity. With all the information millennials have access to, the amount of fake information pushed at them has led to a healthy distrust for the non-genuine.

Paradoxically, at the same time, the internet has succeeded in showcasing the work of creatives around the world, and the pressure to be creative, genuine and ‘real’ is one that millennials face every day.

So how can you engage teens while helping them to access their creativity? How do you impress upon them that the writing you’re asking them to produce is for them, and will help them understand themselves better? Mix up the content of your creative writing assignments to fit what they find important. Social issues, the vagaries of life, the uncertainty of the future: these and other topics that concern teens are important to hit on when eliciting creative writing from your students. Again, thanks to the abundance of information (both signal and noise), there’s now a hyper-focus on the present and a constant questioning of the path that we’ve taken to get to now. This has led to them often eschewing interest in past works of literature, for better or for worse (but don’t worry, we’ll find a way to get them interested below!).

Marrying this with tip #1 above, ask students to write about topics like:

  • “Describe a day in the life of [their favorite celebrity/ character]”;
  • “Give 10 tips to your teenage self from the perspective of you in ten years”; or
  • “Write about the [XYZ crisis] from the perspective of an embedded Vice journalist”.

Again, the key is to appeal to the millennial-specific points we discussed above, while at the same time introducing them to the idea of writing creatively without feeling “forced” into it.

3. Introducing The Greats - And More Great Tips!

Hopefully the first two tips will provide some ideas to get your class of teenage students writing creatively! Now here’s where you can really get their creative juices flowing. Remember how we talked about engaging first? Once you’ve got them trusting you and have captured their attention, you can subsequently introduce them to the timeless advice of your favorite famous authors.

Below are a few quotes that should resonate with millennials and get them further interested in creative writing.


Life is too short to read books that I'm not enjoying.” - Melissa Marr

We touched on this topic above: modern teens are inundated with information, and the reading source of choice is not limited to books, but rather online sources with notably shorter reading times. In fact, one popular online reading platform showed that the preferred story length was a paltry 7 minutes. When introducing writing material to your millennial students, keep in mind that they are experts at sifting through noise to get at what’s most important to them, and expect this information to be bite-sized.
 
The scariest moment is always just before you start.” - Stephen King

Self-doubt is rampant in a world when everyone needs to project perfection on their social media profiles. Getting over that self doubt is one of the hardest parts of getting started with creative writing. Topics like those above can help, but also asking millennials what’s important to them, and brainstorming ideas with them, can help them get over that first hurdle to starting.
 
The first draft of anything is s***.” – Ernest Hemingway


Similar to above, accepting things for what they are is a huge confidence builder. It also helps that teen millennials are on a constant quest to filter out the fake. Help your students be okay “just writing” before they get caught up wanting to be perfect. Use the fact that studies have shown millennials to have a very short attention span to help them get started and get their thoughts on paper before overanalyzing. Remind them to write first, and edit later. 
 
If I waited till I felt like writing, I’d never write at all.” – Anne Tyler

Ah, procrastination... When your phone is glued to your hand, and hundreds of apps are vying for your attention, it’s easy to unconsciously put stuff off. We all know how it’s difficult to get started, but once begun the words can flow. Here you can be real with your millennial students, and they’ll appreciate it: tell them straight up that praying for inspiration is not what the best creators that they look up to do. Another tip: encourage your students to write in short chunks, daily, starting well before the due date, and point to how writers of their age use techniques like morning pages.

 “All I need is a sheet of paper and something to write with, and then I can turn the world upside down.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

Millennials see the world changing around them, and know that they can change the world too. This confidence breeds adventurousness; let it reign by giving them big, important topics to write about. Let them discover the joy of writing by giving them the freedom to choose any topic as long as it’s transformative. Alternatively, set a time each month when students can write freely, so you can discover what is important to them (you’ll be surprised just how much it changes from month to month!). This can help both of you: their interest in writing will bloom, and you’ll have many more opportunities to understand your students through what they write.

Now Go Out Unto This Brave New World and... Engage!

In recent years, teaching institutions have struggled to adapt to the capricious and ever-evolving behaviors of students. The internet has had such a profound effect on the teens of the millennial generation so as to make some of them seem disinterested in traditional creative writing. In reality, the desire to be creative is greater than ever, and these students can be reached through changing the way creative writing is introduced to them. Additionally, writing naturally changes with the evolution of technology, and educators can be on the forefront of this change by interfacing with technology themselves. By applying some of the steps I’ve outlined above, I believe that you too will be able to get your students interested in creative writing again!


What methods do you use to engage pupils with creative writing? Let us know below.

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