creative writing assignments & lessons

How to Teach Poetry with Lectio Divina

A monastic practice lets students experience a poem, rather than dissect it.

I always hated poetry in middle and high school. Poems were presented as puzzles, as verbal Rubik's cubes that I was supposed to twist and spin until I discovered their hidden meanings. A poem was never presented as something to experience. It was always something to analyze. However, in grad school a colleague introduced me to lectio divina, a Christian monastic practice of slow, contemplative, non-analytical reading, and suddenly I found myself enjoying poetry.

First-Day Survey & Self-Assessment

Self reflection begins on day one with this in-class activity.

On the first day of class, I like to have students perform a self-assessment of themselves and their creative writing knowledge. It isn't graded, but it feels like a quiz and records their attitudes and knowledge before the class starts.

After distributing the handout, students answer the questions as best they can, and then give themselves a grade by scoring each question from 0-3 points. After they grade themselves, I collect the assessments and hold onto them until the end of the semester. I don't record the grades. During the last week of class, I have students take the assessment again, give themselves a score in the same way, and then pass back the first-day assessments, which allows them to compare how they have changed and how see how they have learned.  read the whole post

Great Writers are Great Readers

Are students as well-read as they think? And are they reading what they want to write?

The purpose of this assignment is to have students investigate and consciously examine:

   1)  what they have read

   2)  why they have read these books

   3)  how they find new fiction to read

   4)  where they get information about new fiction

   5)  and reflect upon whether they want to write the kinds of stories they enjoy reading.

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Review of Literary Journals

Students explore literary journals and learn how to find them.

We don't want students to blindly submit work to journals and magazines they know nothing about. It is also part of the initiation into the writer's life to become familiar with the literary journal market--the kinds of journals out there, what is typical and atypical, and what they could be reading in order to be competitive when submitting. The goal of this assignment is to send students out into the lit journal world and familiarize them with it.   view the assignment

Edit a Contemporary Short Fiction Anthology

Students choose, represent, and defend a unifying aesthetic principle.

Many professional writers have edited anthologies. For students, compiling and editing an anthology of contemporary fiction, poetry, or CNF can be an opportunity to discover their personal fiction aesthetic.  view the assignment

Prose vs. TV and Film

Students learn the limits of a camera and the versatility of the third-person limited.

Because television and movies are the dominant narrative art forms of the twenty-first century, it is likely that each of us has spent more hours watching TV and movies than reading prose fiction.

Consequently, as young writers we often write in a very cinematic style — our narrators are omniscient and can be everywhere, and yet cannot see into the characters’ heads. This remote psychic distance is the point of view of a camera.


To succeed as authors of novels and short stories, we need to overcome the influence of TV and movies, close the psychic distance in our stories, and use techniques available to prose authors that are not available to screenwriters. This assignment will help students recognize how limited the camera's POV is, and how versatile the third-person limited can be.  view the assignment

creative writing handouts

Proper Manuscript Format

This document explains and demonstrates how to format submissions for publication.

In 1993, science fiction writer William Shunn created a document that explains how and why to format a manuscript when submitting it to magazines/journals for publication. The document floats around the web, often appearing on writers' blogs, but twenty years later it is woefully out of date. Inspired by Shunn, I have created an up-to-date formatting guide.

Thou Shalt Not - A List of Bad Story Ideas

The worst scifi, horror, and fantasy story premises according to Strange Horizons. 

There are a lot of bad story premises out there. Sometimes, we might have an idea and think, "I've never seen a story like that before." It would be great if that meant we were brilliant, original thinkers, but instead we've probably never seen that story before because it is a really bad idea.

The online speculative fiction magazine Strange Horizons  made list of "stories we've seen too often," and a second list just for horror stories, that I like to share with my students. Share it with your students too, especially since so many young writers want to write scifi, fantasy, and horror.