The rise of creative writing

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Paul Munden argues for the place of creative writing as a distinct subject in our schools and its power to encourage wider creativity in students.

In my role as director of the National Association of Writers in Education (NAWE), I am an ambassador and advocate for creativity. 

In recent years, the skill-sets that different educational approaches and subjects equip students with have become a topic of great discussion and debate among teachers, policy-makers and commentators alike.

While much emphasis is rightly placed on STEM subjects, numeracy, computing and “real-world” skills, creativity is a skill or quality that is talked about less often – despite its vital role in almost every area of study and work. 

I believe that it’s time to re-evaluate the importance of creativity, and recognise that a creative nature is the foundation upon which other skills (even – particularly – those such as computer programming or statistical analysis) are based. 

Creativity shuns the obvious answer. Young people in whom creativity is encouraged will develop inquisitiveness and a desire to push the boundaries of what they already know and understand. In turn, this will drive them to pursue new ideas and new possibilities in their field of study – whatever that might be. 

We believe that a greater focus on students’ writing, and the study of writing, is a vital means by which creativity can be unlocked and exercised. “Creative Writing” is the established name for the subject that has been studied for a long time very effectively at university level, and which we are now so pleased to see offered (by AQA) at secondary level, too.

Supporting wider skills

All writing, at its best, is “creative” writing, which is one of the reasons why I believe the subject should be of real interest to students studying within a very wide range of other fields. 

Although the study of creative writing is particularly helpful for those who wish to go on and study the subject at university, it has a much broader value than this, and it is important that we value the particular skill-set that students will benefit from.

Creativity in writing means invention, reflection, and detailed revision – all attuned to communication. The study of creative writing offers education in the truest sense: an opportunity to explore both the discipline and the self. Creative writing is a subject where original thinking is emphasised, matched by a learning of technical skills that are invaluable in almost any walk of life. 

Few other subjects can rival its attention to fundamental, transferable skills. As preparation for higher education study it is ideal, enabling students to think independently and reach a high level of communicative skill in their written work. It also fosters a habit of extensive reading as broad, if not more so, than English literature study, where the focus is more exclusively on analysis and close-reading of set texts alone. 

This focus on close-reading enhances and exercises students’ analytical and critical-thinking skills, which are vital for the study of mathematics and many natural and social sciences, where original and analytical thinking is essential for problem-solving; as well having a fundamental role in the study of arts and humanities subjects such as philosophy, history, English, and modern languages.

Creative writing also tests students’ ability to sustain focus on one piece of work over an extended period of time, and their ability to appraise their own work, and accept feedback and constructive criticism from others.

Giving and receiving feedback is vital in almost every workplace, so this is an essential, “real-world” skill. These are all great dividends, in terms of personal development. 

In addition, as Professor Andrew Cowan, director of creative writing at the University of East Anglia, says, creative writing “is a subject area that offers recognised vocational and career pathways into publication, the publishing industry more generally, journalism and the media, advertising and public relations, and indeed any profession that requires both exemplary communication skills and an acquired habit of creative decision-making”.

Creative writing in schools

With the rigour of A levels currently under scrutiny, greater uptake of creative writing by schools is most timely. It is a difficult subject, its expressive purpose being governed by complex technical requirements specific to a formidable wide range of different forms.

It is also, however, particularly rewarding, not only for those writing students who, as in the case of visual artists or musicians, show exceptional aptitude, but also for any students wishing to acquire the communicative and imaginative skills that will stand them in good stead for any further study or employment. It is not just the creative industries (important as they now are) that thrive on such skills.

While technical accomplishment will undoubtedly be viewed as the key element of the study of creative writing at A level, I personally see invention as an equally core value. 

That is also why I am thoroughly happy that the subject is named “Creative Writing”. Creative writing is not just concerned with competence in replicating a practice, its students are not just learning craft, but flexing their muscles as entrepreneurs within our cultural future.

The case of teaching “new” technology has rightly highlighted how those “in education” are also on the threshold of devising ever better solutions to our problems. We defer inventive thinking at our peril.

Engaging with teachers

The NAWE has for many years championed the work of professional writers visiting schools. To support the further study of creative writing within schools, we have been working with AQA, which has been collaborating with universities and teachers to develop the UK’s first creative writing A level, to be taught in schools from September.

Increased teaching and practice of this subject within secondary schools will create a particularly fertile new context for such work. We believe that there are also likely to be new opportunities for writers to work within teacher development: the benefits of writers working with teachers (as charted in our 2010 report, Class Writing) extend to all levels and across the curriculum, so we trust that the worth of any new provision will be recognised as something to be embedded within initial teacher training.

The collaborative nature of the study of creative writing is one of its key attributes, and this does not just apply to students: teachers need to understand how to facilitate and foster constructive, collaborative feedback workshops. 

For this reason, those preparing to teach creative writing may find that, to develop their own skills in this area, it is helpful to attend a writing class or poetry workshop in their leisure hours, so that they can experience first-hand what it is like to have your writing the subject of feedback and criticism. More formal support for teachers is also available for those looking to teach creative writing for the first time this autumn.

NAWE has a large membership of those that teach within higher education, but not of primary or secondary school teachers – hardly surprising when the “subject” has been invisible. We hope this will start to change, especially in view of general recommendations about teachers subscribing to sources of specialist subject support.

Our higher education members are delighted that there is at last a clear pathway for young writers who wish to study the subject at university, just as there has always been for those studying other arts. 

We have, within the NAWE, always thought of education as a continuum, and it has been hard to accept the absurdity of the gaps. Finally, we are joining the dots.

  • Paul Munden is director of National Association of Writers in Education. He worked with AQA to develop its new creative writing A level, which will be taught in schools from September 2013. 


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