Creative writing and grammar

Written by: Karen Sullivan | Published:
Photo: iStock

The drive for creative writing and story-telling is essential in any school, but time must be made for the hard rules of English as well, argues Karen Sullivan

Last week, Michael Morpurgo warned that the government obsession with improving literacy threatens to “stifle the next generation of story-tellers” (1).

The former children’s laureate and award-winning children’s author believes that instead of talking about “literacy” when it comes to encouraging children to read, to write, to engage in the world of literature across its many mediums and genres, we should talk about “stories, poems, literature, creativity”.

I agree that labelling the wonderful world of words with a formal title can quash enthusiasm and, in Mr Morpurgo’s words, alter a child’s “relationship with language” – and I love his suggestion that there should be 30 minutes at the end of every school day devoted entirely to story-making. I also think it is important to remember that education is about more than creativity, and there are some nuts-and-bolts elements to language, to writing, that must be learned.

I was recently asked to look at some submissions for a secondary-school short-story competition, and was completely aghast at the number of spelling mistakes – the loose, unstructured sentences, the absence of punctuation, the preponderance of tautologies, colloquialisms, ill-considered choices of words, etc.

Moreover, no-one had bothered to correct or edit these stories before they were submitted, which also sends a dangerous message: that it is okay to produce and submit work that is sub-standard.

The words we write – whether in a job application, on a blog, in an email, text or post on social media, in an essay or a piece of creative writing – represent us, and reflect our ability to put our thoughts and ideas into words, to express ourselves and create an impression.

In an age when our language is already cannibalised by “text-ese” and emoticons, it is more important than ever that we hang on to the basics that ensure we are able to communicate in an effective way.

So, I love the idea of 30 minutes of story-making, creative writing, if you like, at the end of every day. Time to play with words and ideas, create, explore, experiment with language, with similes and adjectives and literary devices like onomatopoeia, allegories, analogies, allusions, pathetic fallacy, irony, and so on.

Creating characters also allows students to explore parts of themselves and the people around them in a dynamic way, which can lead to better understanding of human nature and self.

It can also aid emotional health at a critical point of development. One study, undertaken at Bristol Royal Infirmary, showed that 56 per cent of participants found that writing poetry helped them to cope with the pain of bereavement. Another study examined the wealth of research showing that expressive writing can encourage health and wellbeing and concluded that it can reduce anxiety, anger, stress symptoms and blood pressure, and work towards healing psychological problems brought on by abuse (2).

Freedom to express ourselves is not just a human right but a need, and building a relationship with words, with creativity, can have far-reaching benefits throughout our students’ lives.

Many authors pour out their words onto pages to release the stories, but they go back and edit. In his article in Teach Primary, Mr Morpurgo writes: “Those authors who created Toad, and William, and Winnie the Pooh didn’t do it because they went to school and Did Literacy. Those stories came from a different place of learning, where children were allowed to explore, even when it became uncomfortable.”

While there can be no doubt that this is the case, these same authors would go back and correct, revise, and consider their early efforts a draft. No-one published those stories, those books, with author errors included. They were edited and that is something that students need to learn.

There is plenty of free expression going on in the world of social media, and it is all too easy to pour out words without re-reading, considering their impact, considering the sense of what has been written. Re-reading, reworking, rewriting, correcting is an essential skill that must be learned.

Yes, introduce creative writing without labels, but encourage students first to self-edit, and then hand their work over to a colleague for further editing. Next, teachers get involved and add their own comments. It is only by recognising and correcting errors that our language skills are honed and our ability to express ourselves effectively, to choose and use vocabulary correctly, and to spell, become ingrained.

Put up a list of commonly misspelled words around the classroom. Ask students to write an essay or a story using 20 of them. Use mnemonics to teach spelling and grammar. Show them the most common grammatical errors that we all tend to make (3, 4, 5).

Teach them, guide them, provide practical feedback, encourage self-editing and then set them loose to develop their own healthy relationship with words. Whether you call it “literacy” or something else, it is the essential understanding of how we use words to best effect, both in story-telling and in other forms of self-expression, that is key here. And its importance is not to be underestimated.

  • Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert. Email


  1. Michael Morpurgo: Let’s Stop Talking about ‘Literacy’, (Teach Primary, October 2015)
  2. The Connection Between Art, Healing, and Public Health: A Review of Current Literature (Stuckey & Nobel, 2010):
  3. Commonly misspelled words (an American site but includes British spellings):
  4. Blogs on common grammatical errors: &
  5. Helpful Mnemonics and Essential Memory Aids for Tricky English Language Rules (Allen, Oxford Royale Academy, July 2014):


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