Friday, January 8, 2010

The More Rules You Have to Obey, the More Creative You Can Be

This week, I asked my AP English Language students to write argumentative essays in the most creative way possible.

That means abandoning their usual tactics and creating a list of new rules for themselves--what they won't do in this essay, and noting what they will do (must do) instead.

I have also given the students constraints, just to make it more interesting. I started with a bland title (but one that could go anywhere): "Should You Drink the Water?"

The essays, strangely enough, DO NOT have to be about water.

(We also discussed brainstorming. I modeled mind-mapping, demonstrating how my initial notes about water might lead to Woody Allen, NYC, or tsunamis, or eco-consciousness or even whether or not to follow the crowd.)

But the essays DO need to contain an anecdote of some kind, and a reference to either an historical, literary or pop culture figure. They also need to be replete with sensory details (since that is much of what makes writing of all kinds come alive!).

The main point of these essays, though, is to learn to see what is inside our personal writing boxes and force ourselves out of our comfort zones. The hope is that the exercise will show students how their writing can reach the next level when they have no choice but to bend in new ways.

We all have words and phrases we typically use in academic essays. Most of us start relying on a safe but boring formula--partly because it has worked for us before, and partly because it has just become our routine.

I once had a boyfriend (a very smart boyfriend) who assured me that, "One way to always get an A on an essay is to drop in the word 'quintessential.' Works every time."

In order to force students into new ways of writing (for this essay), they have to honestly note their usual tactics and then make another list of rules for themselves--lists of what they will NOT do this time.

All of my students seemed honest and eager to drop the tired habits and try something new. No one had difficulty making a list, from what I could tell, though I did have to think fast and suggest many positive alternatives to the old habits they now want to avoid.

Some students want to stop relying on the word "however" as their main transition. They can decide not to use "however" at all, or to use it no more than once.

Some others admitted that their tendency is to write long-winded sentences full of parenthetical remarks. They will now give themselves a sentence word-limit, and keep paragraphs to four or five lines, in order to get around this blizzard-of-words crutch.

Students end up with a checklist of all the habits they have to kick for this essay--as well as a list of all the new ideas/rules they have to use this time, in their place.

I explained that although not being allowed to use the word "however" feels like a self-inflicted punishment, perhaps, the students shouldn't worry about it because they ALSO have a note right next to it that tells them what they will write instead.

It might be that they will substitute longer, more sophisticated, "Not only....but also" transitional phrases for one-word quickies. Or, perhaps their task will be to incorporate metaphors when they usually just stick to plain facts.

In the end, the point is to see how rules force us to think of new ways to get around them.

Who, after all, has better fashion sense than the kid who has a uniform to wear to school?

How much better is art when we are told to do something awkward, such as draw the inside of a lightbulb from the perspective of an ant--as opposed to the block that can happen when we stare at a blank sheet of paper after being told just to have at it?

Lists of odd rules are something I often give my creative writing students to help them start writing short stories.

I am really excited to see these essays, though. Creativity in an argumentative essay. It's going to be cool.


  1. Dear Elizabeth,

    I come here to be inspired. I am never disappointed. Peace and continued good things for you and your students in creativity and in life.


  2. Thanks, Diane. I appreciate your kind words and support!