This week I’m offering up a critical writing assignment I designed for my Introduction to Creative Writing class. In addition to assigning students regular poetry and fiction exercises, I ask them to complete a 2-3 page “review” of a short story or poetry collection. (You could also include creative nonfiction essay collections, if that fits the genres covered in your course.) Students choose whether they want to work with fiction or poetry and select the specific collection to review (although I reserve the right of approving their choice). I find it’s a great way to introduce students to new (to them) writers/poets and counterbalances the breadth of reading in creative writing classes with a bit of depth.
I juxtapose breadth and depth because part of what creative writing instructors desire to do–at least in my experience–is to expose students to the sheer variety of wonderful short fiction and poetry that exists. We may also (rightly, IMO) want to showcase a diversity of writers/poets. The trade-off, of course, is that by emphasizing breadth it’s easy to sacrifice depth: it’s hard to assign an array of fiction and poetry while at the same time assigning multiple stories or poems by any particular person. As I explain to students, one of the benefits of reading many pieces by a particular writer/poet is getting a sense of their individual voice as well as the variety within one writer’s own oeuvre. The short story/poetry review assignment I have designed is one way of reconciling both breadth and depth.
I introduce this assignment to students quite early, during Week 2 of the semester. I also ask students to physically go to a library or bookstore to choose their collections (ideally, by the end of Week 3). Additionally, I give some restrictions on the collections students can select: I ask that they be written for the adult market (not children or YA), be published within the last 20 years (so they’re getting a sense of contemporary work), and be published by a press rather than self-published (a decision that is not without controversy but is an attempt at quality control). If a students’ choice meets these three parameters, then I nearly always give my approval, regardless of whether I personally like the work or think it is “good.” After I have approved students choices, I direct them to spend Weeks 2/3-9 reading and re-reading their collections.
I have chosen to give this assignment a “deadline window” rather then one firm due date. Because this is mostly a self-directed project–one that is theoretically going on in the “background” in addition to their regular homework for the course–I think it makes sense to give students agency on choosing when to write and submit their papers. Therefore, I ask students to post their papers sometime between Weeks 10 and 13 (past mid-terms but before finals are too close). At my university, this means students have Spring Break to read or write their papers (which is helpful for those who inevitably procrastinate). In my experience, students appreciate the flexible deadline window. As a bonus, a deadline window rather than a due date makes the assignment friendly for students with disabilities that require a flexible assignment deadline accommodation.
As for the review paper, I keep the requirements fairly open. In the assignment sheet, students are directed to write, “[2-3 double-spaced pages] about the book that examines the writer’s style, variation between pieces, patterns you notice, and the piece that most stood out to you (either because you loved it, hated it, didn’t get it, etc).” Students are also permitted to describe their feelings and reactions to the collection, as long as they also reflect on their reactions.
I choose to have students post their reviews to a discussion board in Canvas (my institution’s learning management system) so they are visible to the entire class. You could certainly ask students to submit them to you only, but the benefit of the discussion board method is that students are able to read each other’s reviews and perhaps find another collection they want to read. (On that note, I encourage students to read each other’s reviews but do not require it. You could, of course, require students to read and comment on all or a handful of their peers’ reviews.) If a student needs to revise their paper (see next paragraph), I ask them to submit the revision to me directly, so they are not publicly shamed in front of their peers.
My assessment of these reviews is pretty much “pass” or “revise and resubmit.” If a student addresses all of the facets of the assignment, they “pass.” If not, I ask them to do some revision (time for revision is another benefit of having the paper due a few weeks before the end of the semester). A more comprehensive assessment would also be perfectly compatible with this assignment, particularly if you’re adapting it to an upper-level creative writing class and/or want to formally teach students the genre of the book review.
This assignment engages students with varying degrees of experience with creative writing. Some students come to a creative writing class having never written creatively before–they just want to try something new. Other students have been writing poetry or fiction on their own for some time but have never participated in a workshop. Some students in this latter group might write prolifically but avoid reading work in their genre(s) of interest (due to the anxiety of influence). By allowing students to choose the genre and collection they read (with some restrictions), students are able to self-direct their exposure to new writing and writers.
If you are teaching creative writing online (either regularly or because of the coronavirus pandemic), this assignment lends itself well to online instruction, as it is primarily self-directed on the part of the student. While I remind students to select, read, and review their collections periodically, most of the work is done on the students’ own schedules.
I hope you find this assignment helpful as a way to introduce critical writing into the creative writing classroom. Feel free to download and modify my assignment sheet, posted below, for your own classroom. If you try it (or some variation of it), please share your experience in the comments!