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Creative Writing Classes for Teens & Young Adults with AS

by Sibyl Johnston

I am a professional writer who has taught neurotypical teenagers, college students, and adult writers. I first taught fictionwriting at Emerson College, beginning in 1993; for the past five years I have been teaching college students at Tufts University. I am also the author of The Longman Guide to Fiction Writing for Beginners, available through amazon.com.

When a talented teen with Asperger Syndrome (AS) showed up in one of my adult education classes a few years ago, I became especially interested in working with this population. Since then I have been lucky enough to work with several students with AS who are prolific and talented writers of fiction or poetry. I hold some classes in my private writing studio in Lexington, and others at the Community Education Program at Minuteman Regional High School. I generally work with small groups that meet monthly or bi-monthly. Groups can also access an online discussion board for exchanges between face classes. At other times I may work with a student individually.

In my classes, students with AS may learn both writing skills, and also social skills. For example, giving and receiving criticism can be challenging for anyone. In many of my early writing classes I immediately saw a great need for social skills training in this area! Accordingly, I developed a few tools to help students improve their skills. (The exercises below, along with others, are explained at more length in my book.)

  • Exercises demonstrating the skill of describing concretely (through the senses) rather than abstractly (by means of intellectual or emotional judgments).
  • Hands-on criticism exercises using examples of poor writing from published fiction. First we criticize freely, and then we “translate” our criticism into tactful language we could use to give feedback to the author if s/he were actually present.
  • See my tip sheet on giving concrete criticism below.

Giving Concrete Criticism:
What Do You Need When You Read?

Objective: This handout will help you to give specific, constructive
criticism.

Giving Helpful Criticism Writers need readers. Part of your job in a writing workshop is to help others improve their work by making suggestions. Ideally, your suggestions should be concrete—that is, they should be clear and specific, and should include ideas for improvement. Here are some guidelines:

Praise: Everyone likes to be told when they’re doing well. Honest praise is encouraging and builds confidence. Here are a few hints about how to praise other writers helpfully:

  • Be sincere. Praise the parts of the story that you think worked well.
  • Be concrete: “It was good,” or “I liked it,” are nice things to say outside the classroom, but they are too vague to be helpful in class. Try instead: “The paragraph/sentence/word on page (number) is effective, because…” Telling the writer what exactly is working well, and why, builds confidence and helps the writer to improve.

Suggesting Improvements: Giving suggestions is a positive way of helping the writer to improve areas that may not be working yet. Here are some ideas about giving this kind of criticism:

  • Be honest. Pay attention as you read to any parts of the story that are not as effective as they might be. List these on your Reader’s Chart.
  • Be precise. Take the time to carefully identify problems. Instead of saying, “I didn’t like it,” say specifically what you didn’t like, and why.
  • Offer possible solutions. Think about your reactions— what did you, as a reader, need more/less of? Always try to include more than one possible solution to a problem. This shows respect for the writer by giving him/her a choice, and it acknowledges that we are reading a work that is in progress, and so we don’t expect perfection.
  • Use “I” statements, not “you” statements. Focus on your needs as a reader, rather than on what’s wrong with the story. Example: “As I read the first scene between the two main characters (page number), it was hard for me to tell who was speaking which line.”
  • Use time well. Choose one or two important points to bring up in class. At least one of these points should be positive. Write minor criticisms, such as word choice, punctuation, and other details, on the manuscript, rather than using time in class to discuss them. Be sure that you leave time for others to contribute.

Good Communication: Think out your remarks before class. Here are some tips on how to express criticism helpfully:

  • Be polite. Consider the writer’s feelings; avoid unnecessarily harsh expressions such as, “I hate that,” or “your story is really bad.”
  • Don’t make fun of anyone’s work. Avoid laughing at someone else’s story—unless it’s clearly supposed to be funny. Never make jokes about someone else’s story.
  • Don’t be sarcastic. Sarcastic remarks can easily cause hurt feelings and misunderstandings.
    Don’t overload the writer. Everyone has limits. Stop after making one or two points, even if you think there’s more to be said. There will be time in another workshop to suggest other changes.
  • Be honest. Good criticism balances honesty and sensitivity. It won’t help to tell someone that an unsuccessful story is brilliant. On the other hand, if you hurt another writer’s feelings by insulting the person, s/he will be discouraged, and may not be able to listen carefully to your feedback. The most important thing is to think about your remarks before class. That way, you can plan how to express yourself clearly, effectively, and tactfully.

If you or someone you know would like to participate in one of Sibyl Johnston’s groups, contact her at .

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