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
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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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 .
Back to Top