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Do Writing Templates Crush Creativity?

iStock-588980428-203526-edited.jpgWhen teaching writing, there is always a tension between mastering the form of a given genre and being able to express that something special that will elevate one's writing beyond the mundane and into the truly exceptional.

Templates and other writing guides, therefore, run the risk of being overly prescriptive and stomping on creativity or the expression of individuality and talent, which are the elements that underpin truly great writing.

For example, a sonnet is a poem with 14 lines and a certain rhyme scheme. There are other types of poems out there, but if it has 25 lines or 3 lines, it's not a sonnet. 

Prose writing - like academic essays in class settings - are similar in that there are expectations for where information should be found. Readers of English writing have certain expectations for where they will find the main point of the argument, or where the evidence to support that main point will be found. An academic essay differs, for instance, from a mystery story. In a mystery, one of the aims is to keep the reader guessing what's happening, to confuse the reader, and to throw the reader off track. A persuasive or argumentative essay, however, shouldn't keep a reader guessing, but lay out a case simply and straightforwardly.

And just as a poet demonstrates his or her mastery over the sonnet form by working within the confines of that structure, an essayist truly shows his or her powers over the craft of writing by demonstrating mastery within the form of the essay.

In this way, essay writing templates - or guides, like the interactive EssayJack writing software - do not stifle creativity, but rather they set the parameters within with the writer can play and demonstrate creativity.

For only when a writer knows the boundaries can he or she break those boundaries. Part of being a student means first learning these rules of writing, the unwritten expectations of where and how to say things in a way that conforms with the genre of academic prose. Some students will master these rules, be competent writers, and move on to do something else with their lives. Some students will master these rules, begin to experiment and break these rules, and move on to be life-long writers.

But what should never happen is that students should never wander around in the dark corridors of writing, not knowing where the walls and steps and pitfalls lie, blundering in the darkness, making mistakes, and falling down, never to get up again. The rules, guidelines, and templates are there to light the way. In the fully lighted way, then, students can choose to run, dance, climb the walls, and cartwheel in unique, creative, and exciting ways with their writing. 

In my opinion as someone who has spent decades teaching writing, good writing instruction - be it online or in person - should help to illuminate the rules with enough flexibility to allow students to shine.

I believe in the truth of this idea - that only when we know the rules can we meaningfully, powerfully, creatively, and critically break them to great effect - and co-edited a book with the University of Toronto Press that puts this very notion into practice. The contributors to Unbound: Ukrainian Canadians Writing Home, which includes me, write passionately about their subject matter, but as I say in the introduction "The authors in this collection trust the reader to respond not just to what they have to say about contemporary identity politics as writers in Canada, but also to how they choose to say it." 

I am proud to say that this book has just been awarded a nation-wide literary prize, and so when I say that literary and scholarly creativity can be unleashed by knowing the boundaries and pushing against them, I can now say that I'm a prize winner so I must know what I'm talking about ;).

If you want to read more about what this book and this prize mean to me, please see this post with the University of Toronto Press.

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