By Dawna Proudman

Not many of us would tell a new mother that their baby has an ugly nose. Just so, all criticism is caustic when writing is newborn. The more a person writes, the better their writing will become. The more they enjoy writing, the more they will write. When we encourage what is best about their writing, they will become stronger writers. Encourage students to love their new creations unconditionally. A week or so later, they will have more perspective. Then you can invite them to ask themselves, “How can I make this piece even better?”

Practice or Free Style Writing

Ask students if they remember what it was like the first time they put on ice skates and tottered onto the rink. Were they brilliant skaters from the first time they stepped foot on the ice? Did anyone fall down?

We all know that we have to practice hockey or music every day to do these things well. To get better at writing, write more. Don’t expect everything you write to be perfect. Do it for fun.

Freestyle writing requires that we write continuously without pausing for thought. Don’t worry about grammar, punctuation or spelling (address these later in the editing phase). Don’t erase. Don’t stop and think. Keep writing no matter what.

Use a kitchen timer and give the students three to five minutes at the beginning. Over time they will welcome longer amounts of time.

To prepare for these classes, practice write. Do the exercises yourself. Read them aloud to someone.

If you want the students to edit their work, don’t do this until at least a week later.


In the same way that we would never tell students to put themselves in physical danger, it is equally important that we don’t set them up for undue criticism or ridicule. If we want them to take a creative plunge, making themselves vulnerable by exposing their true feelings and experiences, it is our job to make sure that the alligators are out of the pool.

Before each workshop, with adults and with children, everyone in the room makes this promise out loud: “I promise to respect my own words, and the words of everyone else in this room, while I’m in the room, and outside of the room.”

I take this promise very seriously. It is a solemn promise: if they break it, they will end up feeling badly about themselves. If a student can’t make the promise thank them for being honest and arrange for them to be somewhere else.

Word Pools

Invite students to yell out words related to a given topic i.e. winter or fire or home. Write the words on the board. Fill every available space. Invite opposites. Ask what they like about winter. What don’t they like? What gives them comfort in winter: a fire in the wood stove, hot chocolate, marshmallows, a cozy bed.

Write the five senses on the board and encourage students to include words that relate to each of the senses.

Encourage specificity. If a student says “bird” ask “What kind of bird?” Don’t hesitate to name the specific birds that come to your mind: prime the pump.

Word pools warm up the class while creating accessible dictionaries students can contribute to and draw from with minimal stress.

After creating a word pool, ask your students to write three or four lines about the topic. Tell them not to worry about lines, rhymes or stanzas. Continue to stress specificity, using the five senses, and including the way they feel about whatever is happening in the poem. Don’t write about “winter”: write about the time you went tobogganing until the stars came out, or the time you almost fell through the ice or the time there was an ice storm and schools were closed for three whole days.

If they can’t decide what to write about, tell students to pick the first word they see on the board. If they get stuck for ideas mid-poem, they only need look at the board. Encourage them to “grab the first word they see,” trust their intuition and see where it takes them.

Remind them not to stop writing. If their mind goes blank, just pick another word from the board. Their writing doesn’t have to be good. It is an experiment.

Reading Out Loud

Encourage every student to read their words out loud. This helps to root out the inner critic who is often hard at work telling the student that their writing is terrible.

If a student is too frightened to read, ask the class if anyone in the room has ever told themselves that what they’ve written isn’t any good. (I’m always the first one to put my hand in the air.) We all do it. But the inner critic is a scaredy cat. It gives good advice when we’re deciding whether or not to cross the road, but if we let the inner critic be our creative guide, our writing is guaranteed to be boring.

Tell the class that true courage involves going forward even when one is anxious or afraid. If someone doesn’t feel fear, it doesn’t take courage. Honour their courage.

Then negotiate. Will they let someone else read it for them? Will they read one line? Will they agree to read one line at some point before the workshop/class ends? There is almost always some option to which a student will agree.

After the reluctant student reads, ask them how they feel. Do they feel better now than before they read or worse?


Cue feedback so that it is non-judgmental. Avoid saying that something is good or bad. If a student asks if their poem is good, ask them what they like about their poem. Then tell them what you liked or how you felt.

MEMORABLE WORDS: Ask students to call out any words they remember from the poem. Afterwards point out that the student’s words were heard, and remembered. Their words had power.

ENCOURAGE EMPATHY: Does anyone else here know what that feels like? Does anyone else here like horses? Does anyone else here play hockey? Has anyone else here every lost someone they love?

Using Structure to Encourage Greater Creativity

If structure is introduced before your students are comfortable with writing freely, it can become another hurdle standing in their way, or an academic exercise which fails to reflect their personal experience or feelings, their shared humanity.

Once your students are familiar with free style writing, however, structure, whether Haiku or Pantoums, can help them jump out of writing ruts. The emphasis should still be on fun and the application of the structure shouldn’t be too rigid.

(Paul Janeczko’s A Kick in the Head is an excellent reference for poetic forms.)

Ultimately, playing it safe can be tragically boring. The pay off for having courage is the grand adventure that results.

Other Resources:

Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones

Susan Wooldridge Goldsmith, Poemcrazy

Maya Angelou, Poetry for Young People

Paul B. Janeczko, A Kick in the Head, An Everyday Guide to Poetic Forms

Barbara Juster Esbensen, Dance With Me

Joyce Sidman, this is Just to Say, Poems of Apology and Forgiveness

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

Dawna Proudman settled in rural Grey County, Ontario after enjoying various adventures, escapades and exploits in Ottawa, Kitchener/Waterloo, Dawson City and Toronto. She now enjoys the space and pace of rural life and the artist friendly community where she co-founded the Words Aloud Spoken Word Festival and the Highway 4 Writers’ Group. In addition to poetry, her writing includes scripts for stage and video, magazine articles, short stories, children’s stories and an as-yet-unpublished novel. Elements of Grace, a collection of her poetry, was published in 2005 . She is the editor of Saugeen Stories and Strong in My Skin. Dawna also creates whimsical papier mache sculptures. Her workshops for adults, teachers and children stimulate and encourage word play. Dawna is a student and practitioner of Aboriginal medicine and Transformative Mindfulness.

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