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Tutoring Creative Writing Students

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As creative writing programs grow, more creative writing students will begin visiting writing centers to receive feedback on their work. Many of these students will be enrolled in introductory level writing workshops and will at some point have their writing workshopped by their peers, who will most likely be beginning writers as well.

This resource discusses the writing obstacles most frequently faced by beginning poets and fiction writers and will offer tactics for addressing these issues during a tutorial.

For more information about working with creative writing students, view the accompanying PowerPoint presentation "Working with Creative Writing Students" available here

Discussing Creative Work with the Student Writer

While creative writers often draw on very personal material for their poetry and/or fiction, when discussing the work with the student, remember that a poem or story written from the first person perspective may still be fictionalized. Not all creative work is "confessional" in nature.

Refer to the "speaker" in a poem, or the "narrator" in a story, rather than assuming that the voice or character is the writer themselves.

Example: "I can see this poem focuses on the speaker’s mother."

"This narrator seems to be angry at his father."

Students may be comfortable discussing their creative work as personal material or may let you know that the speaker is in fact them. However, students will benefit from looking at their work more objectively and from realizing that the material from which they are drawing can be manipulated even if it initially came from real life.

Common Pitfalls for Beginning Poets

Students who are writing poetry for their first workshop will face some of the following obstacles.

Beginning poets tend to:

  • Use abstraction rather than images
  • Fall back on clichés
  • Use sentimental language
  • Have trouble moving beyond their original subject

Abstraction vs. Image

Beginning poets often rely on abstract concepts, such as despair, love, evil, heaven, or hate. These words are loaded but general and don’t tell the reader much about the writer’s perspective or experience.

Remind the student that people read poetry to experience the world through another’s perspective. Good poetry is personal and specific.

Here are some ways of helping the student move past abstraction:

  • Get the student talking about the story or emotion behind the poem.

    Example: What did you want the reader to take away from this poem?

  • Brainstorm a list of concrete images to replace the abstract concepts in the poem.

    Example: What objects, colors, or details remind you of love (or sadness, or heaven, etc.)

  • Examine one stanza or section of the poem. Have the student focus on expanding that section, adding more detail.

    Example: It sounds like the speaker is talking about her mother in this stanza. What details evoke her as a person? Can you think of a specific memory about her?

  • Have the student write what they can see, hear, taste, touch, and smell.

    Example: Challenge the student to work in a detail that involves one of the reader’s senses in each line of the poem.

Moving Beyond Clichés

Beginning poets often rely on clichés because they are comfortable, familiar, and hold truth. However, clichés are not unique or surprising. We’ve heard them before. Often, clichés are merely placeholders for something the student is still trying to articulate.

Remind the student that clichés aren’t unique or specific and that their personal perspective and experience will be much more compelling.

Here are some ways of helping the student revise clichés.

  • Encourage the student to play with the language in the cliché.

    Example: “The lake was a mirror” might become “The lake mirrored the mountains.” Here, the clichéd noun becomes a verb and more detail is added.

  • Work on figurative language. Have the student write a series of metaphors that replace the current cliché. Metaphor often opens up the possibilities of language and lets in more surprising elements.
  • Encourage the student to get more specific and tackle the image in more depth or have them write the image from a different perspective.

    Example: “The lake was a mirror” might become “The lake was a bowl of sky.” Here, the student focuses more on what the lake is reflecting rather than simply its reflective quality.

Revising Sentimental Language

Beginning poets often draw on personal experience or relationships for material; however, they may have a hard time looking at such material objectively. If a student’s language and images seem overly sweet or precious, then their writing may be suffering from sentimentality.

Here are some ways to help them think anew about their subject.

  • Remind the student that emotion is rarely black or white. It is often ambivalent, especially when we are reflecting on something in our past. Encourage them to think more objectively about the subject.

    Example: I can tell from this poem that the speaker really loves her grandfather. What other memories exist of him? Was the speaker ever mad at him, or did he have a habit that drove the speaker crazy?

  • Have the student approach the subject from a different perspective, especially if their sentimental language seems tied to cliché.

    Example: There’s a long tradition of writing about nature. How have other poets addressed nature in their poetry? How do you think your view of nature is different?

Moving Beyond the Original Subject of the Poem

In The Triggering Town, Richard Hugo discusses two subjects in the poetic writing process, which he calls the triggering subject and the found subject. The triggering subject is what got the student started writing. However, poems are seldom about just one thing. The found subject is what the student writes their way into, where they leap from the original subject into something more.

Beginning students often have trouble making this leap and can become stuck in their triggering subject.

Here are some ways you can encourage them to look beyond their initial subjects.

  • Make webs with the triggering subject in the center. Have the student free associate using the initial subject as a springboard. Then encourage the student to weave the two subjects together in their revision.
  • Encourage the student to experiment with drastic revision. Have them rewrite the poem starting with the last line and see what new directions the poem takes.


Almost all beginning poets will need practice overcoming abstraction, cliché, and sentimental language, as well as making the leap from triggering subject to found subject. As with any writer, encouraging the student to see the poem not as a finished product but as a work in progress will leave the poem open to greater possibility.