Tips to encourage writing in school

Library assistant Chris Kelso has a fantastic track record of getting pupils to engage with creative writing, paying close attention to their individual needs and coming up with strategies to motivate writers of all abilities. Here are some top tips from Chris to get pupils writing!

Encourage and facilitate

We all know that each student has their own taste and style. Spotting this early on means you can better accommodate their individual needs and, hopefully, tease out an interesting narrative voice. There are a number of ways you can encourage the next generation of Alasdair Grays and Stephen Kings to take their writing more seriously.

Foster a culture

Chris Kelso with pupils holding copies of the Doon Review
If your school doesn’t have a focus on creative writing beyond unit assessment then you can take on a greater role to help change this - part of a librarian/library assistant's remit is to enhance or, if necessary, alter the overall reading and writing culture of your school.

One way I tried to do this was by setting up a quarterly journal called The Doon Review which features creative writing, artwork and opinion columns from students around the school. I found that the majority of students enjoyed using a new creative platform and seeing their work in print. Each issue also features an editorial by an established writer – so far we have had intros from Moira McPartlin, Hal Duncan, Neil Williamson, Laura Lam, Tony Black, Seb Doubinsky and Edward Ross. This reinforces the journal as a real publication worth submitting to. If you take the magazine seriously so will the people around you.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a lot of work and has to be designed, formatted and printed in your own time. If you think you can deal with the responsibility of producing and maintaining a school magazine you should see about assembling an editorial team comprised of students. Hold interviews in the library, choose editors, associate editors, slush readers and staff writers. Put a mentoring scheme/buddy system in place where older students take on protégés. Senior pupils enjoy the responsibility and the youngsters relish their guidance. Most young people rise to these challenges.

There are a demographic of reluctant readers and writers who can still be coaxed to the side of creative expression. Everyone has a story to tell.

When it comes to the content, the writing itself, why not highlight specific library periods to spend with students evaluating their work. Remember, young people can be easily discouraged, so it’s important to always focus on the positive aspects of their personal writing and be constructive in your criticism. Once a student is motivated enough to pursue their own writing, and share it with you regularly, then you can push them a bit more. You will find a lot of teenagers who will already love vampires, ghosts and other fantasy-themed media. Encourage this. Make recommendations to suit. When they realise the tropes and framework for writing a really good vampire story, they will soon branch out in other directions. Again, a mentoring framework can work well here. Encourage younger pupils to share their work with older writers in the school who have a more developed narrative voice.

Encouraging the discouraged

Never give up on someone. Do not simply focus on the high achievers in the school, the top 10%, or those already actively interested in creative writing. There are a demographic of reluctant readers and writers who can still be coaxed to the side of creative expression. Everyone has a story to tell. I find that young people who are less likely to pick up a book or service their imaginations tend to have a different palate entirely. It might just take a bit of time to locate that individual preference, but it’ll be worth it. Writing and reading is kind of like the ouroboros symbol in Greek mythology, the snake eating its own tail. Reading for pleasure tends to lead to writing for pleasure and vice versa: one usually feeds into the other.

Consider your library in all its vastness - there are books written in the Scots dialect, stories about outcasts, drug stories, stories by teenagers for teenagers, stories that centre on social disorder and, of course, a plethora of non-fiction books - all at your disposal. And remember, just because someone isn’t a ready reader doesn’t mean they can’t articulate themselves in an interesting way or form a unique narrative voice. It’s all about getting them to write what they know. For many hesitant writers this can take on the form of a memoir and in many cases prove very therapeutic.

Give these students other roles within the magazine hierarchy – establish a marketing department, sports section and an opinion column. Make it an inclusive environment.

Short story competition

Young people, especially those with creative aspirations, love speaking to reputable writers and artists.

If starting your own school magazine sounds like a lot of hassle, why not run a short story competition instead? Last year we introduced our first annual Dark Skies Award at Doon academy and it was a really successful endeavour. Staff picked their favourite stories from the Doon Review, as well as standout class writing, and the winners received a certificate at a library assembly. It’s a good idea to involve your local newspaper to cover the story and take interviews. It all adds to the spectacle. The competition brought departments together, generated a buzz that permeated the entire school, and had everyone engaged in the process of creative writing. It also means that students see an acknowledgment of their efforts. They start thinking about short story writing as something worthwhile with larger-scale acclaim.

Bring in writers to help pupils

Live Literature is a fantastic scheme to help you bring writers and illustrators in to work with your pupils - the scheme is open for applications twice a year, and you can find out more here. My advice to you is to build a contact list of writers. I’ve been lucky enough to cross paths with several established authors in my time, including Moira McPartlin, tartan noir author Tony Black and Hal Duncan to anyone.

Young people, especially those with creative aspirations, love speaking to reputable writers and artists. Just seeing that someone has managed to make a living being creative is enough to inspire and motivate some.

Apply for every funding opportunity you can, go to conventions, book signings, hold book fairs, take classes to author visits at other schools and organise trips to book festivals (if funds are low, find out if your local authority has an excursions grant). Attend departmental meetings, take minutes and add to the big discussion about literacy. Make sure you’re doing plenty for World Book Day and Book Week Scotland, because it’s all connected.

Build the bridges so your young people can walk across them.

You'll also need a well-stocked library, backing and support from SMT and the English department/relevant literacy group - and a lot of patience!

Find out how Chris invited graphic novel creator Edward Ross and YA author Laura Lam into school to inspire his pupils.

To keep up to date with announcements about the Live Literature application deadlines, you can subscribe to our schools newsletters for primary or secondary. Live Literature has also previously funded schools residencies - find out more here, and subscribe to the newsletter to be kept up to date about these opportunities too.

Why not check out our other blog posts on creative writing in school?





Chris Kelso

Chris Kelso is a writer, editor and assistant librarian at Doon Academy. His novels include 'The Black Dog Eats the City', 'The Dissolving Zinc Theatre' and 'Unger House Radicals' - amongst others. As well as the Doon Review, he edits the US culture and literary magazine Imperial Youth Review. His books are available from Waterstones, Barnes & Noble and Amazon.  You can find out more about Chris at his website. His new novel Unger House Radicals is an intriguing piece of existential horror and is available for pre-order in limited edition hardback now!