Authors’ note: This is the second article in a two-part series on short forms of creative writing. The first part was published in February. Once again we are very grateful to members of the Daily Create community for sharing their illustrations, photos, and poems with us: Sheri Edwards, Kevin Hodgson, Sarah Honeychurch, Ron Leunissen, and Alan Levine.
Who doesn’t enjoy a little challenge? Like this one:
This lovely (non-ELT) challenge involves reusing something familiar and quite ordinary: paper clips. Ever straighten out and reshape a paper clip yourself, maybe out of boredom during class? Well, this time it’s encouraged by the teacher. Retired middle school teacher Sheri Edwards writes that she gave her students breaks to take “Apollo Challenges,” where she furnished students with a limited resource and a small task, like: what animal, besides a snake, can you make out of five paper clips?
Foreign language teachers can dish out these little challenges, too! We already gave you a taste of small challenges in Part 1, with word-count and sentence-count constraints. This time, you’ll get to sample some constraints based on limited resources, and we hope to whet your appetite with these enticing entrées: character counting, blackout poetry, magnetic poetry, anagrams (including Scrabblegrams), and acrostics. To round off our creative constraint banquet, we offer, by way of dessert, some suggestions on providing students with positive, encouraging feedback on their creative writing.
The Poetic Quality of Tiny Writing
The constrained writing activities we discuss both in this article and in Part 1 result in very short pieces of writing: maybe just one or two sentences, a brief story, a small poem. Laura’s students often remarked that the tiny tales they wrote often felt like poetry. That’s because in a short piece of writing every word carries a lot of weight, and that weight gives the writing a poetic quality. In his book The Art of Brevity, Grant Faulkner devotes a chapter to the question, Is it poetry or prose? In the end, he concludes that the crucial factor is the experience you want to have as a writer or a reader. The same is true for writing and reading in school settings. Students who are motivated by the idea of writing poetry can call their work poetry. On the flip side, those students who find poetry alien or intimidating can just set the word “poetry” aside when writing. Likewise for readers: if seeing a piece of writing as a poem gives students new insight, then by all means—they should read it as a poem! Follow-up activities for the short creative writing tasks you’ll read about in the next sections range from students reading their creations to each other, to posting their work on the wall without names and having everyone guess who wrote each one.
The grid shows a character count where letters, spaces, and punctuation marks each count as a character, and you must completely fill the line without the last word spilling over into the next line. Careful word choice is thus the key to this creative constraint, and it encourages a careful awareness of punctuation too. Here’s an example Heather wrote:
Heather used pencil and paper for this one (graph paper generator), but it’s also easy to compose digitally using a monospaced font, like Courier New, where each letter and punctuation mark occupies the same amount of horizontal space. Using a monospaced font is an easy way to make the character count visible.
covered in snow
running next to
In the above example, there are only a few characters per line, but you can have a line with more characters. To help students figure out how many characters to use, you can have the class write one line of the poem together. Next, you can ask students to include that line somewhere in the poem they each write individually. This way, the length of the line is set for students before they start composing, and the resulting poems will all have something in common while each student’s creation will also be unique.
Don’t know what to do with all those extra copies you made of texts you gave your students to read? No need to toss them in the recycle bin. Instead, hand your students black markers and ask them to create blackout poetry (or blackout stories) with these leftover texts. Students simply choose words from the texts they want to keep and black out all the rest. The resulting poem or story can be serious, creative, whimsical, or whatever tickles their fancy. Here’s a playful example taken from a text originally about writing to-do lists:
Students can leave the remaining words as they are or make small adaptations like capitalizing, adding punctuation, etc., to get the poem or story they want, like this:
Pen and paper
calm, constantly growing
If you prefer for students to work digitally, they can use a blackout poetry maker. With this online tool, students simply copy and paste the original text into the custom text box on the left and press “enter.” Then they click on the words they wish to keep in the blackout box on the right. After selecting the words they are keeping, they click “black out.” Here’s another selection of words from the same to-do list text created using the blackout poetry maker:
Grant Faulkner calls these “erasure poems,” and he defines the creative aesthetic in this way: “Erasure tangibly lets us know that a text can’t give us the whole story, that there are secrets to uncover, stories to unearth, or words to stitch together in different ways.” Faulkner recommends erasure not just as a practice in its own right, but also as a way to build the less-is-more perspective that helps in writing any kind of micro-prose or micro-poetry.
Magnetic poetry is an enjoyable way to get students to work creatively with a limited set of words. It’s “magnetic” because people originally bought sets of words on magnetic tiles to create poems on refrigerators or other metal surfaces. Online sets of such words are available, for example, at magnetic poetry®. Here’s a poem that Heather wrote using their Nature Poet set:
These sets are fun not only because you can experiment with word combinations but also because you don’t have to place the individual words in horizontal lines. Instead, if you want, you can play around with the word placement to create attractive or unusual visual patterns.
One potential drawback to the magnetic poetry sets available commercially, however, is the vocabulary. Words like “behold,” “tendril,” and “murmur” are low-frequency vocabulary that students will generally not encounter in daily conversation or reading. Although words like these might appeal to learners who are interested in literature or creative writing, the use of too many unknown words will frustrate learners and even discourage them from engaging in the creative process.
Teachers can get around this problem by creating their own magnetic poetry sets digitally. For example, you might start with a magnetic poetry template like this, Build-Your-Own Online Magnetic Poetry Kit, created by Nicole Timbrell. Timbrell explains in her article for Literacy Now how, after her students expressed their dissatisfaction with being limited to someone else’s word set, she gave them the blank template to create their own sets. Her students then wrote poems using their own word sets and later shared their word sets with other classes.
You can also use a low-tech alternative by just writing the words on the board—possibly brainstorming the words together with students—and then having students copy the word list on small pieces of paper or cut-up index cards. They can then manipulate the words on their desks to compose their poems and glue the final arrangement on paper.
Anagrams are another fun constrained writing activity. In this constraint, you begin with a word or words that provide the letters to be rearranged. If your students are Harry Potter fans, they will no doubt remember the Tom Marvolo Riddle anagram which concealed the message “I am Lord Voldemort” in its letters. Making anagrams from names is one way to start playing with this type of writing constraint. It’s also possible to take an entire sentence and rearrange those letters to make a new sentence.
When composing anagrams, it helps to use an online anagram-checker to make sure your anagram uses just the right letters, like this anagram-checker. When the anagram is correct, the webpage displays it as an animation, which is a rewarding way to visualize the “magic” of the anagram as two messages in one.
However, some names are just not suited to becoming anagrams because of the letters they happen to contain. No worries: if an anagram does not emerge, you can always make an acrostic, where the letters of a name (or some other word or phrase) are used as the initial letters of each word in a sentence or each line in a poem. Acrostic poetry based on the letters of the alphabet is actually an ancient tradition: you can find acrostic alphabet poetry in the Hebrew Bible (more about alphabetical acrostics here). As a type of constraint, acrostics are extremely easy and can work well for writers of any age. Here’s an example of an acrostic name poem by Ron Leunissen, who used the full form of his first name to make the acrostic: R-o-n-a-l-d.
Rescue the world
On time please.
Now is the moment to
Act, soon it’ll be too
Late. Let’s cool
Down our Earth.
 used with Ron Leunissen’s permission
The Ultimate Anagram: Scrabblegrams
At the far end of the difficulty spectrum, consider Scrabblegrams, which are tiny stories or poems written using the 100 letters of a Scrabble set. According to David Cohen, a prolific Scrabblegram poet, the first known Scrabblegram appeared in The Times of London in 1975, and there is now an active community of Scrabblegram writers who connect at David Cohen’s Twitter space, @DC_Scrabblegram. Here’s a Scrabblegram about hummingbirds that David Cohen wrote for National Bird Day on January 5, 2023:
Our vagabond pals
levitate for a while,
in just the blink of an eye,
[blanks: N, N]
Scrabblegrams are quite challenging, but we can fiddle with the constraints to make creating Scrabblegrams fun for learners at different language levels. For example, we might add more “blank” tiles or add more tiles of the letters commonly used in the target language. In addition, instead of requiring students to use all of the letters to create a poem, we can ask students to use as many of the letters as they can, seeing how close they can get to the full set.
For teachers who want students to use the regular 100 Scrabble letters in English, one way to do this digitally is to have students type their Scrabblegram text into this online Scrabblegram tool, which shows users what letters still need to be used as their Scrabblegram takes shape. For a paper option, you can photocopy sets of Scrabble letters so that the students can cut the paper into individual tiles which they can physically manipulate as they write. If you are looking for the Scrabble letter sets in other languages, just go to Wikipedia: Scrabble Letter Distributions.
Feedback on Writing with Creative Constraints
One of the best things about creative constraints is that, even before getting feedback from the teacher or from their peers, students can feel proud of what they’ve done. Much like winning a game of solitaire, you get that “Eureka! I did it!” feeling when you create your two-sentence story or your blackout poem or your acrostic.
To encourage students to embrace this self-affirmation, it’s important to make sure they have the tools they need to check their work. For example, if you are using word-count constraints, you’ll want to make sure students know how to use a word-counter. That might be the word-counter inside a writing tool like Google Docs, or you might teach students how to add a word-count extension to their browser.
Will students struggle with the constraints? Yes, they will! Constraints are not easy; that’s what the word itself means: you are supposed to struggle within the constraint. At the same time, these constraints encourage students to embrace their creative powers to find their own solution. With creative writing constraints, there is not a single right answer to the challenge. Instead, each writer is seeking their own winning path within the constraint. So, you can encourage students both to embrace the struggle and also to seek help if they see that the struggle is not moving them forward. That might mean asking a peer to collaborate with them or seeking ideas from a friend. It could also mean becoming more aware of the cognitive aspects of the creative process as we discussed in our previous article, such as focusing more intensely on the challenge or, just the opposite, letting their minds wander to see what new possibilities surface.
While we’re working within constraints for this type of creative writing, other aspects of the writing can become less constrained, which is also part of the pleasure. For example, words might be used differently or combined in unusual ways, and grammar rules can be stretched. Unusual punctuation and layout can also add life to these poems and tiny stories, a creative freedom students generally don’t have when doing expository writing.
When you are giving feedback to students on their experiments with constrained writing, you can always begin with well-earned praise for having worked successfully within the constraint. Then, you can share your experience as a reader exploring and enjoying the writer’s creativity. How does their writing surprise you? What images does it bring to your mind’s eye? What do you hear when you read the words out loud? Because these types of poems and stories are very short, you can give yourself time to experience the writing in these different ways, something that is usually not possible with longer essays. Instead of looking for “mistakes” in the writing, look instead for creative opportunities, new possibilities that the students can explore in their future work. That way your feedback becomes a kind of “feedforward” that will inspire your students to keep revising and to improve their writing.
Do-able challenges fire the imagination without dousing motivation. The ideas we’ve shared here and in the previous installment only scratch the surface of the creative constraints you can set for your students. We encourage you to tweak these challenges and to invent your own creative constraints as well, and we hope that you will be inspired by the beautiful, unique works of art your students create.
Faulkner, G. (2023). The art of brevity. University of New Mexico Press.
Timbrell, N. (2018). Build-your-own online magnetic poetry kit with Google Drawings. Literacy Now. https://www.literacyworldwide.org/blog/literacy-now/2018/10/12/build-your-own-online-magnetic-poetry-kit-with-google-drawing
Laura Gibbs (Ph.D.) recently retired from 20+ years of teaching courses in mythology and folklore at the University of Oklahoma. She is the author of the Creative-Commons-licensed “Tiny Tales” folktale book series, along with folktale scripts for readers theater, which are available free online at LauraGibbs.net.
Heather Kretschmer has been teaching English for over 20 years, primarily in Germany. She earned degrees in German (BA & MA) and TESL (MA) from Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Currently, she has the privilege of working with Business English students at the Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, Germany.